School’s in Session: Constant training keeps restaurant staff on its toes

Service at any restaurant is just as important to capturing return customers as is the atmosphere, food quality, presentation and selection. And with more and more restaurants opening in St. Louis, each trying to find their niche in the market, service has become a make-or-break asset, especially for higher-end restaurants.

Places like Tony’s and Kemoll’s are legendary among St. Louis eateries, but so are Imo’s Pizza and Steak ‘n Shake. However, the differences are stark. While the latter fits almost any budget, fine dining is an experience.

One bad visit is all it takes for a customer to decide never to return to a restaurant. While this standard might not hold true for quick-service eateries, it certainly remains the case for moderate to high-end restaurants that often receive no second chance. And word of mouth can be brutal.

Therefore, it is no surprise that managers and restaurant proprietors are particular about their front-of-the-house service staff that includes anyone a customer might meet, such as a hostess, bartender or busser. Guest satisfaction is paramount, and each member of the staff needs to be trained on how to greet customers and how to communicate with them.

But the real test is the server who escorts guests throughout a meal. The server is exceptionally critical in fine dining establishments where a meal on average spans more than two hours. An excellent server can flawlessly navigate a menu, explain unfamiliar terms without conceit, recommend and pair a wine to match the courses being served at the table and “read” a table to interpret the service style the customers prefer.

Unfortunately, restaurants have notoriously high staff turnover. If restaurant staffers are dissatisfied, there is always another restaurant around the corner. And there is growing validation to this point. Over the next 10 years, restaurant-industry jobs are expected to grow by 11.3 percent in Missouri. And restaurants already make up 9.9 percent of Missouri employment, according to the National Association of Restaurants.

This is a daunting kink that restaurant proprietors and managers consistently strive to overcome since servers, bartenders, hosts and bussers are often the key interaction that a customer has at a restaurant aside from the food. They are a team of public relations staff for an industry expected to gross $7 billion this year in Missouri, according to NAR.

So how do managers and owners decide who to hire and how to keep them?

Positive attitude and experience

“Attitude is the most important,” said Steve Molina, former manager of Faust’s in the Adam’s Mark. “We hire for attitude; we train for skills.” Traits Molina looks for are friendliness, the ability for exactness, the capacity for working as a team player, ambition and a persuasiveness that is not overt.

“When you are in the restaurant business, you are on stage and exceeding their expectations,” said Molina, who owned his own restaurant for 14 years before becoming a manager at Faust’s. “It’s all about the guests. Guests need to have a certain comfort level.”

Tim Mallett, owner of Ellie’s, Remy’s Kitchen and Wine Bar, Blue Water Grill and Big Sky Cafe, concurs that attitude is key. “I look for people oriented toward pride and hospitality,” Mallot said.

The need for background experience varies from restaurant to restaurant. At The Crossing in Clayton, general manager Andy McManis expects only servers with experience to apply. In fact, part of the application process is a test on food and wine. For the kitchen, applicants usually have formal culinary training and experience.

However, Jonathan Schoen, proprietor of Savor in the Central West End, said that experience is not always an asset. “Career waiters are often too set in their ways,” he said. “I hire people a lot on personality.” Schoen looked for upbeat, energetic people to staff the newly opened Savor. To prepare staff for the opening of a new restaurant, Schoen trained servers for six evenings plus two nights of invitation-only guests. Since the daily kinks still needed to be worked out, Schoen’s training stressed courtesy, table maintenance, accuracy, comprehension of the menu and wine list and teamwork. Schoen expects to work closely with the original staff to ameliorate any unexpected problems with setup and organization of the restaurant.


One of the first steps in training any restaurant staff member is orientation. An employee needs to feel as comfortable and familiar with the workplace as when at home. Therefore, new servers at The Crossing will spend three to four months bartending before being permitted to wait on tables. “We want them to have a good knowledge of our wine selection and menu,” McManis said.

Server training at any restaurant generally entails shadowing shifts (when a new server follows an experienced server and then the experienced server follows the rookie), expediting shifts (when a server takes food from the kitchen to the table), point-of-sale training on the computer and sometimes cross training with a hostess, bartender or busser. During training, some chefs provide food and sauce samples so that a server can experience the menu as well as know it visually.

“Teamwork is something we focus on and stress throughout the training process,” said Shelley Giuliani, who oversees training programs for Mallot’s restaurants. “The basic training is six days, but the program is five weeks long.” To encourage skill development, Mallot holds a server Olympics for the staff of his four restaurants. Customers are encouraged to participate, including picking entrants. There are categories for wine service, for food preparation, creativity and tray skills.

Knowledge is key

Restaurant managers usually begin each shift with a meeting to alert staff of food and drink specials, menu changes or problems. “It’s kind of like going to church,” Molina said. “We try to do some training every day. A lot of places pay lip service to training, but it is something that has to be done all the time. Give [your staff] the tools.” When he was at Faust’s, his office kept a small library of books with information on food, wine and hospitality service. Titles included, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” by Stephen R. Covey and “Remarkable Service” by the Culinary Institute of America.

“The thing that you have to be 100 percent on is the food preparation and the wine,” McManis said. “A server needs to be able to explain in full.”

Wine is a topic that many restaurant owners stress in training. “We try to keep it as simple as possible when immersing people into the process,” Molina said. “We provide a flavor profile, then let them taste and get involved in naming specific flavors. Then we discuss pairing of a wine with foods.”

Other restaurants bring in outside help. “We do tastings,” McManis said. “Wine merchants will come in at least biweekly.” So critical is wine knowledge that Schoen went as far as to prepare a small wine-service book for the Savor staff.

It is no longer unusual for restaurant proprietors to encourage staff with incentives and benefits in order to help retain quality employees. It is obvious by the growing selection of dining establishments in St. Louis that savvy service is a crucial element to a successful restaurant.

“We feel like we’ve done a really successful job when servers are asked if they have a financial interest in the restaurant,” Mallot said.