“startEveryone in the restaurant business understands and appreciates the fact that nothing is more important than providing great service. It is often said – and I, for one, agree – that great service can make up for mediocre food, but great food will never make up for miserable service. No matter how well thought out your wine list is, if it’s served by waiters who succeed in making your guests feel inadequate for their selection, everybody loses.

Even if you have the most beautiful décor in town, your guests will get sick of being in the midst of it if they spend too much of their time waiting for their order to arrive. And no matter how perfectly the chef’s menu items are conceived and executed, if your waiters aren’t aware of it, there is no way that they can let your guests in on the secret.

What makes great service?

There are several qualities that go into making a good server. First, they have to be great hosts, making sure that everyone who walks through your door feels welcomed and happy that they chose your restaurant above any other. Regularly reminding your staff that it’s all about the guests, and then treating your staff the way you’d like them to treat your guests, with kindness, clarity and an appropriate amount of enthusiasm, goes a long way towards achieving this goal. Your waiters also need to be good technicians, knowing just what a guest will want and expect, and knowing how to deliver it. This is largely a matter of making sure that they have a complete, practical knowledge of the systems and procedures in play in your dinning room. The nuts and bolts of service, such as the layout of the stations, order of service, breakdown of various job descriptions, POS system, etc. can best be taught through a combination of clearly written manuals and an effective, on-the-floor training program, which is then regularly reinforced with observation and direction by management.

The other major requirement for a waiter to be a good technician is for them to possess a very thorough knowledge of the products they have to offer, and to be able to communicate this knowledge to their guests. This includes knowing not only the basics, like what the items are, how to pronounce them and what they cost, but also what makes them so special, and how each one of them can complement another. The more proficient and genuinely enthusiastic each waiter is at communicating just what a certain item is like, and why it is so good, the better he or she will be at getting your guests excited about giving it a try. Which brings us to today’s topic: there is no better way to make sure that your waiters are huge fans of the food, wine and other beverages you offer than to have them regularly experience and enjoy those things themselves, with the people responsible for the selections pointing out just what makes them so good.

What makes a Menu Tasting worth the time and effort?

Getting your staff to act the way you want them to by leading by example, and spending the time it takes to effectively train them to master the ins and outs of basic service is something any good operator sees the value in. But for many owners and managers, taking the effort, time and expense of conducting regular staff menu tastings is often considered more trouble and expense than it is worth. Granted, if tastings are sporadically held, poorly run and misconceived, they are still expensive in terms of money and time and, indeed, do no one any good. However, if they are regularly held and well planned to systematically familiarize your staff with the nuances of your offerings, menu tastings will increase their level of job satisfaction, enthusiasm, loyalty, sales and tips. At the same time, they will turn your kitchen, bar and waitstaff into one cohesive, winning team. With that in mind, any operator would be crazy not to hold regular staff menu tastings. Let’s look at just how you can conduct tastings for your staff that will absolutely be worth everything you put into them and more.

The best staff tastings are short, focused, well run and held regularly enough so that everyone involved becomes comfortable with the drill. The long-term goals should be for each waiter to eventually understand each item on the menu, what makes them special, and how they best work together to fit into a multi-course dinner. Additionally, tastings should demonstrate to the staff which beverages bring out the best in various dishes and why. Just as importantly, tastings should be set up and run so that the waiters, bartenders and kitchen staff find themselves in a position where it is obvious that they are all in the same boat, playing different but compatible roles to accomplish the same goals. An understanding and appreciation of what their colleagues bring to the table, as well as the challenges each faces, will only help during the hours when the tasting is finished and service has begun.

When and how often to hold your staff tastings is the first thing you must decide. Each restaurant will have its own best time slot to schedule tastings, but just before service begins, after the dinning room, bar and kitchen are ready for business, is usually a good time. Tastings must be scheduled in advance, so that everyone knows that they have to be ready for them ahead of time. If the front or back of the house staff is struggling to be ready for service, none of the desired goals will occur, and the whole idea of tastings will just become a useless, resented inconvenience in the minds of the staff – not exactly what you have in mind. It may make sense for you to regularly schedule your tastings on a couple of typically slow nights a week, maybe on every Monday and Wednesday. If you are often slammed on Friday and Saturday nights, you are better off letting your staff stay focused and put all of their energy and efforts into being ready to deal with the ensuing rush on those nights. Regularly scheduled tastings will also demonstrate to the staff your commitment to using these events as a tool to increase their knowledge, competency and income.

Plan Ahead – Pre-Staff Tastings

Over time, your staff tastings will be more valuable to everyone if they are initially conceived with a long-term plan in mind. Ideally, the person in your establishment with the greatest overall understanding of your menu and wine list (if applicable) should be in charge of deciding just what your staff will sample. It might very well be a good idea to have the person most knowledgeable about your wines and the chef confer about what would make the most sense at a tasting. This plan might also open up some doors of communication that will ultimately improve your menu as well as your wine list. There are very few chefs who would not benefit from increasing their familiarity with how wine and food work together.

Similarly, any person specializing in wine would profit from spending time with a chef, trying various food and wine combinations to see what works best, and why. These pre-staff tasting trials could prove to be just as advantageous and important to your operation as the main tastings are. They might even turn into smaller, more elaborate and detailed periodic tastings for management. These tastings have the potential to make your food more wine friendly, your wine list more food friendly, and instill a sense of enthusiasm and camaraderie in your management team that will, with a little effort, trickle down through the entire staff.

Since time will be of the essence at a staff tasting, a clearly made presentation with a narrow focus will make it easy for your staff to remember what you’d like them to take away from the tasting, and to not get distracted, thinking about the next part of their night. Most of the time tasting just one dish, with one perfect wine to go with it, will be plenty. Depending on the size of your waitstaff, one or two portions of an appetizer, entrée or dessert will be sufficient for all to get a representative sample. First, let them see the completed plate. Then, while a cook divides the food onto the requisite number of B&B plates, have someone familiar with the dish talk about it. They should cover the most interesting and salient points. Is the main component of the dish locally grown, of an especially high quality, seasonal or the specialty of the house? Is it poached, grilled, seared, roasted or pan-fried? Just what do those terms really mean, anyway?

This is a great time to clarify the basics of the cooking process so that your waiters will gradually become true culinary professionals, not justifiably insecure salesmen hoping for the best. If there is something, anything, particularly interesting about the dish that could be part of an effective sales pitch, it should be mentioned.

Obviously, certain members of your kitchen team will be naturals at this kind of presentation – others, less so. It is in everyone’s best interest to not try to fit a square peg into a round hole. Choose the chef or cook who will talk to the waiters with an eye towards everyone enjoying the experience. Having said that, keep a look out for an opportunity for a less vocal or outgoing culinarian to occasionally shine at a tasting. Perhaps one of your cooks came up with the dish in question, learning it at his grandmother’s knee. What a great story that would make in terms of building amity among the staff while providing the waiters with some great ammunition with which to sell that particular item.

Keep Discussions Short and Sweet

The discussion of the dish shouldn’t take much longer than the time it takes to get a sample taste on a small plate along with a salad fork or coffee spoon in every waiter’s hand. (Soups can be served in demitasse or coffee cups.) During the talk, waiters should be encouraged to voice questions, concerns and comments. As long as it doesn’t descend into a free for all, conversation and engagement are good. Be sure that someone capable of keeping things on task is on hand in case attentions and focus wander. It goes without saying that the atmosphere and attitude of your tastings must be as friendly, encouraging and welcoming as they are informative. The time spent with your staff at tastings is perfectly suited for you or your managers to demonstrate through your actions and words just what perfect hospitality looks like. This is at least as important as any information that will be gleaned by your staff about the food and wine. The best way to get your waiters to be gracious, helpful and pleasantly informative to your guests is for you and your managers to treat your waiters exactly that way, as much as possible.

Once everyone has his or her food to taste, someone – perhaps the chef, perhaps the beverage manager – should talk about just why that particular dish is so good, especially with the selected wine. For example, they should describe how the searing process has made the outside of the scallop crispy and salty, while the center is velvety, briny and sweet. They can then talk about how the richness of the lemon butter sauce is cut by the acidity in the Sancerre (about 1½ ounces will do), and how the sauce brings out herb and citrus flavors in the wine that went unnoticed without the food. They can mention that this wine would also go great with the smoked trout appetizer, and that if a customer preferred a Chardonnay, a particular California Chardonnay or white Burgundy on the list would be perfect, too. And that those wines will be sampled at a later tasting. Comments and questions should be happily fielded. Then the staff should be encouraged to see how many of the sampled food and wine pairings they can sell that night; maybe with a bonus given to the waiter who sells the most. The entire process, from showing them the complete presentation, to the initial description of the food, through talking about the experience of tasting the food and wine and sending them on their merry way can be done in about 15 minutes or less, especially after doing it a few times.

Although regularly scheduled tastings of random items from the menu won’t be a waste of time, having a well thought out plan from tasting to tasting will yield greater returns on your efforts. Perhaps you can alternate between tasting appetizers, entrées and desserts, with the occasional special thrown in when appropriate. The goal should be to eventually taste through the entire menu, and then go back to the beginning. Thought should also go into the wines being sampled. Be sure to, over time, include all the different varietals and styles of the wines on your list.

Many of the wines on your list will go with many of the menu items, and vice versa. Don’t get in a rut, for instance, of always pairing shellfish with a Sauvignon Blanc. Alternate with Chardonnay, Riesling, Pinot Grigio or other varietals on your list. This will show the waiters that there are many ways to successfully pair wine with food. It will also, hopefully, get some of them to the point where they can tell the difference between two varietals, like Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon, and be able to discuss the relative merits with their guests.

It should be made clear at every point during a tasting that your waiters’ new found appreciation and understanding of your restaurant’s food and wine is a gift for them to share with receptive guests, not an ever-present tool to make customers feel inadequate in comparison to the waiters awesome knowledge. If they can’t use what you are exposing them to at your tastings for good rather then evil, they are in the wrong line of work. Managers should be alert to signs in the dinning room that things may be going awry with certain staff members.

Even if your wine program is a very simple one and wine does not play a major role in your concept, it pays to get your waiters familiar with what is available and how they can best incorporate it into conversations with guests.

There is the old joke about this sign on the wall of a restaurant:

1. Red Wine

2. White Wine

Please Order By Number

Even without such an obvious clue, customers can detect a lack of commitment and enthusiasm about wine in an operator. It really won’t take much effort to put together a short list of wines that work well with your food. Help is available from many sources. Then, along with a modicum of wine training included in your staff menu tastings as described above, you’ll have a whole new profit center. If it makes more sense for your particular concept, instead of wine being the main beverage covered at staff tastings, perhaps pre-dinner cocktails, premium beer or after dinner drinks should be the focus.

After most of your staff has already tasted through much of your menu in this way, it might be fun to mix things up and taste several contrasting items from your menu, or taste the same dish with two contrasting wines. If you have two or more chocolate desserts, have your staff sample a little bit of each and see the differences. One will be richer, one more dense, one features raspberries, while one is made from milk chocolate.

A similar tasting can be done with different steaks. Let your staff see for themselves that the New York strip is a little chewier but tastier, the fillet is more bland but has an incredible texture, and that the rib-eye is close to the best of both worlds. Have them sample the rich crabmeat au gratin with both a crisp Sauvignon Blanc as well as a buttery Chardonnay, and see that they both work just fine, for different reasons. The Sauvignon Blanc contrasts with the richness of the dish like a squeeze of lemon might, while the Chardonnay revels in the richness, making the crab taste sweeter than ever.

If your waiters can make recommendations to their customers based on a genuine first-hand knowledge and appreciation of what they have to offer, they will be in very rare company. Their job satisfaction, success at making their customers thrilled to be in your restaurant, sales and tips will all increase in step with what they gain at well-run menu tastings.

Joe Abuso is the chef/owner of Recipes & Rotations – Real Food for Mom and Dad, menus, recipes and associated tools to senior-living communities. He is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America and has cooked at some of the country’s best restaurants.