There are few in the industry who understand the art of hospitality more than Pietro Collina. He’s part of Make It Nice, a group whose businesses include the celebrated restaurant Eleven Madison Park and the NoMad Hotel in New York.
Having recently moved to the UK to oversee the opening of NoMad in London next year, and a restaurant in Claridge’s at the end of this year, he brought his lessons in hospitality to Imbibe Live to help spread the gospel.
‘It’s important to understand that hospitality is going out, but with the feeling of going back home,’ he said to the assembled crowd, before giving everyone some background into how Eleven Madison Park became so renowned for its service.
‘Eleven Madison Park restaurant has three Michelin stars, and in 2017 was named number one restaurant in the world. But it didn’t start that way: in 1998 it was opened as a bistro that would do 300 covers a service. Now we do 96 covers a night. In 2005, our owners decided to work together and understand what they needed to do to make this a fine-dining restaurant.
‘So we looked at all the best restaurants in the city and we started copying them, adding crisp tablecloths, nicer chairs, and we became a carbon copy of other places. We had a review from the New York Observer, and what they told us was, “everything was great, the service was impeccable, but it needed to be more Miles Davis”. We had no idea what that meant.
‘We started looking at what we needed to do by looking at the 11 top words that described Miles Davis, and that became our mission statement. It included words such as “endless reinvention”, “cool”, “calm” and “collected”. That’s how we pivoted.’
So how did this new mission statement translate into the guest experience? Collina shared his top tips with the audience…
Don’t give a cookie-cutter experience
We try to take as much information from a guest when they come into a room, to try and create an experience that’s much more tailored.
We use a soigné chit – every single bar or restaurant should have one. Every day the servers spend 20 minutes at the end of the night writing down these chits: all the regulars that came, who they were with. If you know that they’re going to come and order a Negroni, then the third time they come we’ll offer a Negroni before they order it. Be proactive with your hospitality.
We also try to create legends, or spontaneous experiences, which has to do with being an active listener. This started when a diner came to the restaurant on their last day in New York, and they were saying how they couldn’t get a burger from Shake Shack, because there was usually a two-hour wait. In the middle of their 3 Madison Park tasting menu we brought over a plate with a cloche and unveiled this Shake Shack burger. They freaked out. I guarantee you that afterwards they wouldn’t talk about the sea urchin dish, I bet they’d talk about the burger.
We had another group that had always wanted to go to the Empire State Building, so we presented them with the cheque and two tickets to go up and see New York at night.
Bursting the bubble
When diners sit at a table, there’s a force field around it – every time you go to the table, you’re bursting their bubble and demanding their attention. We’ve changed our service so there’s the least amount of interruptions.
Imagine that there’s a central line across the table. We never break the central line, so we never get into the peripheral vision of a guest.
At Eleven Madison Park, we serve an 11-course tasting menu. Guests don’t know what they’re going to have, and we need to describe the dish, but it can be difficult to interrupt. You’re standing there waiting for your in. It seems like there’s minutes going by. We have some techniques to not really interrupt: if there’s something on the table, like a candle or a flower, I’ll go and adjust the candle, then they’ll look up, giving me my moment. “Oh perfect! This is chanterelle mushrooms…” It’s more about body language and the demeanour of being present.
Stepping away from guests’ conversation
When a guest wants to speak to you, finding that way of stepping away from that conversation is a real art. I’ve been taught two techniques. The first is to laugh at anything – start laughing at any joke and walk away. The laugh and walk away works.
Another thing is to have a signal for each other – such as crossing your hands behind the back – which is a signal for someone to go up and interrupt, saying something like, “I’m sorry, but chef needs you in the kitchen”.
Timing is everything
The two most sensitive dining events in terms of timing are the greet and the bill.
With the greet, if [a guest] sits down at a table and no one comes over for a minute or two, they start panicking. “They didn’t see me!”
And with the bill, when people are looking outside of their “box” (beyond the table) that means someone is looking for attention. Deal with it quickly.
Make the hosts look good
When people come to restaurants, you have people who want to be guided and for you to tell them what they should eat and drink. But then you have those within the group that want to make sure that they’re hosting. Give hints to the host of that group to help them make the decisions. They want to seem that they’re in charge and have a relationship with the staff.