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Service with a side of empathy

Published 22 February 2020

CODE founder Adam Hyman talks about the importance of service in his latest weekly column.

It’s probably no secret that I spend a lot of time in restaurants. Over the past seven days I’ve eaten in 11 restaurants. One of the things I love most about restaurants is how they can make you feel. 

You may have woken up, feeling a little uncertain about things, tired and in need of a bit of a pick me up. A breakfast meeting in your favourite restaurant, hotel or greasy spoon can remedy all that.  You might be abroad for work and find yourself having a solo dinner but would really prefer to have a plus one at your side for a bit of company and allow you to order that bottle of Reisling as opposed to just by the glass. You perch at the counter and start talking to the server who can suddenly transform your night. You’ve gone from feeling a little lonely with just your phone for company and contemplating going straight back to the hotel once you’ve finished your main course, to feeling like solo dining is the best way to eat every meal, while you order than next glass of wine. 

This isn’t magic. It’s called empathy. It’s called caring. It’s hospitality. No computer or algorithm can ever replace that. Nor should it. Otherwise we may as well as sit at home watching a subscription based streaming service with food that’s been delivered to your door. 

At breakfast the other morning at one of my usual haunts, I ordered two fried eggs with some toast. I was asked how I’d like my fried eggs cooked – over easy or sunny-side up. Nothing unusual about that you may think. But it is. It’s attention to detail that so many other places don’t have. It can transform that simple breakfast from potentially being like any other breakfast in London to something that bit more special. They actually care how I wanted my eggs cooked – even if it hadn’t even crossed my mind in the first place.

At a recent launch night for a new pasta restaurant, when we ordered three different pastas for the table instead of the server just taking the order and saying the pasta will come when it’s ready (like most other places would – easier for the kitchen, isn’t it), she recommended having two of the pastas first – as the third would overpower the other two – and she’d bring the third pasta when we were ready. This is something I hadn’t even thought about but makes sense. And suddenly your whole outlook on the meal has changed. That pasta served could have been very average (it wasn’t) but we were made to feel special and cared for. I left that restaurant not only a very happy punter but with a sense that the restaurant cares – it sees its guests as more than just a pound sign coming through the door. 

Of course, the beauty of dining out is that bad service can be just as insightful too. At the end of a good meal recently, which consisted of a whole roasted chicken between two of us, my mother turned to the server clearing the table and politely asked if it was possible to take the rather generous leftovers home for her lunch the next day. A scripted, “No it’s not allowed due to health and safety” followed as he walked away with the remains of the chicken. Two fingers and a fuck off would have gone down better.

Despite a very satisfying meal, that brilliant example of having a complete lack of empathy was our lasting memory of that restaurant. We were seen as a commodity. A simple transaction. We’d finished our meal. There was no need for pillow talk. The task in hand was over. And guess what, I’ll now never go back.

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