Service, hospitality, data, and customers: One of Australia's most successful chefs shares his business secrets

Chef Luke Mangan. Photo: Brook Mitchell/Getty Images for American Express

After I opened Salt, Bistro lulu and Moorish in Sydney, I felt it was time for me to step outside the kitchen after 20 years of working in them.

It was a natural progression for me running 3 restaurants at the time. As Salt racked up awards, I was there every night, working the room. And to this day, I’m constantly travelling to visit my restaurants and customers around the world.

It’s a business that keeps evolving and it’s like being on stage, your restaurants need to perform every day. As I always say, you are only as good as your last service.

Being a young restaurateur with not much experience at the time, it wasn’t easy but as I soon realised there was a whole lot more I needed to learn to master the art of being a successful restaurateur.

In the early 2000s, I took a trip to New York and made my way through all these amazing restaurants. I had a notebook, took notes, drank the best wine and ate the most amazing food. However, one aspect of the dining experience that really stood out was the service and how hospitable the staff were.

Whether it’s replacing cutlery, topping up your water or wine, folding your napkin when you get up from the table or simply asking how your meal is, attention to detail and constantly monitoring customers to pre-empt their needs is key to ensuring your customers leave happier than when they arrived at your restaurant. Americans do this really well, I believe better than we do in Australia.

Two restaurants particularly stood out during this trip, Danny Meyer’s Gramercy Tavern and Tabla Restaurant.

Luke Mangan

Danny’s a bit of a legend in the restaurant industry and has been since 1985 when he opened his first restaurant Union Square Café in New York at 28-years-old.

There was a lot of competition between fine dining restaurants at the time and in order to stand out, Danny broke all the rules creating a ‘fine dining’ bar designed for solo diners and had a point of difference, being exceptional hospitality, of which he was the pioneer.

He’s now the owner of Union Square Hospitality Group, which runs 15 restaurants around the US and more than 100 Shake Shacks around the world.

His innovations on food, service and hospitality have been so widely copied, they’re now a standard in the industry. When I met Danny for coffee in New York and read his book Setting the Table, I was hooked on his philosophies and applied them to my restaurants – all which have worked wonders.

Hospitality isn’t just for restaurants, Danny says it’s the single most powerful business strategy that can be used by any business.

His recipe for success boils down to two ingredients, your product and your hospitality. No matter what your selling, whether it’s food, electronics or clothes, it all starts with selling a product you love and believe in to people that matter to you and treating them in way that’s unforgettable.

In one of my previous blogs on customer service, I talked about how the service can make or break a diner’s experience, regardless of how amazing the food or wine is.

It’s that experience of making the customer feel special, which is the most important thing. There’s an art to making customers feel welcome and it includes having highly trained and hospitable staff who are intuitive, empathetic, and who pay close attention to detail.

Luke Mangan

There are 6 things Danny Meyer looks for in his staff and they’re kindness, optimism, work ethic, curiosity, empathy, self-awareness and integrity.

I surround myself with staff who have the technical skills but who also have high emotional intelligence. And I like staff who motivate people below them and encourage them. A lot of our head chefs have been with us for a long time and there’s a reason for that.

Restaurants are about the whole package – the music, lighting, wine list, flowers, not just the food. It’s also about attentive staff picking up on little things like customer queues and tracking their interactions, likes and dislikes.

Danny Meyer has a great expression he uses, “Always be collecting dots so you can be connecting dots.” There’s no excuse not to know who you’re talking to and what’s important to them.

Our staff in our restaurants keep notes on everything, from their interactions with our customers, what they ate last time, who they were with and put these connections to use so the customer feels their dining experience has been customised for them.

Some say the customer is first, but I believe the customer is second. While we encourage our staff to never say no to our customers, the best way to make them happy is to make sure the people who work in your organisation are happy.

Customers are experts at reading if your staff are enjoying themselves in their work and work well together.

Our staff are the first interaction with the customer from the phone call to the greeting at the door, so if you want great customer satisfaction, they won’t be any happier than the people working in your company. Relationships between management and staff are very important, and from there, guests will be taken care of.

Luke Mangan

Running a restaurant, let alone 21, has its challenges. Besides the return being minimal and it being a 24/7 business, you’re bound to face challenges from all angles.

We’re currently experiencing a nationwide chef shortage in Australia and unfortunately are feeling the effects of this in our restaurants. As well as cuts changes to the 457 visa, staff retention in hospitality is a tough one.

To overcome this, we not only make sure we train and treat our staff to the highest of standards, but have two development programs, Appetite for Excellence, which recognises and rewards young waiters, chefs and restaurateurs in the industry, and The Inspired Series, which aims to educate, mentor and inspire young hospitality students in the form of Q&As with myself and other leading professionals in the industry.

Mistakes happen all the time in businesses, but as long as you accept that and have procedures in place to try and prevent them, fix them and the willingness to adapt, then you’re ahead of 95% of businesses out there.

If someone on your team makes a mistake, it’s important for the team to work together, be creative and take ownership. You can’t unspill a glass of wine, but you can always do something to make amends. Sometimes an extra meal won’t do it so it’s up to your staff to find out what it is that will genuinely make them happy.

We try our best to ensure our customers leave happier than when they arrived and if they do, we’ve done our job, but it doesn’t happen all the time. We may not be perfect but it’s important to keep trying.

When people come to dine in any of our restaurants, my aim as a restaurateur is to ensure they have the best experience they can get. I’m constantly thinking about how we can do this or that better.

Luke Mangan

At the end of the day we want bums on seats and to deliver an unparalleled dining experience that keeps our customers coming back for more.

I get a nightly report from every one of my restaurants, whether it’s the cruise ships, Salt Tokyo or glass brasserie. These reports detail how many covers we did, what the average spend per head was, any issues like if a waiter took a meal to the wrong table or if we have positive feedback.

Once I’ve gone through all of those, I make notes of all the issues I need to address and make all the calls I need to the various chefs and managers, even customers. This process is vital to the success of each venue.

Some might consider having a handful of restaurants as successful. Having the ability to create opportunities, both for yourself and for the staff that have stuck by you and have put your faith in, is what it’s all about.

Watching those staff members blossom by committing themselves to your vision is inspiring. Each and every one of them is an important cog in the wheel of everything we’ve achieved. To me that’s success.

This post first appeared on Luke Mangan’s blog. See the original here.

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