Wednesday, December 30, 2009

A whole host -- and hostess -- of problems

Posted By on Wed, Dec 30, 2009 at 2:14 PM

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Diana Monarrez is a hostess with the mostest
​If you've worked in the restaurant industry for any length of time, you've probably done a stint as a host or hostess in a dining room, a job distinctly more difficult than it may appear. My friend Lorraine calls the job "working the book," since juggling the requirements and demands of the reservation book is no simple task. Like everything connected with the hosting duties -- particularly in very busy corporate restaurants -- it can be stressful, even slightly dangerous (I've known hosts and hostesses who were threatened by angry diners). To say the very least: it's a job that looks so effortless, but involves a lot more than just greeting the patrons, although that's one of the most important tasks and one that a lot of young men and women in the business today utterly disregard.

"The host or hostess immediately sets the tone for the entire evening," says my friend Truman, a 25-year veteran of the restaurant business. "If you step into a restaurant and you're not immediately greeted warmly by the person at the front desk or -- even worse -- met with a frosty reception or haughtiness, your mood is soured right away. It can take a good server the rest of the night to turn that perception around."

A friend of mine who recently took a second job working as a host in one of the Plaza's busiest dining venues was stunned by what he's learned working behind the hostess desk. He assumed the job would be relatively simple. You greet guests and show them to their tables, right?

"Now that we're in the hectic holiday season," he says, "we're quoting long waits, sometimes three hours for a table for two. I've had customers throw pagers at my head, been called an 'untrained caveman,' told that I was a liar, blamed for the crankiness of children forced to wait hungry in the lobby for three hours."

Now wait right there! I've complained for years about the cruelty -- by selfish parents, not restaurateurs -- of agreeing to wait more than 15 minutes at any restaurant with small children in tow. I promise you: No restaurant experience is worth that kind of extended wait. There are plenty of other alternatives, even on a busy Saturday night. And the needs of the children should always trump those of their sometimes thoughtless parents. They should be seated and fed as quickly as possible.

And as for patrons abusing a host or hostess -- pagers tossed at their heads? -- what kind of manager permits that? That customer should have been escorted right out of the place, preferably in handcuffs!

Admittedly, I've been tempted to toss something (a matchbook, maybe) at a rude host or hostess over the years, especially the really dizzy ones who don't even bother looking for a name in the reservation book or commit the crime that most diners abhor: looking out over an empty dining room as they announce, "We don't have a table ready -- would you mind waiting in the bar?"

"In situations like that, the hostesses and hosts haven't been trained," says veteran manager Joe Wilcox. "But even with training, a person either gets it or they don't. There's an art to hosting in restaurants. It requires a very unique skill set: to be calm under pressure, always warm and engaging, to understand the dynamics of the dining room and to acknowledge the customers immediately. No exceptions. If I see a host or hostess standing at the front texting his or her friends, I know I'm going to have a big problem. The customer always comes first."

That also goes for the younger hostesses and hosts who won't end a personal phone call when a patron is standing there waiting to be acknowledged. I can't count the number of times I've experienced that and, even more annoying, complained to a manager only to receive a dazed expression as if I were harping on an insignificant detail. Insignificant? I cross that restaurant off of my list forever. If I'm a guest in your establishment, please treat me like one.


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