Food, Wine & Spirits in St. Louis

Thursday, February 14, 2013 / 2:24 PM

Restaurant Service in St. Louis: Six Recurring Themes from Four Local Experts

Restaurant Service in St. Louis: Six Recurring Themes from Four Local Experts

“Bad service will stay with you forever as a guest—you’ll tell that story,” says Chris Kelling, general manager at Niche. He’s right. If you think about your recent dining experiences, you probably recall if no one greeted you when you came through the door or if your server forgot part of your order. In a recent Zagat survey, poor service trumped poor food as a reason diners chose not to return.

Even if you do notice good service, continued Kelling, it usually goes “unmentioned.” Like a supporting actor, service is critical in making the lead (the chef, the food) shine, but often remains in the background, unacknowledged. In an attempt to bring best service practices to the forefront and learn how one creates and maintains excellence in hospitality, we spoke with Kelling, Adam Frager (co-owner of Blood & Sand) David Justice (co-owner of Dewey’s Pizza), and Michael Damico (chef-instructor at L’École Culinaire). The following themes recurred throughout our conversations:

(1) Hire for Personality

 Everyone agreed that good service begins with a server’s personality. Adam Frager looks for people “who care—about themselves, the people they work with, and the people they serve.” David Justice and his management team hire based on two criteria: being open minded and goal driven. They also ask themselves: “Would I enjoy spending time with this person?” If the answer is no, then that person doesn’t get hired. Ditto if the person can’t look Justice in the eye. Kelling believes anyone can be made into a server if he or she is a “nice person.” Inherent to good service, then, is hiring good people. In fact, all men agreed that they’d take an inexperienced person who cares over someone with loads of technical experience but a bad attitude.

Damico’s experience differs a bit from those of Kelling, Frager, and Justice. Personality remains important, but these are culinary students enrolled in a class, not potential servers, so Damico works with what the students bring to the table. At L’École Culinaire, future chefs must work as servers in the culinary school’s Presentation Dining Room during the last 10 weeks of their 70-week educations. Although some students have prior experience waiting tables, many have only worked in the back of the house as cooks, and are so scared, according to Damico, “they’re literally shaking.” Why train someone who wants to cook to work the FOH? Some graduates will learn that cooking is not as lucrative as they thought and may have to compensate their income by serving.  Regardless of where students land upon graduation, it’s critical that they come out of the class “with more respect for their own positions and for those waiting tables,” stated Damico who has zero tolerance for FOH and BOH animosity.

The ability to greet customers stems directly from servers’ personalities. While this may not seem like a difficult skill to master, think of how many people don’t get this right—how many times you sit at a table either to have no one greet you or for the server to be either too casual or too formal. Both Justice and Damico referred specifically to the problematic “hey guys” greeting popular in many restaurants. One of Justice’s proudest moments occurred when a long-time customer of the Kirkwood Dewey’s said she’d never heard “hey guys” from a server. Likewise, Damico’s class includes 15 Service Steps, the first of which calls for greeting customers within one minute of seating and to avoid calling them “guys.”

(2) Let Personality Shine Through

Once a server with the right personality is hired, it’s critical for that person to be sincere, according to Frager, who wants his employees to express their personalities rather than follow a script. Justice agreed that letting employees be themselves is much more desirable than having “40 David Justices” working for him. Calling his motives “selfish,” Justice went on to note that if people are happy and positive, everyone benefits—co-workers and customers—from the larger positive, shared experience. Kelling also trains with an eye toward allowing servers to create a “memorable guest experience” based on his or her unique personalities. “We expect experiences to be a little different,” he said, adding that what they don’t want are “robots.”  Ultimately, all men stressed that relationship building remains one of the key components to good service. For Damico’s students, that means “learning to deal with customers as if they’re family.”


(3) Make Service a Priority Regardless of the Restaurant

Rather than thinking in terms of expectations, Frager used the term “agreements” when referring to how he communicates what’s expected of servers, hoping to encourage a “sense of ownership over the people they’re taking care of.” Both Frager and Kelling work in high-end restaurants with relatively small numbers of servers (4 servers at Blood & Sand and 8 at Niche, compared to 75-80 across the area’s Dewey’s locations). Moreover, check averages at Blood & Sand and Niche can be high, and customers often expect impeccable service. Blood & Sand stands alone as a members-only establishment, resulting in even higher service expectations. “One of the reasons we’re private in the first place is so that we can get to know people and can then provide them with outstanding service,” Frager explained, using those high expectations to his advantage.

Higher prices and members-only status can lead people to use the “p” word: pretentious. “Every day, we fight that battle,” admitted Kelling, who said that a common misperception is that formality equals pretension.  Niche’s move to Clayton raised the stakes a bit, with some people expecting a higher level of formality (i.e. pretension) and others, in true schadenfreude fashion, looking for failure. “We had to make sure our game was sharp,” Kelling said, offering this simple solution: smile, answer questions, and be sincere and friendly.

With Dewey’s lower check average and family-friendly atmosphere, one might not expect good service. Justice disagreed, asking: “Why can’t you have great service wherever you are?” Asserting that in many ways comparing Dewey’s to Niche doesn’t make sense, Justice said, “One area we can compete with Gerard [Craft] is in service.” Apparently, Chik-Fil-A can also compete with Niche when it comes to hospitality. Justice regularly tells new hires to take a trip through the Manchester location’s drive-thru to see how people get service right.

(4) Emulate Danny Meyer

As we conducted our interviews, we heard echoes of Setting the Table: The Transforming Power of Hospitality in Business, written by Danny Meyer, a St. Louis native who is the CEO of Union Square Hospitality, a restaurant group known for great service.  “That’s the bible,” enthused Justice when asked if he knew Meyer’s book, adding, “I need to read that a third time.” Kelling also swears by the tome, citing it along with Lessons in Service from Charlie Trotter and Ferran Adrià’s A Day at elBulli as central to his ongoing “independent study” in hospitality.

It’s understandable why Meyer’s book is the standard, and those working outside the restaurant industry (we’re looking at you, postal workers) would benefit from picking up a copy. In Setting the Table, for example, Meyer refers to the “51 percent solution” when explaining how he maintains a great staff: “Theoretically, if the ideal candidate were to score 100 on a suitability test (something we have never administered), his or her potential for technical excellence would count for 49 percent, and innate emotional skills for hospitality would count for 51 percent.”  Meyer further breaks down the 51 percent into 5 “core emotional skills”: optimistic warmth, intelligence marked by curiosity, work ethic, empathy, and self-awareness and integrity. In a recent interview on “The Food Seen,” a Heritage Radio Network program, Meyer calls St. Louis a “happy town” where good restaurant workers appear happy to see their customers. For him, that was the “most important lesson” he took away from growing up here. “St. Louis is a city that taught me everything I know about treating people well,” Meyer observes in the interview.

(5) Put Staff—Not the Customer—First

Even with its relatively happy vibe, St. Louis, like all cities, is home to the occasional entitled or difficult customer. We asked Kelling, Frager, Justice, and Damico how they train their staff to deal with unpleasant guests. It seems that the customer isn’t always right; Frager, Kelling, and Justice claimed that staff comes first—another core philosophy from Meyer’s Setting the Table. For Meyer “enlightened hospitality” means taking care of team members first: “Nothing would ever matter more to me than how we expressed hospitality to one another.” In fact, Meyer ranks his priorities this way: team members, guests, community, suppliers, and then investors.

Frager, Kelling, and Justice all reported that they support staff when customers are abusive or critical of them. In fact, one Blood & Sand membership was revoked because of the way the customer was treating an employee.  Similarly, Justice ensures that servers know that he and the management team will protect them, whether a customer is being abusive or a fellow employee isn’t pulling his or her weight. He continued: “We show up for staff.” Kelling reminds servers that “if a guest is less than perfect, that guest is going to leave,” and models the “kill them with kindness” method; the more difficult a guest, the harder Kelling works to appease him or her—within reason—with a personal goal to make the guest smile before walking out the door.

“Things are going to happen that are out of your control,” Frager tells his staff.  What is in the server’s control is how he or she responds to the situation.  Fostering community, respect, and equality among employees is one way to encourage a positive response. At Blood & Sand, for example, Frager strives to be consistent with and fair to all staff. One example: the entire restaurant runs on a tip share so that employees focus on the customers, not money. At Niche, Kelling reminds his staff that they get to “host a party 5 nights a week” at one of only two 4-star restaurants in St. Louis. Justice admits that “you can’t be everything to everybody,” citing that employees “first and foremost would feel the crunch.” Treating employees well leads to happier team members which results in more satisfied guests. Putting staff first, then, is really a way to make the customer happy.   

(6) Foster Community Within and Among Restaurants

If you talk to people in the restaurant industry who like their jobs, they often refer to their colleagues as family. Such was the case with all the men we interviewed. In the future, Kelling in particular emphasized the need for more interaction and consulting among restaurants’ FOH staff, building on the larger family or community. Although a number of chefs from various St. Louis restaurants regularly consult, cook together, and promote each other’s work, the same community doesn’t exist among FOH people, perhaps, according to Kelling, for fear of revealing “secrets.” Kelling and his counterparts at Sidney Street Café and Farmhaus, Chris Nashan and Eric Scholle, respectively, get together and talk shop informally, but Kelling sees a need for more formal methods of idea sharing, perhaps staging at others’ establishments both in and out of town. Spending two nights shadowing the GM at Quince in San Francisco, for example, was a great experience for Kelling. “Service is open to interpretation. People do it differently all over,” he said, highlighting the fact that participating in something can be much more valuable than reading or talking about it.

“I love service,” Justice stated, arguing that it’s rare to get good service at most places, whether you’re in a restaurant or at a department store. His servers tell him that they can’t go out anymore and enjoy their meals because they’re so hyper aware of the myriad mistakes around them. Similarly, Damico, on a rare night off, can’t overlook gaffes like when a server arrived at his table recently, at a new hot spot, and proceeded to auction off items. Perhaps in the future, dedicated FOH staff will have more opportunities to work together and share best practices. Any one of these men would be a great leader in such an endeavor. “Everyone who works here looks happy,” a guest told Frager, providing him with a compliment equal to a critic praising Chef Chris Bork’s food. Wouldn’t we all be lucky to work in such an environment?

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Sep 30, 2013 01:00 pm
 Posted by  M Atlas

Nice article Jenny Agnew.

I agree that a good level of service is key in any restaurant business. In particular, point 3 regarding the service above all seems to be something a lot of restaurants should look into. It would really help if customers were able to leave some kind of feedback on something other then a ketchup writing on the table.

A good system that would probably help in this regard is the use of comment cards. I know this particular company called SQM (link: that actually does provide such a service. These restaurants would probably benefit a lot from such a system.

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