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All Back Issues » January/February 2006 Issue

Lessons Learned, Part 1
Product Knowledge Pays
by Bob Brown

There’s not a day that goes by when I don’t think of Michael O’Grady. I cannot forget the creative ways he coached and mentored so many to new heights. In this new series, Lesson’s Learned from the Magnificent Manager, I’ll share my insights, breakthroughs, tools, and techniques which honor Michael’s legacy of helping others grow and succeed.

Years ago, while working as a waiter at 14 Market, a continental/Indian restaurant in Charleston, South Carolina, I often cricked my neck to peek at a tattered sheet under the stairwell to look up terms like chicken vindaloo.

Having worked with hundreds of restaurants— hotel, high-volume chains, and sole proprietors— I’ve discovered that not everyone has the curiosity or motivation to learn about food and wine. Conversely, I’ve seen management provide thin, bland, and mind-numbing descriptions. Unfortunately, when disinterested meets boring, you have the perfect formula for failure.

Short Attention Span
You’re lucky with today’s guests to get a word in edgewise. Dare we interrupt the woman with a blue-tooth earpiece working her blackberry or a man yakking on his neon blue photo cell phone? We need both a firm foundation of knowledge and artful presentation skills to penetrate the wall of resistance of tired, wired, and distracted guests.

All of this underscores the importance of descriptions, dialogue, demonstrations, and teaching methods that sizzle the senses and are alive with fun and interesting information. In short, the more interesting you are the more interesting your staff becomes.

Chef Respect
It's amazing how little some staffs know about their chefs. While working with the Riverview Restaurant in New Orleans, I discovered there was no love lost between Chef Dave Gotter and his service team. I encouraged Dave to update his bio, not only to bring to light his tenure at Johnson & Wales but to reveal he came from Chicago where his first job as a teenager was at Micky D’s and that he was about to marry Christy Parker from Columbus, Mississippi. Humanizing the chef helps the knowledge go down easy.

Treasure Hunt
To uncover the story of your menu, pump your chef for every detail. Be picky, respectful, and relentless. Your chef will get over the tedium once he sees how you make his work shine. And, the deeper you dig the more specifics you’ll uncover: the history of a dish from its conception, to the purchase of the raw materials, to the finished product. Once you’ve gathered these nuggets you are primed to create a powerful product knowledge practice.

Building the Foundation
While working with Chef Todd Haramic at Citron, a restaurant at the Grand Lakes Marriott in Orlando, we shaped from a list of ingredients a simple description of the Tanglewood Chicken Crunch appetizer:
  • Four two-ounce fresh free-range chicken tenderloins from Tanglewood Farms* flash fried
  • Seasoned flour
  • Malt batter
  • Corn flakes
  • Hand-cut Idaho fries
  • Homemade barbecue sauce and ketchup
Take four two-ounce Tanglewood chicken tenderloins, roll in seasoned flour, dip in malt batter, and roll in corn flakes. Flash fry the tenderloins and serve with hand-cut Idaho Potatoes and homemade barbecue sauce and ketchup.

Lost in Translation
It’s one thing to get a slick dissertation of the Chicken Crunch with menu Cliff Notes by an actress working tables at the Water Grill in L.A. It’s another for the average Joe to wax eloquent with just a laundry list. Descriptions alone don’t cut the mustard. And, it’s a stretch to expect all servers to transform this kind of information into a masterful presentation.

So, I introduced Chef Todd to a user-friendly tool I created called the Hook, Line, and Sinker. It’s part description and part sales dialogue all in one. The Hook inspires the guest to listen. The Line contains interesting inside information. And the Sinker is the punch line that sparks enthusiasm. Glossary terms, which provide additional information, are placed under the Hook, Line, and Sinker for easy access. This tool works with both novice and expert level servers since they can shorten or expand it based on their ability and/or customize it to their guests’ reactions.

Hook: A uniquely different and delicious appetizer is our Tanglewood Crunch appetizer.

Line: Chef Todd takes four two-ounce fresh farm-raised chicken tenderloins, dredges them in flour, dips them in a malt batter, and then rolls them in corn flakes. They are then flash-fried and served with hand-cut Idaho fries and homemade barbecue sauce and ketchup.

Sinker: They are fabulous!

*Tanglewood Farms: A small farm owned by Ron Joyce in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, that supplies chicken, that is farm raised, grain fed, and free of antibiotics, toxins, and steroids.

Magical 3-D Show
Hands down, the most compelling way to impart knowledge is with the “Raw, Prepped, Final Food Show.” So, I had Chef Todd prepare three sheet pans. The first was the raw, where I had him do his best show ‘n tell on a whole Tanglewood chicken. The audience suddenly moved closer with wide-eyed curiosity. He pointed out the distinctive clear reddish color of the bird, free of hormones and antibiotics.

On a second sheet were the prepped items, where he placed four strips of fresh chicken breast, flour, malt batter, and corn flakes. He demonstrated how each strip was dipped, rolled, and battered. He also included a whole Idaho potato and the ingredients used to make the homemade barbecue sauce and ketchup. On the third sheet, he placed the finished plate and pointed out the height, color schemes, and flavor profiles.

To reinforce the learning, we had the staff follow along with their Hook, Line, and Sinker dialogue. Inevitably, as with most food shows, more details and insights emerged. And a discussion about food allergies to the egg in the malt batter ensued. The magical 3-D food show had everyone spellbound. It is total immersion, creating a complete picture of the dish sealed in the participants’ minds, eyes, hearts, and senses.

Screen Test for Performance
Next, how do we know we have stickability? Written tests, while helpful, reveal only part of the picture. Let’s face it. If the question is whether the sauce is made with butter or olive oil, you have a 50/50 chance. So, let’s move to a more powerful way to ensure competence. Have servers give their stage performances of the ZD Chardonnay or the Shell Bowl. Have them deliver a Full Monty menu tour with extra points for voice inflection, stage presence, and eye contact.

Back at Paolo’s we knew that on any given day we might have to stand and deliver to our peers. The emphasis was not on just the facts. Rather, it was on the meaning conveyed in the inflection of our voices and the other 20,000 gestures in our body language vocabulary. It’s the difference between whether a message misses or hits the mark.

Product knowledge is the currency of competence. It raises your servers’ self-esteem. When team members have a low self-image they are timid, fearful, and order takers. When you transform servers into food storytellers, they are armed with the courage and confidence to enlighten and inspire—and increase your bottom line.

Bob Brown, president of Bob Brown Service Solutions, www.bobbrownss.com, pioneered Marriott’s Service Excellence Program and has worked with clients such as Disney, Hilton, Morton’s of Chicago, Olive Garden, and Red Lobster. He has appeared on the “Food Network” and “Hospitality Television” and is author of The Little Brown Book of Restaurant Success and The Big Brown Book of Managers’ Success.







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