Mouthing Off

These days, the most common excuse for lousy restaurant service is the labor shortage -- and diners tend to buy it, since many of them work in industries that are also feeling an employee pinch. Even I've tended to nod sympathetically as restaurateurs bitched and moaned about how they just can't get good people. But after several delightful visits to Roy's Cherry Creek (see review above), I'm not feeling all that agreeable anymore.

Roy's service was so good, so efficient, so well-timed, so well-informed and, above all, so cheerfully gracious that I assumed there had to be some unusual explanation for it. Perhaps Roy's was one of those chain restaurants that offered profit- sharing, extensive benefits, signing bonuses or paid higher than minimum wage. Or maybe its employees know that good behavior will be rewarded by a trip to base camp back in Hawaii.

But it turns out that Roy's doesn't offer employees any special deals -- beyond acting like staffers are something special. "We do offer a 401K benefit after the employees have been here for a year," says Leiala McCullen, Roy's corporate staff trainer. "But otherwise, we do the same pay scale as any other restaurant. We were worried when we came into this market and saw all of these signing bonuses advertised in the papers, because we just don't have the resources to do that. I think a lot of our good service has to do with our being very fortunate to get good people."

And once it gets them, Roy's both trains and treats them right. "We don't fault the staff for shortcomings, because we believe that competent, happy managers make for competent, happy employees," adds McCullen. "If the service isn't good, it's not the server's fault. It's the manager's fault. The attitude comes from the top."

That top has devised some very efficient procedures to pattern actions as well as attitude. When Roy's opens a new store, McCullen says, there's a two-week training process that involves each staff member learning every shift, from busing and hosting to dessert-plating and sauce-making. Employees taste the entire menu and are given more than enough info on each dish; they also receive wine training. During the second week, they spend several hours each day on role play. Then friends and relatives are invited to a mock dinner, where everyone practices the routine.

The stellar service at Roy's Cherry Creek is proof that this routine works for a new restaurant that's willing to make a sizable commitment of time and money. But as anyone who's helped open a local restaurant knows, you're lucky if there's time for the chef to learn the names of the kitchen help before the frenzy begins. Still, most restaurants have a couple of weeks to at least get the waitstaff familiar with the menu -- assuming the chef has actually come up with a menu -- and the better places spend time making sure everyone has a rudimentary knowledge of wine (less upscale venues concentrate on making sure servers know where the wine bottles are kept and who has the corkscrew).

Where many new places fall down on the job is in failing to have the staff taste the food, which makes a huge difference in rapport with diners. Role-playing, too, is usually left out, and that means management has only the vaguest notion of how the server interacts with clientele -- a notion based on whatever is overheard in the course of an evening and any complaints a diner feels moved to make. So the managers never get a chance to put the right words into their servers' mouths, and I get to hear waiters try to tell me that the word "confit" means "with fat," or that a glass of white wine is a new kind of port.

To prevent such snafus from happening at an established Roy's, new employees are put through training, too. And to keep everyone up to speed, there's a staff meeting before every shift -- no exceptions -- to go over new menu items and pump everyone up. "They get an apron from us and a meal every time they work," says McCullen. "That's it as far as freebies. And, really, we just try to treat everyone the way you'd treat your family."

It sounds good, but the Cheesecake Factory, for example, does a family-style "Go, team!" chant before every shift -- and current and former employees publicly make fun of it. So with the cynical crowd that makes up most of the workforce right now, what makes the difference at Roy's? "Wow, I can't explain that," says Roy's Cherry Creek general manager Alex Fabrigas. "You might laugh, but maybe it's because we really mean it?"

"We were so worried about going into New York, because we're trying to project this very warm and friendly image, and we just weren't sure it was going to go over well with the folks there," McCullen adds. "During the training period, servers kept raising their eyebrows and saying, 'This is never going to work in this town,' and I was starting to think that I wanted to pack my bags and run. But then after we opened, we had this review come out that ended with a line about how the reviewer's party thought the staff was going to hug them on the way out the door, and, of course, the reviewer meant it in a negative way, but we were like, 'Yes, this is what we're striving for.'"

And maybe they succeed because Roy's management and chefs are themselves cheerful and on the ball, so their employees exhibit the same traits. The restaurant business is inherently stressful, and there's nothing worse than showing up for your shift and coming face-to-face with some coke-snorting chef who's racing around the kitchen barking orders, or a GM who fights with his wife and has an alcohol problem that manifests itself every time the place gets busy, or an owner who figures that the servers are only going to be around a couple of months anyway and so doesn't bother to make sure they know the basics or give them food so that they can answer diners' questions.

Fortunately, Roy's isn't the only restaurant in town that boasts excellent service. A few of the other places I like to go when I want to feel pampered: Papillon Cafe (250 Josephine Street), Mel's Bar and Grill (235 Fillmore Street); Aubergine Cafe (225 East Seventh Avenue); Highlands Garden Cafe (3927 West 32nd Avenue); Del Frisco's Double Eagle Steakhouse (8100 East Orchard Avenue, Greenwood Village); Bistro Adde Brewster (250 Steele Street); Tante Louise (4900 East Colfax Avenue); Strings (1700 Humboldt Street); 240 Union (240 Union Boulevard); The Swan at the Inverness Hotel (200 Inverness Drive West, Englewood); and all of the eateries at the Brown Palace (321 17th Street). Not surprisingly, the behind-the-scenes buzz I've always heard on all of these is that they're good places to work that value their employees, which further reinforces that excellent service starts at the top.

From the way many restaurants conduct business these days, though, it's becoming obvious that many restaurateurs think that what goes on in the back of the house -- all too often an excess of ego in ignoring competition for customers, and a lack of good management -- doesn't affect the food and the service offered up front. But I've got file drawers full of menus from now-closed restaurants that suggest they should think again.

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Kyle Wagner
Contact: Kyle Wagner