December 18, 2008
Great service explained

In my introductory column as The Bee's restaurant critic, I mentioned the importance of service. I was pleased to receive dozens of e-mails and phone calls afterward - many of them about that very topic.

In that first column, I said that one local restaurant (in Fair Oaks) had such consistently poor service (and with attitude) that I took the number out of my cell phone. In other words, I really wanted to support this place, but they wouldn't let me.

So let's talk about great service. What is it? How do you find it?

I think we approached perfect service the other night during a visit to Ella Dining Room and Bar at the corner of 12th and K Streets downtown. (The food was also exceptional, by the way). Since he did such an excellent job and had such a pleasant, assured way about him, I'll tell you our server's name: Bannon Rudis. Bravo! I also counted seven other servers that came to our table - for bread, water, delivering hot dishes, etc. - all seamlessly.

The following day, I called the restaurant's general manager, Dan Sneed, to ask him about his approach to service. He was pleased to hear about my experience.

"It does start with hiring," Sneed said. "We are looking for people who, when you look in their eyes you see somebody home. When we hire for the front of the house, we are hiring more so for personalities."

"You want somebody with a little bit more of an ego so if they get batted in the nose they are not going to go cry in the corner. They realize it's a show. It's a performance every night. You need to have a little bit of ego so you can go to the tables and be welcoming. This is your territory. You can't wait for the guest to come up to you."

Sneed also dropped a pretty good hint for those who want to get hired at a premier restaurant: "That type of personality that is not afraid to come up to me and say, 'Are you looking for somebody? I'm looking for a job.' If they can approach me, then I'm pretty sure they can approach my guests. It's the same thing when they work here; if they come in the back door every day, I make sure they say hello to all the kitchen people. If they aren't going to say hello to the people they work with, I'm not going to trust them to go on the floor and say hello to my guests."

Like many fine restaurants, the staff at Ella has daily briefing sessions at 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. Issues and concerned are recorded in a red book and addressed at these meetings.

Though Sneed was happy to hear my praise, he said he's far from satisfied.

"I still feel we have a long way to go for Sacramento," he said. "Every night we have one or two things go wrong that we're going to work on."

I have a suggestion: If there is, indeed, room for improvement, new hires would do well to shadow Bannon Rudis for an evening and take note of his demeanor. He was friendly, knowledgeable, smooth and attentive. All that, and he felt no need to prove to us how smart he was. He didn't have to.

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