Food Nation

Restaurant Managers and Servers Move Toward a Friendlier, Less Formal Environment

"Treat celebrities like locals, and locals like celebrities, because everyone loves to be made to feel special."

That's the mantra of Gabriel Stulman, owner of six restaurants in Manhattan and featured speaker at the inaugural Welcome Conference on hospitality held in New York earlier this month. He's just one person trying to revolutionize the notion of front-of-house service in upscale restaurants often more known for their stuffy waitstaff than their welcoming environment.

It's part of a trend toward drawing focus to the important work of managers, servers, bartenders and other waitstaff in addition to the food a restaurant serves. Of course, here in Texas where friendliness is a way of life, it's not so much a trend as a return to a more natural approach to customer service.

"I'm glad it's going this way," says Shawn Virene, general manager at Brasserie 19, often considered one of Houston's more upscale restaurants due to its River Oaks clientele. "It's making dining more fun. Some people just want to be served. Others want an experience."

Virene is also a managing partner at Brasserie 19, but he's held just about every other position in a restaurant as well. He started as a bus boy, then continued to move up the ranks as a server, then cook, then general manager. He's seen trends come and go, but he's always known that what goes on in the front of house is just as important as what happens in the kitchen.

"Our servers form a bond with the customers," he says. "That's how you form a regular clientele. A lot of that is because of our front-of-house staff. The reality is they come in to see specific servers."

Travis Hinkle, formerly the beverage director at The Pass & Provisions and currently the beverage director for the Treadsack group of restaurants (Down House, D&T Drive Inn and upcoming Hunky Dory and Foreign Correspondents) echoes Virene's notions about the importance of server-customer relations.

"I think the first thing is recognizing that different guests come in with different expectations," he says. "For some people, intimacy and connection is important, and others just want to be with the person they're with. They want the service to just be there. I think great front-of-house people can anticipate what the guest's needs are and respond."

In New York, it seems, some restaurants are responding to the servers' needs. In an article in the Wall Street Journal, Stulman says he encourages his servers, hosts and bartenders to drink on the job, wear whatever they want and generally appear to be having fun. He believes that the guests are more likely to enjoy an experience when the servers seem to be enjoying themselves as well. Even at upscale Eleven Madison Park in New York City, owner Will Guidara wants his staff to have a sense of community with each other and with the guests.

While Virene says his staff certainly can't drink on the job (save that for the New Yorkers), he definitely doesn't want them to come across as stuffy.

"We want the guest to have fun," he says. "That's been the plan since day one. We give our servers free rein to have some personality."

Virene notes that this is more true at non-corporate entities who want dining to be a unique experience, rather than the same experience every time.

This loosening of the stiff conduct code among front-of-house staff has made service positions appealing once more in a way they haven't been in the United States for a long time.

"I think we're seeing more sensitivity about front-of-house jobs being taken seriously as careers," Hinkle says. "It's a viable career choice, so every decision they make at work contributes to their career."

So will we be getting hugs from the servers at Tony's and high fives on our way out the door at Da Marco? Probably not. But newer restaurants, like The Pass, demonstrate that there is a way to blend formality and conviviality in a way that pleases both the servers and the guests. They're hospitable, but not afraid to crack the occasional joke.

"What I think shouldn't change is a kind of hospitality, which is something different than service, I think," Hinkle says. "Your job is to be the human interaction part of the restaurant. It's about warmth and being present with your guests, and trying to be on their side."

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Kaitlin Steinberg