Friday, February 10, 2012

Eat here. Get on TV.

The restaurant posted on their Facebook page, inviting friends and family to come in for the taping, perhaps get interviewed (perhaps not, too - but most people are optimists). In a new restaurant, getting friends and family in to pack the tables was a great idea. The last thing you want is to tape a segment of a tomb-like space with one couple munching away in a corner. You want a full house, maybe even seat people all on one side of the dining area so it would look more full when filmed (they didn't do this).

We showed up at after eleven, when the TV Diva was supposed to arrive. She was late. TV Divas are always late. They're Divas, after all. Accountable to nobody, not even themselves. Divas are freer than the wind. A Diva, a cameraman, cruising through the Sacramento landscape in a plain, unmarked car, with only a production schedule to guide them. This segment would not air for weeks, so no rush.

This Diva seemed to have a kind of negative energy aura around her that discouraged anyone from approaching her. You don't approach the Diva. She approaches you. Or not. There's no warm fuzzy feeling here. All cold-eyed business. Get the segment on tape and move on. I don't think she smiled even once during the few times I managed to see her face.

It was a typical experience with TV people. They have this way of looking right through you as though you aren't there. Their eyes track across you, seeming to focus on some infinite point behind your head. Eerie and a bit creepy. Do they do this in their private lives, too? Like with their son's or daughter's new boyfriends or girlfriends?

We decided to order something, since waiting in a restaurant for a TV Diva to show up is not much fun unless the house makes it into an event. They didn't. There were no hors 'œuvre, no little plates, nothing that would have made waiting forty-five minutes for a Diva more fun, nothing to get food in people's stomachs so they'd look happy and well-fed for the Diva's grande arrivée.

So, instead of nibbling on a (nonexistent) free appetizer, we sat. We pondered who else they invited. Were any of them planted there, setup in advance for interviews? Celebrities in the making? People connected to the television station? Some were from a local chamber of commerce. A table of six women, a skinny blonde who looked like a model and was constantly fondled (in appropriate areas) by her companion. A man in a suit. A woman with a plastic badge, a couple of random diners, perhaps some friends of the owners.

Just another (rather slow) day at the restaurant, business as usual. Except for the Diva thing that would happen unannounced to surprise anyone who happened to walk in. Imagine you were an innocent, unknowing diner who came in, ordered, got food. Suddenly and without warning, the room would be crowded with a cameraman and a Diva, interviewing people at other tables, filming the hostess, interfering with your service and making you hesitate before taking a big bite lest the camera swoop down on you in mid-chomp, your cheeks bulging hamsterlike, perhaps a bit of sauce dribbling down your chin.

Finally the Diva arrived. She interviewed a table of six. Then, of course she interviewed the blonde. They always seem to interview blondes. It's TV. She interviewed the owners. They went in the kitchen. I don't know what she did next because after being there over an hour, it was time to leave.

I wondered about people whose orders weren't up, and wouldn't be until after the interview finished. Without free appetizers, the unlucky few would just have to go hungry. Divas don't wait for chefs!

Luckily, our food arrived before the Diva. We ate.

They interviewed someone behind us, so we might have been background extras. Is that camera pointing at us? Look natural! We talked. I took really small bites and smiled a lot. We paid the bill. We left, uninterviewed but yet possibly captured as fodder for the media.


This brings me to the main point of this blog. Getting a certificate in Culinary Arts, in the Hospitality Management program means taking advertising and management courses along with all that cooking. The point is that running a restaurant is a lot more than knowing how to cook. Conveying the right message is critical. Make enough mistakes - or one big goof - and your guests will flee, never to return.

I think the restaurant missed a lot of opportunities with the Diva thing. Free appetizers would have looked normal enough, but turned this into an event and turned hungry people into appreciative people who would probably smile more. They would have put more food on the tables, so nobody would be filmed without food. There were no table toppers, those triangular cardboard announcements that highlight favorite items - that would have added a bit of advertising to the video. There was no menu board on the wall, so the crew could not film anything with menu information. The check presenter (little book with the bill) arrived with nothing inside but the bill. No thank you / sorry for the inconvenience card, perhaps with a free soft drink at the next visit. It could have had a database trap (a database trap is the little card they ask you to fill out to give feedback and incidentally sign up for e-mail postings or join the house's Facebook page). There could have been a QR code link to the restaurant's web site and/or Facebook page somewhere, too.

The key is that you always have to be aware how your words and actions will be interpreted by your guests. Restaurants survive on more than just food; hospitality is key to making guests feel welcome, wanted and valued. It's also a large part of the dining experience, as important as the food. Sometimes even more so.

The waitress who walks by the table, mumbling, "Everythingfinehere?". Normal, right? It's happens almost every time we dine out. Wrong. We're taught that for people to think you care, you need to be more specific. "I'm just checking in. How is your Duck Fat Foccacia Bacon Burger, sir?".

Guests are not supposed to wait more than two fleeting minutes from when their food arrives on the table for a check-in, either. If the food isn't to their liking and they have to sit around for ten minutes to say so, your guests won't consider that a quality experience.

Several people probably went to the restaurant, following the siren songs of television and helping a restaurant in need. Some of these people probably would not have gone otherwise, the Facebook announcement worked and in they came.

So they went, they ate, some were interviewed while the rest were ignored by the television people who turned out to be quite dull. No introduction of the television people, no instructions. Do you act natural, wave to the camera, start a food fight (that would get some ratings!). Hard to enjoy your lunch when there's a guy with a giant camera attached to his shoulder, following a Diva who is interviewing the people who are supposed to be taking care of you while you eat.

After all that, all many guests did was eat in a strange situation. They weren't picked for an interview. Nobody autographed their menu. No event happened, not even a free mini-cup of the Super Sauce to go with their meals. They didn't get to shake the Diva's hand, ask who does her hair, get a recommendation for a plastic surgeon. They ate. They paid. They left. No thank you message from the restaurant awaiting them on Facebook. The "thank you to the people who were interviewed" message was not directed at them.

What kind of appreciation did that convey, to someone who might have driven twenty miles round trip out of their way that day to help fill a restaurant? Yeah, they might feel like the Chopped Liver special.

Did the restaurant ever even realize that they could have done better? I doubt it.

A chef instructor once said that the problem with Sacramento restaurants isn't their food. It's their management. Nobody trained the waitress to greet people with a smile, check on their food quickly to see that it was to their liking, and probably other things that I haven't even learned yet. In this case, the management neglected to thank all the people who came - thus missing a great advertising opportunity and a way to firm up their relationship with their guests.

A simple message, four little lines, and everyone would have felt appreciated. Something like this:

We would like to thank all of our fans who made a special trip to support us during the shooting of DivaDoesFood. We'd also like to congratulate those lucky few who were chosen by the production crew for an interview. I would have put you all on the show, but that's completely up to the crew. The episode will air on [date and time], so please tune in to see if you've gained a few seconds of fame.

That's it. Everyone thanked, people interviewed recognized, the restaurant's lack of control in this clarified. Something to take the sting out of being snobbed by some makeup-covered diva while eating in a strange situation.

If you want to really appreciate restaurants, culinary arts and hospitality management training is probably not a good idea. First, you become critical of the food, with the dreaded "I could have done this better at home!" syndrome infiltrating itself into your appreciation of the food. Then management training begins, and you notice a frequent lack of training. It's everywhere. Small places, large chains, upscale establishments - all have gaps. Some have chasms.

I'm only two weeks into the semester and I'm noticing faults that I always assumed were normal. Lack of a friendly greeting by wait staff, messages sent that do as much harm as good, total lack of organization or routines for handling things when the wait time is thirty minutes over what was quoted, coupled with total indifference... Where was management?

At another restaurant, after a forty-five minute wait - already fifteen minutes over the estimated time - nonchalantly informed us that there would be at least another half hour of standing outside the restaurant. In the cold. The chain was too cheap to build a waiting area large enough to contain everyone trying to get in. We left, dropping off our buzzer at the hostess station, staffed by three bubble-headed staffers who never made any effort to welcome us. Naturally, they had no reaction when we left. We went down the street to a wonderful little Thai restaurant that was more than happy to have our business. Rescued from the Outback.


After reading this, you might surmise that I view television personalities, and to some extent their entire industry as a parade of puffed-up poseurs, searchers of sound bites who shun substance in favor of frivolity. That would be quite accurate. It's an industry that seems to fear truth, controversy, hard questions and presenting reality. They rush everywhere they go, never slowing enough to find what's important and present it to the world. Too much work. They'll often interview a restaurant but fail to really describe the food and how it came about - and why you might want to go there - in favor of a personal interest story.

As a potential diner, do I really care that the restaurant's name came from a drunken Scrabble game gone wrong, that the owner met his wife in a rest stop, that the waitress has twelve cats, all black and white, or that the owner's favorite colors are green and magenta because they remind him of Hawaii? No. Did I want to see some typical plates, learn what's in them, learn about the thought that went into their preparation? Yes. Will I see that? Probably not. Hard to show the food when you're doing head shots and sound bites.

The show title is fictitious, of course. The real title includes the Diva's name.

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