Restaurants seek to profit from an intangible asset: wait staff

Some of the major restaurant chains have figured out that they run a business based on intangible assets — including their wait staff. This was made clear in a recent “living” section piece in the Wall Street Journal — “How Waiters Read Your Table”. While meant to be a guide for diners, it explains the companies’ strategy:

“We asked what can we do that will set us apart from the scrum,” besides discounting and coupons, says Wayne Vandewater, vice president of learning and development for Applebee’s, owned by DineEquity Inc. “Food is easy to copy, a building is easy to copy, but it’s not easy to copy our people.”
. . .
“We changed ‘suggestive selling’ to ‘situational selling,’ ” says Rene Zimmerman, senior director of training and development for Bob Evans Farms Inc., a family-style restaurant and food maker. Instead of offering every breakfast guest one additional item, say biscuits and gravy, waiters are taught to adjust their offer depending upon the guest. For a diner who places a lighter order, like a bagel and fruit, the waiter might suggest a cup of coffee or tea.
. . .
Reading a table happens within seconds of a waiter coming to a table. By asking for a cocktail menu or smiling and making strong eye contact, “they are saying ‘hey, I want to engage with you and I want you to make me feel really important,’ ” says Mark Maynard-Parisi, managing partner of Blue Smoke, a pair of barbecue restaurants in New York, owned by Union Square Hospitality Group. If people seem shy, “you want to put them at ease, say, ‘take your time, look at the menu.’ ”
Blue Smoke does seven days of training with new waiters, five days of trailing an experienced waiter and two days of being trailed by the experienced waiter. Each day includes a quiz and a focus such as greeting guests.

I love the fact that Applebee’s has a “vice president of learning and development.” I know that McDonald’s has its own training facility (often referred to as “Hamburger U”). But, as I understand it, their emphasis is still on uniformity and efficiency – based on their well-known factory type methodology. These other chains seem to be moving away from the mass production model to emphasizing the customized model. But then again, the customized model was the dominant model in the restaurant business forever before McDonald’s industrialized it. As any trip to your favorite local diner will confirm.

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