Book Review — Front of the House: Restaurant Manners, Misbehaviors & Secrets

Front of the House: Restaurant Manners, Misbehaviors & Secrets
Jeff Benjamin
Burgess Lea Press, 2015

Everybody thinks they could run a restaurant. Whether it’s a person who loves to cook imagining themselves as a four-star chef or someone who thinks it would be easy to be a server because, hey, how hard can it be to carry some plates of food, we all think of waiting tables as an easy job.

Turns out, running a restaurant is a lot more complicated than it seems, and it’s about more than just keeping track of who had the salmon.

Jeff Benjamin is the co-owner of the Vetri family of restaurants, a collection of Italian restaurants in Philadelphia and New Jersey. While Benjamin is one of those rare folks who have dedicated their lives to hospitality and service, he doesn’t love everything about all of his customers, and this book, rather than being a how-to manual for other restaurateurs, is more of a gentle explanation for diners as to how most restaurants work.

Benjamin’s overall philosophy is one of “what can I do to make this guest a return customer?” But he concedes that there are some people you just don’t want to see at your door again; the folks who demand free meals because of one mistake, the folks who come with added guests in tow, the folks who steal the silverware.

Front of the House doesn’t get into the mathematical details of things like wine mark-ups or tipping systems but it does gently and politely explain why these things are necessary. Benjamin offers a variety of scenarios in which a diplomatic demeanour has allowed him to correct issues and gain a loyal customer.

If it all seems a bit self-congratulatory, I don’t think it’s meant to be. Benjamin seems genuinely dedicated to the idea of hospitality and really wants his guests to enjoy their meals.

I was a bit taken aback at his reiteration of turning tables in 75 minutes; most restaurants offer at least 90 minutes to 2 hours, with that time frame expressed up front at the time of reservation. (And who among us hasn’t been annoyed at the idea of having to eat and get out in 2 hours?) A mere hour and fifteen minutes allotted per table means that his staff have to perform not a well-orchestrated ballet but a highland fling to keep guests eating and moving at the right rate.

Other than that, most of his system seems to make sense, based on my own restaurant experience and training.

Ultimately, most of Front of House comes down to being kind, doing whatever you can for the customer (within reason), and ensuring that staff are well-trained and knowledgeable. This is a great guide for the average restaurant customer, but while it’s useful for restaurant owners and staff, it won’t serve as a detailed training manual.