Italian Restaurant Models Superior Service

Posted on April 21, 2015 by - Also by this author

SAN PEDRO, Calif. — When you find excellent customer service at unexpected moments, you know it’s the real thing.

Any company, retail chain or call center can boil it all into a tested script and protocol rehearsed by detached employees or customer service representatives. But knowing how to serve in the moment in a way to suit an individual customer means it comes from a cultivated heart.

I had this experience last weekend at Raffaello Ristorante (4.5 stars on Yelp), a family-owned Italian restaurant in the town of San Pedro, the southernmost leg of the city of Los Angeles. There’s nothing flashy about the façade or the neighborhood, which is part of a mostly blue collar, culturally diverse, maritime town home to the Port of Los Angeles. It’s the type of place where people and places forego any pretense or false image, and what you see is what you get. San Pedro is an authentic locale, complete with ethnic restaurants, museums and an arts scene.

My experience at Raffaello’s demonstrated the key pillars of customer service — lessons that would apply to any chauffeured transportation operation:

  1. Upon walking in, my wife and I were immediately greeted by a friendly gentleman and asked how many in our party. The place was full, but he told us the wait would be only a few minutes. While sitting in the lobby, a longtime patron sipping a glass of wine pointed to a 1970s era photo of a young man on a wall of family photos, and told us he is the man who had just greeted us. Lesson: Hands-on owner mingles with clients.
  2. That man, who we presumed to be the owner, led us to our table in a crowded, festive room with every table taken, two of them long tables of birthday party celebrants. Framed, colored prints of Italian scenery and architecture adorned the walls. We could hear random conversations in Italian. “Happy Birthday” was sung by staff members in Italian. While waiting for our server, another one brought us bread, butter and water. Then a second one zipped by and set down a plate of bruschetta and peppers. That must be a mistake, I told my wife. We hadn’t ordered an appetizer, and I assumed it was delivered to the wrong table. As I tried to catch the eye of a server, my wife noticed other tables had the same plate. So it was part of the complimentary pre-meal food. We ate. Lesson: Deliver value to your clients.
  3. Our server thought he had taken too long to get our dinner order, and immediately apologized. It wasn’t necessary, but we appreciated the humility. We ordered our food ($13-$20 for most dinners) and wine, and enjoyed the appetizers. Once again, an unexpected surprise: A salad with my meal, and a bowl of soup with my wife’s. I overheard the couple at the table next to us talking with their waiter, one of the twin sons of an owning family member. The man mentioned they had driven one hour to get to the restaurant, which on a Sunday afternoon in Los Angeles, can involve quite a distance given the lower traffic at that time of week. It’s interesting that out of all the Italian restaurants in the L.A. area they could have driven to, they chose this one. Lesson: Create loyal, repeat customers, who will go out of their way.
  4. The highlight of our experience, of course, was the food. Best Italian meal I’ve had during my 17 years of living in Los Angeles. It tasted so good I ate far beyond my normal portion. All the food was fresh, based on what we concluded must be genuine, family recipes from Italy. Lesson: Provide an original, top quality product or service.
  5. During our meal, I debated whether to order a second glass of wine. Within a minute, a host, who must have been part of the first generation of owners, somehow could tell it was our first visit, which he mentioned, and poured me a complimentary second glass of wine. By the way, a glass of house wine costs only $5 and tastes like a premium brand. [My dining rule is if a glass of wine costs as much as its entire bottle at Costco, I won’t order it]. Lesson: Generosity.
  6. We ate so much we had to give up on dessert. The waiters brought take-out containers for our leftovers. Upon leaving, the host who poured my second glass shook our hands as we walked out and thanked us. Lesson: Gratitude.
  7. Another server noticed I was carrying the containers and offered to give me a bag. He took the containers, placed them in the bag and thanked us. We told them we would be back, and next time, try the tiramisu. Lesson: Be attentive and anticipate customer needs.
  8. Oh, and we tipped 25%. Lesson: Good service earns its keep.

As we walked away from the restaurant, we had the sense of, “Did that just all really happen? Can this be for real in 2015?” You don’t find that very often.

Then I put it all together, a winning formula for traditional businesses competing during eras of big changes: Hands-on Owner + Value + Client Loyalty + Quality Product + Generosity + Gratitude + Attentive Service = Rewards + Success. That sounds like a good way to run a limousine service, or any business that serves the public.

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