The Guardian - Word of Mouth Blog
19 June 2009
Your opinions on the menu for The Wild Garlic have been heard - now Mat Follas wants your view on staff and front of house
The interior of The Wild Garlic.
Photograph: Mat Follas
Firstly, thanks to all who responded about the menu on the last blogpost, and I've also had numerous emails overwhelmingly in favour of putting rabbit on the menu, which I'm delighted and surprised at. Bunny will be on my menu from the start.
My vegetarian options came in for quite some criticism, which is great - what was really good was the constructive criticisms with specific suggestions such as books and restaurants to look at. I'm doing that now and will post my new menu before we open.
Still lots of feedback on the loos, paper towels and hand-dryers going in ... I'd like a Dyson too, but it's not practical because of the noise they make and the building we're in.
So what else have I been thinking about in between visiting suppliers, painting, cleaning, etc etc etc? Staff and front of house.
I'm an experienced people manager from my corporate life, but I can't treat my restaurant staff in the same way. We're not talking high salaries or even full-time positions for a lot of them, so the commitment or expectations aren't as clearly defined. We do now finally have a full complement - a team of great individuals - and now need to think about the day-to-day running of the business.
This is how the outside looks now
Photograph: Mat Follas
What sort of service do we want? Front of house, we want a confident but relatively informal approach. People secure in their own knowledge, who are not afraid to make a few mistakes and have enough about them to handle a diverse clientele. They should make the customer feel at ease, be attentive but not grovel or hang over the table like a vulture. We don't want them to be 'friends' with the customer, but we don't want them to be high-handed or aloof either. It's a difficult balance. What we want is how we like to be treated when we got out.
I have to say, the best example I can give of what I regard as exemplary service was at John Torode's restaurant, Smiths of Smithfield, the day after MasterChef finished airing on the telly. My wife Amanda and I were halfway through a day of press interviews and live TV, and we eventually rolled up at 3pm dazed, tired and very hungry.
The first of our two waiters was Irish, he had a calm manner, an endearing charm and knew everything about the menu; he recommended dishes for us and we simply took his advice. We felt very safe, relaxed and as if nothing would be too much trouble.
Our second waited arrived at pudding time. He wandered over to see whether we were ready to look at puddings and coffees. My wife gazed at the menu for a couple of seconds and then looked up at him. "I just need some chocolate, could I have something with chocolate in it," she said wearily. He picked out the
dessert with the most chocolate and suggested she might enjoy that. Then the coffee - I said I'd like a 'flat white' and he said "of course". What!? No "what's that then?". He'd spent time in Australia and understood the antipodean (or is it just Kiwi?) obsession with coffee. Amanda all but emptied her purse onto the table as we reluctantly left.
I'm sure all WoM readers can tell of bad dining experiences and I could give you no end of horror stories myself, but this was great, confident, informal service; you really get to understand why John is such a successful restaurateur when you witness a standard of service that in my experience is pretty much unique.
Uniforms - clean black and white to give an air of formality without stuffiness. We've gone for black trousers, white cotton shirt, and a black bib apron with logo; simple, clean and not trying to be overly trendy or cool ... I think. We're yet to order the aprons and will be really interested to get any constructive views on uniforms.
What do you want in front of house staff? What else should I be doing to train them or achieve the right balance?
Mat in the kitchen
We had coffee training on Tuesday from the Origin Coffee guys for all the staff so they know how, and just as importantly, why, to make a great espresso and other coffees. There was more training yesterday on wine service from James Handford, then we had a practice run at actually running a restaurant involving some willing volunteers from the local pub, The Red Lion.
It was great fun, there were a few mishaps in the kitchen as we got used to working together but it ended up as a successful, and fun, night - I'll tell you more about it next week. Tonight it's staff families, a bunch of friends from another local pub and the volunteers who've helped us over the last few weeks.
Our kitchen porter wants to learn to cook, so we're going to sponsor her through an apprenticeship, locally if possible. She's extremely artistic as well as being a talented amateur cook, so we set her the challenge of making great cupcakes for the coffee trade during the day. She started off well, but wow, she's really got it now. I think she's bought every cake book ever published, has studied them all as her new religion and is now producing beautiful cupcakes - and they taste as good as they look.
Photograph: Mat Follas
So that's mostly it. As you read this I'll be prepping for the 300 or so guests coming for the actual opening on Saturday night. We're serving fizz and canapes and really putting my tiny kitchen through its paces (there is no plan B if it rains so please wish for good weather over Dorset!).
The reservations book is busy for next week and we've a huge local event next weekend as Beaminster parties in the town square (where the restaurant is) for our annual festival. We've got a full house and will also be serving drinks from a table out the front ... and MasterChef have chosen that day to put cameras in the kitchen to help things along too!
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