How the Big Guys Ensure Good Service

Believe it or noteven food critics get lousy service—perhaps because we spend more time on dining’s front lines.

By: Mary Malouf

The Italian Wine and Food Advocates Alfresco Dinner

“I’d like the French onion soup, but with no onion,” a diner requested.

It sounds like an unreasonable request, but at Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse, the server appeared unfazed. “He went back into the kitchen and strained out the onions from the broth,” says Josh Cowart, general manager at Ruth’s Chris in Salt Lake City.

“We don’t judge. We serve.”

Two years of experience in fine dining is the corporate standard for working as a server at Ruth’s Chris, and this is a company that does check references—intense precision training is one of the benefits of a larger restaurant group. “Ruth’s Chris has a big internal document called ‘The Sizzle’ that lays out every detail a server is expected to attend to,” explains Cowart. “In it, we explain our four promises to guests—timeless food, a great bar, legendary service and total guest indulgence.” Servers work in teams and do not try to serve a group larger than seven alone. Managers undergo seven weeks of training and servers learn by shadowing someone already on the floor. “Four times a year, we are ‘secret shopped.’ An anonymous diner scores us on everything that happens from before the moment he enters—how the phone is answered, whether the chair is pulled out, how the menu is presented—to the moment he leaves—and any score short of 100 dismays us.

“We want to create raving fans,” says Cowart. “I tell the servers to check out guests’ faces—are they smiling? If not, is that our fault? Without being obtrusive, without being over-friendly, a server should try to infuse joy into the dining experience.”


Fork and knife isolated on white background


1. Selective blindness

I was joining a group at a restaurant but after I sat down, no server stopped to see if I needed anything. I apparently had become invisible. In desperation, I went to the bar and ordered a beer myself. There I ran into our server, who sheepishly offered to carry the drink to the table for me. Too little, too late.

2. Thinking “that’s not my job”

Our food was being served when I pointed out that we hadn’t been provided with flatware yet. The server replied, “We’re out of forks and don’t have a dishwasher on.”

3. Ignorance

Considering ordering an “artisanal cheese plate,” we asked where the cheeses were from. The server said he did not know but would ask the chef. He returned to the table and said, “The chef says the cheeses come from Caputo’s.”

4. Space invasion

After having been served unacceptable food and sending it back to the kitchen, the hostess came over to discuss it. She, whom I had never met, sat down on the banquette next to me and put her arm around my shoulders.

5. Blame game

We made a reservation on Wednesday for Friday. We called Friday and

confirmed. When we arrived, the harried host couldn’t find our reservation and didn’t have a table. “Two servers didn’t show up tonight,” he explained.

6. Keeping ahead of the kitchen

After a long wait for a table at a vaunted breakfast place, we’re finally seated. Then the server came and told us they were out of coffee; she split the dregs of her pot between four of us.

7. Condescension

I ordered a bottle of Italian wine. The cocky server explained I wouldn’t like it—instead, he brought a glass of fruity California wine.

Mary Brown Malouf
Mary Brown Malouf
Mary Brown Malouf is the late Executive Editor of Salt Lake magazine and Utah's expert on local food and dining. She still does not, however, know how to make a decent cup of coffee.

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