Chef Bobby Fitzgerald’s concept for a book on management lessons came to him on a 2002 road trip from Denver to Kansas City. By the end of the ride he had a title and outline down on paper, a beginning that sat almost untouched for the next six years as he opened five new restaurants and spent his non-work hours raising a family and, increasingly, speaking to hospitality classes at schools including his alma mater, Johnson & Wales. It was after one of his talks in 2008 that a professor remarked that he should write a book detailing the management lessons he’d begun learning when he took his first job at Washington, D.C.’s Dancing Crab at age 14.
The resulting book, “Smile or You’re Fired: Surviving and Thriving in Service Management,” was published last fall. This week, Fitzgerald, co-owner of two Cinzetti’s locations and the three-store White Chocolate Grill chain based in Phoenix, talked with us about his views on what makes a restaurant thrive.
What works in the restaurant business is being passionate about service, about making people happy. If you’re serving a quality meal, the food on the plate isn’t going to be that different from what your competitors are serving. An approachable menu is important, but the reality is, the less insane you are about the quality of service you’re delivering, the more problems you’re going to have. It comes down to two things: friendliness and efficiency.
A while back, I noticed something when I took my kids to a quickservice drive-through. When I got the food and said thank you, the employee said, “My pleasure.” Later, I was eating at a full-service restaurant and when I said thank you, the server replied, “No problem.” I get “my pleasure” for a $2.98 box of chicken nuggets and when I pay $25 for a plate of food at a full-service restaurant I get “no problem.” The point is, these days when you look at your competition, you have to look at all segments. Quickserves are learning they can steal customers if they up the ante on service.
On social media
Our involvement in social media went from nothing to a daily activity overnight. We woke up one day and said we have to be on Twitter. We launched the blog about a year ago. I have a pretty strong opinion that social media isn’t a marketing tool, it’s a retention tool. There’s very little sales building that can be done via social media, unless you’re offering discounts and I’m not in that game. For those in full service or single-unit operators that don’t have a universe of customers that know their brand, it’s a retention tool that enables us to respond quickly to our customers.
A few weeks ago, I was in a restaurant having pizza when I got an e-mail forwarded from Twitter; it said, “You’ve got a problem in one of your restaurants with the front door, and we’re very upset.” I called the restaurant, I said this appears to be their last name, go find out the problem and take care of it. Well, it turned out the couple’s 14-year-old daughter had sent the tweet, but the party was slightly perturbed at their wait and we were able to respond immediately. They were absolutely blown away that we responded so quickly. We kept a customer rather than potentially losing a customer over this experience.
On Yelp and the changing face of restaurant criticism
With the Internet, everyone’s a critic now. I have a much-heightened respect for professional restaurant critics these days.
Say I’m driving down Scottsdale Road and I want the phone number of my favorite pizza restaurant. If I Google the name, the first thing that comes up is Yelp – it’s got 56 reviews and the phone number I want. The thing is, I happen to know they’re serving 4,000 meals a week, but these 56 reviews are dictating whether customers should come in or not.
That said, we respond to every comment about us on Yelp — we have to. I believe we need to treat Yelp reviewers and bloggers like we’re tableside. If they say, “We had a great meal,” we write and say “thank you.” If it’s a criticism, we send a response to make it right.
Image via White Chocolate Grill’s Facebook