If you’re looking for someone to teach you about great hospitality service, Esher Williams is your person. Not only did she train Heston Blumenthal’s staff at the Fat Duck, but she also acted as the Program Manager for Hospitality, Food and Beverage Service at London’s Westminster Kingsway College. Currently, she takes care of recruitment, learning and development at Strada and Coppa Club.
I was excited to interview her about this passion for education. Though my Skype connection tried its best to interrupt us, we had a really interesting chat about learning and growing as a restaurant server.
Tell me about your relationship with the hospitality industry.
I fell in love with the hospitality industry from the beginning, though it was by accident. I was young and needed money, but I found it was my perfect place. You get paid to talk to people and interact with people. My first job was at Chelsea Football Club, but where it really clicked was at The Savoy Hotel, a five-star hotel here in London. That’s where I saw quality and service and staff taking a proactive approach to guests and understanding what they need.
I realized that it’s not just about a plate on the table, it’s about psychology and so many other facets. So I’ve always loved it and still do. I’m very passionate about encouraging young people into the industry.
You lectured and studied at Westminster Kingsway College. Do you think there are advantages to studying hospitality in school as opposed to diving straight onto the work floor?
That’s a good question, because I did both. I started by diving in and then after three years I kept getting offered more senior roles because I was an English speaker and had common sense, but I didn’t understand a lot of the financial terms and stuff. That’s when I thought: I really want to go and study this so that I can move up. So then I spent four years getting a degree at the same time as working in the industry.
“I think you should always be able to learn and find new ways of doing things”
I don’t think there’s one path that fits everybody. I believe it’s down to the individual, the life experience they’ve had and how they’ve come into the industry. And it depends if you want to be in a bar, restaurant or hotel. In London, there aren’t a ton of places you can learn mixology. A lot of the great bar people I know haven’t been to college to learn that. But then some of the big hotel managers have been to great hospitality schools. So I think it’s different for everyone. If you can gain a blend of education and experience in the industry then that’s really powerful.
As a server, what can you do to make a great first impression on a diner?
Gosh, you know, it’s not rocket science. It’s about being warm and welcoming and thinking of the guest as your favorite aunt or your favorite grandparent. How would you like them to be treated? And it’s about keeping your eyes and ears open when you’re around guests.
There’s a way of tuning in when a guest is talking about something they may need. They may not ask you for it, but the way they’re touching their food with their cutlery or touching their glass or looking at their glass all give you hints as to what they’re thinking or feeling. It’s about being proactive, having emotional intelligence and understanding how people are feeling about things without them necessarily having to verbalize it.
What are some dos and don’ts when it comes to approaching a table?
A basic do is to always approach everyone on the table. Sometimes you get drawn into talking to just one person, especially if they’re a little bit demanding. But just give equal attention to everyone around the table.
As for don’ts, first off, be careful about the assumptions you make about guests. It’s your job to read people and make educated guesses about what someone needs, but just be careful, because sometimes you can get it really wrong. We’ve had people walking into three Michelin star restaurants in flip-flops and shorts and they’ve gone on to be one of the biggest spenders of the quarter. So just keep an open mind about people.
The second thing is; remember that your restaurant or hotel or bar is your stage and you are an actor on the stage, and whatever happened behind the scenes at home or even just on another table, keep your great performance up and look after everybody equally.
How do you think a server should handle the situation when there’s a delay in the kitchen?
I believe if your front of house skills are high level, you can save situations like that. It’s not the end of the world if something’s a little bit late, but if you try to cover it up or hide it then people are going to get upset. And slowly and surely, in London anyway, we’re moving into the twenty-first century where we’re working as a team between back of house and front of house.
“Hospitality is about being warm and welcoming and thinking of the guest as your favorite aunt or your favorite grandparent. How would you like them to be treated?”
Instead of going ‘the kitchen messed up’ or ‘they’re a man down and struggling’ it should be ‘I’ve just been to check on where your starters are and they’re about four minutes away. The chef apologizes for the delay and they’ll be right with you. Can I get you anything else while you’re waiting?’
Just be open and honest, and offer alternatives to people. They appreciate that.
How do you feel about offering freebies to guests?
As long as your team are educated about how much things cost within the business so they can assess how serious the matter is and how much needs to be recovered… it’s the gesture that counts. I think that a complimentary something is worth every penny to the business if the guests leave happy. I’d rather have happy guests walking out and having lost a few pounds than the other way around.
Also, if someone’s not sure which wine to go for, always give them a taste of a few. Yes, it’s a tiny bit that’s going to be wasted and not accounted for but for them to feel like they’ve made the right decision about the wine they’re buying, that’s great.
Have you had any personal dining experiences where you’ve learnt something you could teach your staff about hospitality?
Every time I go out, I’m probably the worst person to have a meal with, ever. Because it’s really hard to switch off. Nothing makes me more excited than seeing a slick service. At some of my favorite three Michelin stars in London, watching their teams is like poetry in motion, how they communicate with each other. I just love it and that makes me excited.
But wherever I am, you never stop learning. The day you think you have got service all tied up is the day it’s a shame. I think you should always be able to learn and find new ways of doing things.