Tuesday, October 8, 2013

It's All About the Guest

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of It's All About the Guest (Lyons, 2013).

There's a restaurant here in Atlanta called The Vortex which is every bit as well-known for its amazing burgers as it is for its hilarious book of rules. This is a restaurant that flatly does not believe that the customer is always right, that this is their house and they'll do things their own way, and won't suffer fools at all. You, the customer, are perfectly able to be propelled through the same door that you entered. The owners have a less well-known sister restaurant, Bone Garden Cantina, where their similar rules are repeated on the menu. My parents took me there for a birthday once, and while my late father laughed all the way through the list, my mother was horrified by it. "Well, let me ask you this, Mom," I said. "Were we planning to camp at this table long after we'd paid the check, and stiff the server with a crummy tip?" She conceded that we certainly weren't, but it was just the very idea of a business owner putting in print what common etiquette has long suggested that got her aggravated.

I wonder what Steve DiFillippo of Davio's Northern Italian Steakhouse would make of The Vortex and Bone Garden Cantina's policy about the customer not necessarily being right. He's built a very successful chain of high-end restaurants and a packaged food line around the policy that both his customers and his employees should never be referred to as anything other than "guests." Davio's is a restaurant where the guest comes first, period. For him, it's a policy that has been working extremely well.

Davio's is one of those rare businesses that traces its history only as far back as the present ownership. In my other blog, Marie, Let's Eat!, which I co-write with my wife, we have a special fondness for very old restaurants. Ideally, these are passed down to family members, but often sold several times. Dub and Darlene Walters, the present owners of Twin Oaks Drive-In BBQ in Brunswick, Georgia, have only had the place a few years, but happily carry on a seventy-year tradition. DiFillippo bought Davio's in Boston, which was a popular place with staffing troubles which everybody knew had peaked, in the 1980s, and anything that happened before then was consigned to the file cabinet. The Davio's story effectively starts with his purchase of it, and the last couple of entertaining decades are covered in his new memoir, It's All About the Guest, newly released this month.

I'm not a high-maintenance guest, myself. I like to order food the way it's offered without special requests, and I like to have attentive service from people who know the company they're working for and can answer my questions. We lack the funds to be regular diners at Davio's - those advertisements on the sides of your screen when you read blogs? They're there for a reason, folks - but our limited experiences here have shown us that this is a restaurant that has got it right. Their Atlanta location is in a pretty soulless shopping mall one floor underneath an amusement park for kiddies, but the food is unbelievably good, the service just about the best around, and their general manager almost certainly the finest in the business. It's a terrific restaurant, and so I have been naturally curious to read DiFillippo's gloves-off account of how he's made it that way.

One thing that I appreciate is his honesty. DiFillippo has made some mistakes along the way, and put his trust where he shouldn't have, and suffered some losses. But they've been worth it because he has a really good team and a really good product, and his hands-on approach has clearly worked very well for him. His memoir is written in a breezy, fun style full of great anecdotes. Some of these will be familiar to people who've read his occasional columns at The Huffington Post. (Happily, the great one about the server who kept recommending veal parmesan, which has never been on any Davio's menu, is included.) And while very few of us have had the fortune or opportunity to run a business so large and so well-known that we find ourselves driving last-minute deliveries out to NFL stars like Tom Brady, anybody in the customer service industry can learn a lot from DiFillippo's suggestions and rules for running a business right and treating your guests with value and respect.

Honestly, we eat out a lot, and at a lot more different places than most people. Bad service, in our considerable experience (more than 900 different restaurants in four years) is really uncommon, so much so that it's memorable when you get it. Davio's strives for the other side, to have an experience so good that it stands out. The stories of this book might honestly not apply at every single restaurant - I can't imagine either The Vortex or another Atlanta institution, Ann's Snack Bar, having much use for it - but unless you're in that very small subset of businesses that find pleasure and profit in the infamy afforded by attitude, this is a book that you need to read. It's very fun and very enlightening, and just as soon as we've tried one or two of the Davio's recipes within, I'm going to lend it around my civilian identity workplace for my co-workers to read.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher for the purpose of review. If you'd like to see your books (typically comics or detective fiction) featured here, send me an email.

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