How to effectively train a restaurant host
Think of your host as a conductor of an orchestra. Instead of a baton, the critical crew member has a seating chart and a wait list. The entire rhythm of your restaurant hangs on their ability to set the tempo for customers and front of house staff.
Bill Oechslin, general manager at Ciao! Wood-fired Pizza & Pasta in Ithaca, New York, has trained his share of hosts. He says that hosts are impression makers and quarterbacks. “Immediate acknowledgement and personally greeting guests (are valuable roles). There is only one chance to make a first impression,” he says. “As the quarterback of the floor, it is essential for them to be seating properly and evenly to set the pace for the restaurant.”
Paul Paz, founder of WaitersWorld.com, says the host’s role puts them on center stage and a good training program has a series of intensive rehearsals.
A host’s greeting sets the tone for the entire guest experience. A good greeting at Caio!, Oechslin says, includes “a genuine smile, good eye contact, enthusiasm, appearance and having thorough knowledge of operations. Host staff should be acknowledging guests as they walk in, not with their heads down and not knowing what the pace of the restaurant is. Make the guests feel like they made the right choice, before being seated.”
A greeting starts with a hospitable eye contact and a smile, Paz says. “That visual sense of welcome is absolutely critical to establishing and setting the tone of your business relationship.”
Greeting also involves thanking customers for coming and inviting them back.
Systems & protocols
You can’t expect for a host to be successful if they do not have the tools support them. Do you have a table numbering system? How are they split among the servers? Is your seating chart easy to use? Do you keep a record of table turns and times? If you have a reservation system or use a third-party system, how efficient is it?
Caio! uses a table management program to help hosts estimate wait times more efficiently. “It’s a color-coded system,” Oechslin says. “Each table is on a clock that will tell the host at the host stand that the check is on the table. It should be 10 or
15 minutes that we can get that table turned over so they can quote times based on that.”
In addition, Oechslin says, they keep a daily written log of when the restaurant goes on a wait and when it goes off a wait. It gives them a history to see patterns.
Role playing is one of your best tools to train new hosts. “There are all kinds of scenarios that you can put in there that requires multitasking,” Paz says. “You need to make a list of those common scenarios that you anticipate will happen. Now, can you anticipate every single situation? No. But what you need to do is give new hires basic training on the most common host situations that they are going to run into.”
Mark Dym owns the full-service, three-unit Marco’s Coal Fired Pizzeria in Denver. Dym and Oechslin outline specific scenarios that they help new hosts to overcome. They include:
- Phone manners. “Answer it with a smile and don’t talk too fast,” Oechslin says.
- Long waits. Know how to handle the situation when walk-in customers have to wait longer that originally quoted, Dym says.
- Service staff pressures. Servers may make requests, or even demands, on seating their sections or when to cut them. “You have to handle it from both sides,” Oechslin says.
- “Hangry” customers. Oechslin says keeping managers in the loop when a party has been waiting a long time is important. “The manager can help the host staff so they are not taking all of the heat,” he says. Food is always an arsenal to a packed waiting area. Sending out a tray of small bites can calm a hangry situation.
- Specific seating requests. A table for two requests an open booth that seats six on a busy evening,” Dym says.
Undoubtably, one of the toughest situations a host will face involves handling peak rushes with long waits. “(We train them) to stay organized, calm and maintain composure,” Dym says. “If a host becomes flustered, it will be a downward spiral.” One key in these situations, he continues, is to know when to get help. “One thing I train everyone on my staff is that verbally abusive and disrespectful guests are not tolerated and that they should see a manger immediately,” he says.
When is an employee ready to take the host stand on their own? The timeline for a host to go solo is dependent on the individual, Oechslin says. “They should exhibit a sense of awareness of what is going on, being efficient, a good grasp of how to run the wait list and a good personality to feel welcoming to guests, both in the building and on the phone,” he says.
“Complete knowledge of our reservation system, a keen awareness of where tables are at with their meal, and the ability to interact with guests comfortably and naturally,” Dym says must be demonstrated before a host is considered fully trained. “They should also show a competency in controlling the door and flow of the restaurant. For example, not triple seating a server and spacing tables so the kitchen doesn’t get all their orders at once.”
As with all positions in your restaurant, continual training and reinforcement will keep hosts on top of their game.
Denise Greer is associate editor at Pizza Today.