Ten Things Every Host and Hostess Should Know
“As the initial symbol of the restaurant when guests arrive, the host plays a critical role in crafting the overall dining experience,” says Ty Fujimura, owner of Arami and Ani restaurants in Chicago. “It’s so much more than just checking in a guest and seating them.”
The requirements appear deceptively simple: greet arriving guests cheerfully, escort them to their table and present the menu, with or without a flourish. As your shift goes on, you’ll manage table rotation, judiciously assigning tables to available servers while keeping in mind who are your go-to staff when the pace becomes frantic. You may also need to answer the phone, take reservations, communicate with the valet, and in some restaurants, handle take-out orders. What could possibly go wrong?
Plenty, say those in the know…guests who demand the best seat in the house when every table is taken, unexpected walk-in crowds, last-minute reservations, diners who are all kinds of surly. Knowing the landmines ahead can help, so Restaurant Inc polled the experts at the front lines for some battle-tested tips.
Start the guest experience before they walk in the door. When you call to confirm diners’ reservations, seize the opportunity to mine for information so you’ll be well prepared when they arrive. Ask if they’re coming in for a special celebration…and be sure to weave in the information when you greet them in person. It’s one of the reasons behind the success of Chicago’s Michelin Guide Bib Gourmand-listed Japanese restaurants, Arami and Ani, according to owner Ty Fujimura. “That says to the guest we are willing to go the extra mile before they even come in.” Taking a reservation is also the perfect time to ask about dietary restrictions and allergies, says Ray Camillo, Blue Orbit Restaurant Consulting, who uses his two-plus decades of experience to launch a roster of thriving restaurants nationwide. “However, the host should be prepared to receive this information at any point, and when they do, it should be treated like gold and passed privately to the server. People can be sensitive about this and not want to discuss it on the way to their table.”
Consider the valet part of the greeting team. Communicate with them constantly, tell them the evening’s specials, and most importantly, the current waiting time. You’ll not only gain the valet’s gratitude, but your boss’s because “doing this right can be critical to the restaurant’s profits,” says Camillo.
Track every guest’s preferences...and wow them with that knowledge when they return. Software like Open Table enables the host or hostess to easily enter notes on their guests’ previous experience, and food and drink choices. “We have a really loyal dinership, and we know up front if something wasn’t available on the menu last time they visited, or if they liked a particular dish,” says Fujimura. “We set ourselves up for success as much as we can.”
Have a plan B, always. The host needs to play a bit of Tetris with tables and seat guests with the right server at the right station at the right speed, while staying in constant communication with the kitchen. Use the restaurant’s software system to change the status of tables on an ongoing basis, and be aware of every phase of the guest’s experience, from initial seating through check drop. “All it takes is one or two tables to show up late, and hosts will need another strategy,” cautions Fujimura. “Don’t wait for it to go sideways, but keep coordinating with the servers and use your contingency plan.” At Arami and Ani, this can include breaking tables up, using the front bar’s spare tables and anything else needed to ensure guests are seated promptly
Take control. “Run the door with confidence,” says Camillo. “Hosts need to keep control of the situation from minute one or the guest will seize it and derail you.” If that should happen, ask for help. “It’s not a sign of weakness,” assures Fujimura. “Knowing when to ask for help with a disgruntled customer is a strength that you recognize what’s needed to turn it around. Everyone on the team should feel responsible for the success or failure of the diner’s experience.”
Plan for walk-ins. While the lion’s share of your crowd may make reservations, set aside tables for spontaneous diners. “We’re deeply rooted in our neighborhoods, and it’s important that our locals know they’re always welcome,” says Fujimura.
The golden rule works here, too. “When a big party walks in unexpectedly, and you don’t have a table large enough to seat them quickly, immediately think ‘how would I want to be treated?’” says Fujimura. “At the very least, you’d want to be recognized, checked in, and offered a drink at the bar. Don’t be afraid to confront the problem right at the beginning, and assure your guests you’re aware of it…step up your service and cordiality, and communicate with empathy.”
Have the heart of a servant. “It’s really about deriving reward from making people happy,” explains Camillo. “The ‘guest right of way’ is an important concept for hosts to incorporate in their interactions.” That is: if you are walking by a guest, stop, turn to the side, bow your head slightly and acknowledge them…a practice that makes the guest feel important and respected.
You have five seconds to be likeable. “Think of your guests as carrying a mental balance sheet of positives and negatives. Assume they already have a few checks in the negative box when they arrive, and they really don’t want to think about the whole business of going out to eat. It’s up to the host to make those first few moments amazing, and start piling up credits in the positive column.”
Personality counts, but you can’t fake it. That five-second likeability test can only be passed with sincerity, says Camillo. “Look people right in the eye, smile, be friendly but not overly familiar, and try to have a full conversation. Make them feel as if you’ve been waiting all night just to see them.” Be sure and catch your guests on the way out, too. “If you’ve washed away the negative upfront, but now they’re leaving with a different mindset, thank them for coming in and try to find out what went wrong. You may be able to salvage the entire experience,” he says.
And keep in mind what might be the most rewarding part of being a successful host or hostess – it’s considered a natural extension of management, so just follow the path to lead host, front-of-house manager or maître d’.