Stellar Customer Service Starts with the Hiring Process
Robert Meir, general manager of Mediterranean restaurant CALA, discusses how he is building the team he credits with being ambassadors for the restaurant's values.
A slice of the Mediterranean taking root in the Arizona desert, CALA is a culinary oasis that offers modern cocktails and cuisine in a bright, thoughtfully styled space. The restaurant takes its name and culinary inspiration from Cala Road in Mallorca, Spain. The island is known for its white beaches, Spanish architecture, and wineries and fresh produce farms—the restaurant mimics those highlights in its interior design and values in the kitchen. CALA is tucked away inside the Senna House, a luxury, desert-modern hotel by Hilton in old town Scottsdale, and its hidden gem-esque location only adds to the restaurant's intrigue and energy.
Internationally renowned chef Beau MacMillian directs CALA's menu according to the seasonality of ingredients. Patrons are greeted with new takes on an array of well-loved, fresh dishes like flaming saganaki, pasta alla vodka, and pork milanese.
Rob Meir, general manager and partner at CALA, helped open the restaurant in January 2022 amid a challenging business climate featuring hurdles like nationwide supply chain issues, inflation, and staffing shortages. Even with these challenges, CALA was joined by more than 6,000 new restaurants opening nationwide in the same month and around 400 new businesses in the food and restaurant category in Arizona specifically throughout the first three months of 2022.
Even though hiring has been more challenging recently, Rob strongly values choosing the right people to add to his team and has maintained formal recruitment practices. To identify who those people are, he aims to be transparent about the reality of the industry in his conversations with candidates.
"This is a tough business. I'm very straight up and very honest [with future employees]," Rob said. "You have to be resilient. You have to care about people. You have to care about service. I don't sugarcoat it. It beats you up at times, and it's also amazing. It's also uplifting."
Reviewer David H. visited the restaurant just two months after opening day and gave CALA five stars for service, ambiance, and, of course, high-quality food and drinks. He even mentioned his server, Jacqueline, by name in his review after being impressed by her attitude and overall professionalism. "Our server Jacqueline was great. Super friendly, she was happy to be there, she was super attentive and she was busy hustling around to all her tables," David wrote in his review.
And these were the same qualities that stood out to Rob when she applied for the job. "When I interviewed [Jacqueline], she was warm, she was kind. She had served a little bit but didn't have the most experience," Rob said. "While a lot of restaurants may hire a server that has been serving for 10 years, I'm looking more for the attitude. I'm looking for more energy. Someone that's excited and happy to be there."
Asking the right questions
You can train employees to do any kind of task, but that training alone does not guarantee positive contributions to the workplace culture a manager is trying to create—Rob looks for an alignment of values as he's going through the recruiting process.
"I think the culture really starts with a strong management team because that's who's overseeing. We all have to share the value of caring about people and caring about your service and just being genuinely good at what you do," Rob said. "I like asking questions like, "Have you been part of a team?' or "Have you been a part of a community or anything that required you to really engage with people or be coached?'"
Being able to take feedback and grow from it is a skill that is critical to success, particularly in the service industry. With every day being just a bit different from the last, Rob is looking for adaptable staff members that see his coaching as a vehicle for growth, not criticism.
Communicating to set expectations
Communication is one of CALA's core values, and that applies to both conversations with the customers and between employees. CALA's leadership team encourages its staff to be transparent at work and facilitate an open dialogue with customers to make sure they've set reasonable expectations from the beginning of their experience at the restaurant.
"I think the customer appreciates that—no one likes to be lied to," Rob said. "No one likes to be told, "Hey, we'll seat you in a couple minutes,' when it's not really [going to] be a couple minutes. Unfortunately, in this industry, [accidents] happen all the time."
One example of this type of opportunity for transparency happened recently when one of the restaurant's bartenders was in a car accident and couldn't make it to work. As a result, the bar was left unattended from noon to 3 p.m., an inconvenience that, according to Rob, they received negative reviews for.
"I'm trying not to make excuses. We're just trying to be honest with people," Rob said. "There's times when the reservations are right on point and everything goes well, it's the perfect shift, and sometimes there's a little curveball that we have to adjust to. That's just the restaurant industry."
Letting reviews be the guide
Just as Rob values coachability in his employees, he sees reviews as the guidelines for what exactly needs coaching. But it's not all negative—the leadership team recognizes when their staff is trying to do the right thing and praises employees that stand out. Doing so helps create positive momentum and has ripple effects, contributing to a great work environment long after the positive action.
"The positive [reviews] I do focus a lot on. I think a lot of restaurant owners just take it and go, "Okay, great,' and move on—I try not to," Rob said. "I take it to Jacqueline. I take it to the staff, and I say, "Hey, look! Someone says something great about you!' because it makes them feel good. Then they strive to do better. It's just positive reinforcement."
Whether the review is positive or not, reading them with the mindset that they are an opportunity for growth changes the experience for the better. Taking the intersection of communication and reviews one step further, reviewer David emphasized how important it is for businesses to respond to all reviews.
"I'm a huge advocate [of businesses] engaging either way, positive or negative, but you have to respond within a timely manner and be consistent," David said. "If there are reviews online, I'm looking at them, and [if] there's no response, it's just a lack of interest. Anytime that I have received [a response] back, I'm grateful for it because they actually read it. They're going to take it into consideration, and they're going to hopefully make the adjustment."
David also mentioned that he has gone back and improved his previous review, either giving the business more stars or some positive feedback, after getting a response from business owners.
Listen to the episode below to hear directly from David and Rob, and subscribe to Behind the Review for more from new business owners and reviewers every Thursday.
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