Shaping the Guest Experience
Table Talk with One of Chicago’s Top Maitre D’s
In the four years since opening, The Boarding House has collected an astounding amount of praiseworthy press (a showstopper, sexiest new restaurant in Chicago, hospitable gem, ambitious four-level dining carnival) amassed a loyal following of passionate oenophiles and further raised the profile of its renowned proprietor, master sommelier Alpana Singh …making an impressive impact in a city that’s crazy rich in culinary talent. Beyond the stunning architecture of the actual former boarding house, including two chandeliers constructed exclusively of wine glasses and wine bottles, and an exhaustive 450-bottle wine list, what sets this restaurant apart is a devotion to service that literally knows no bounds.
If a customer asks for it, Maitre D’/General Manager Matthew Sheridan and his staff will make it happen. A Northwestern University graduation party featuring fresh shellfish offerings? No problem, despite the fact that shellfish is not usually on The Boarding House menu. Sheridan fashioned a dramatic station for that day packed with shrimp, lobster and crab, atop a table draped with purple and white (NU colors) linens. A 50th birthday party for a man who requested a special dinner including a dessert that could be paired with a vintage French wine, Chateau d’Yquem 1990? Done and done. Sheridan and his team worked for weeks to craft an elegant six-course menu that will keep guests buzzing long after the party ends. Starting with pea soup, and continuing on with Pekin duck breast with hen egg and polenta fries, pan roasted sturgeon, and venison loin (with perfectly paired wines for each), it ends with the piece de resistance – lemon ricotta fritters as the perfect accompaniment to the sweet dessert wine. On day of, Sheridan and sommelier Seth Wilson arrived hours early to make sure all was flawlessly prepared, down to the specific glassware matched to the appropriate wine.
It’s all part of what Matthew terms ‘a guest experience without compromise.’ Restaurant, Inc. caught up with Matthew to find out just what that means, and how his staff delivers on that promise, night after night.
What kind of training do you offer?
The first few days are about getting on board, spending time in the kitchen with the chef, understanding the menu, followed by a day or two with our wine team. Then a few days of shadowing servers on the floor to understand our style. Finally, they are assigned tables with an experienced waiter backing them up until everything goes smoothly. We give our servers a lot of freedom to create a guest experience that reflects who they are. I’m always present on the floor, but I don’t micro-manage.
Many of your staff are sommeliers, or studying to be one. How do you keep them motivated?
They’ve formed an ad hoc club, to learn and grow their wine knowledge and attend wine tastings in the city together. We also offer formal wine training once a week, but it was already happening informally. They constantly learn from each other. It’s a joy to watch.
What does The Boarding House concept mean in terms of customer service?
Like a true boarding house, each table represents family and friends who live together and eat together. They’ve all left their homes to come to our home, and it’s our responsibility to ensure they’re having a wonderful time at their second home. Says Seth: We’re not just serving guests, but we’re celebrating their presence here.
What are the best ways to engage a customer?
We learn to read the mood of the table, and it can take years to do this well. You may have 20 different personalities in front of you, but everyone needs to feel that the experience has been individualized to them. Give business people their space, or conversely, enter in the fun with a group of women who are holding a reunion.
How do you keep customers coming back?
We make sure they leave happy. Sometimes that means a glass of complimentary wine or a sweet dessert if they had to wait for anything, but mostly it’s showing kindness, looking guests in the eye and asking ‘how can I make this better?’ We try and anticipate things before they happen, top off their wine, chat with them, and ease any tension.
You’ve traveled extensively – anything you’ve seen that can be adapted to the US restaurant?
In Europe, dining out is leisurely, the main event of the evening. I never want anyone to feel rushed here, and once they’re seated upstairs, away from street traffic, they feel like they’re in a cocoon, and can relax and enjoy. In all my travels, though, I’ve never seen anything approach the level of service we have in Chicago … it’s evident people here consider foodservice a serious profession that they love being part of.
What’s the key to a guest experience without compromise?
It’s really about being a culture of yes. We make sure every request is met and always go that extra step to satisfy. If a guest can’t decide between two glasses of wine, don’t hesitate to give them two half glasses of each to try, if they want to alter the table setting, change a cocktail base from vodka to gin … nothing is too small or too crazy. The same goes for special events, we love the opportunity to make a magical experience for our guests.
In your wine-centric restaurant, owned by one of the world’s first female master sommeliers, Alpana Singh, it would be hard not to be intimidated by her knowledge … not to mention the 30-page leather-bound wine list! How do you democratize the process
At other restaurants, a wine list like that is daunting and may make guests insecure, but our staff is very well trained to make it approachable and completely comfortable. Adds Seth: Wine is a priority for Alpana, but there’s nothing pretentious about the way it’s presented. Like her, we are down to earth and completely non-snobbish. Our clientele may not have as much education or knowledge about wine as we do, but we make sure it’s fun for everyone.
Pictured from left: The Boarding House dining room, Maitre D’/General Manager Matthew Sheridan; Master Sommelier Alpana Singh