God I am a very lucky guy. I regularly get given advice by the owners of my business. Sometimes it’s not even to do with anything about the business; but just for the sake of it. They also regularly listen to what I have to say and make decisions based on it. As such I respect them a lot, and love them maybe just a little bit. They are my mentors.
From the grumblings of a lot of friends, this is a rare experience amongst us hospitalitarians. I count myself in a minority of people who talk so favourably of the money men, the owners, the big cheeses. Isn’t that sad?
The lack of mentoring in hospitality isn’t a recent phenomenon but a recurring theme. While I think it happens in many professions, I feel it is salient in our industry because unlike others, we are currently under more scrutiny than ever before from restaurant reviewers, social media and the likes of TripAdvisor, and we’re one of the fastest growing industries in the country.
I see a few main issues with the lack of mentorship and guidance in hospitality, and especially in something I hold dear, their wine programmes.
Firstly there is the quality of service on offer. You can see it easily on certain restaurant floors. There is a natural sense of disorder: no clear sections, too many managers, no real order of service. This happens often at restaurants whose owners have never done extensive restaurant work before. The managers they employ have no pressure to deliver certain crucial aspects of service because the owners cannot see the problem themselves. Mise en place, as a word, but also as a personal service mantra is not apparent. A mentor would pick up on such things, offer advice and try to improve the aspects of your service that are weakest – never in an unkind way, but as way of support.
Another element of service is customer interaction. We have all been there when we’ve had that person making that comment that completely floors you: ‘Riesling is disgusting’, ‘this well-done steak is very dry’ or ‘I like vodka, lime and soda’. What happens next is important. Those with a limited maturity level will give a sarcastic reply at best, a rude one at worst. What they need is an arm round the shoulder from the employer and a reminder that the job we do is first and foremost hospitality. They need a reminder that whatever they think they know, whether right or wrong, isn’t the imperative – the enjoyment of the customer is. At that moment the mentor steps in to teach the employee about humility, patience and respect.
Secondly, there’s the issue of the drinks offer. Obviously, this is the part you as the server cares most about (or you should). This is you; this is where you show off your skills, how much you know and how well you can listen (the last bit often forgotten). It concerns first the service of drinks. Customers have natural prejudices, mostly from previous experiences, so if no one is there to give advice – and good advice – these prejudices stay intact.
But with no support, you end up being even less versed than the customer. You understand things in only simple and false terms: Sancerre is a grape variety, Pinot Noir is full-bodied. You may go for decades in service never truly understanding any of the drinks you serve, which obviously shows in the service. It also makes you unmotivated and harsh to those below you who may know more. Inadequacies always come out through bullying. A mentor would have given you plenty of training, whether you wanted it or not. A mentor would have passed on knowledge to help you engage with customers effectively, and hopefully passionately.
The other side of it is the wine buying. There are so many restaurants that now have wine programs – the quality of which depends on whoever is leading the list. Those who have been shown how to manage a list properly understand costings, they know how to balance it in style, how to rotate by the glass consistently, and how to make things as interesting as possible for their customers and staff alike. Often though I see many of the same supplier lists: wine lists that look identical to those of similar establishments and only use three or four suppliers; lists using only one supplier, designed with price discounts and logistics in mind rather than excitement and inspiration; or plain expensive ones, where wine is apparently only bought at cost price which makes anything interesting £45 or above, and creates a blanket margin offering that punishes customers at both ends of the price scale.
Great owners do not consistently focus on the bottom line but also think of the quality of the offering and would support you on shaping the most appealing and good-value wine lists. They hopefully wouldn’t push you to offer things at bad value. They would taste with you, offer their insight and teach you a thing or two.
Lastly, and I think most importantly, are skills that are not relevant to the job at hand. Some people will only give you information for the service at hand and will consider anything else irrelevant or not important. It means you can lack transferable skills. It creates a culture of patchworks, filling in holes and winging it.
It’s sad to think that in my formative years, some of the most important (and awful) experiences I had in employment were at the hands of really shitty bosses: from stealing money off the company, to being drug-addled maniacs (or pedlars), to being ungenerous. The good mentor offers support, time, knowledge and help whenever it is needed – because they want to, and want you to do well.
All this comes down to one thing: you are an employer, first and foremost. I understand if you want all your nights and weekends off, and to dine in the restaurant all the time. I understand you have worked hard and you have taken all the risks yourselves. I understand that you are in this position for a reason. But my proudest moments as a manager (and as such an employer) are when my staff achieve. They do this by working extra time. I am a paid employee who works overtime (and we all know we don’t get paid extra for it in hospitality) to offer at times support and mentorship, through wine tastings, tutoring or just buying staff a drink after work. It’s how it should be. My managers and owners gave me that and I offer the same. If you actually give a shit, spare that little extra time for that someone special in your staff, they will appreciate it.
This opinion piece was written during Gluck's last week working at Vinoteca.