Every job in your restaurant is difficult. There are no exceptions. Serving food, cooking, cleaning, managing staff, and handling 100 different variations of customer service are all particularly challenging jobs. They all require the patient disposition of a saint and the focused speed of a demon.
But being the host, hostess, or maître d’ at a full service restaurant is something else entirely.
One of the most critical roles on any restaurateur’s staff list, the host is the quintessential example of an employee who wears more than one hat. They need to be people-persons, math wizards, team leaders, team players, organization gurus, and have eyes in the back of their heads. Finding the right person to fill that role is a challenge, to say the least.
Whether you’re a manager, owner, or simply another restaurant employee who wants to understand just how hard that job is standing up front, we lay out 10 of the basics for ensuring your maître d’ is truly the best they can be.
1. Hosts are your customers’ first impression…
This may seem obvious, but it needs to be said. Your restaurant’s host is the very first person a customer will encounter once they step through your doors. That can be a positive impression or a negative one, and that’s entirely up to the person you hire to represent you at that station.
And that’s not all. The host is literally the alpha and omega of the dining experience, often the very last person to say, “Have a great evening!” or “Thank you for dining with us!” as a customer walks out the door. The magnitude of the effect this can have on the likelihood of a return visit is immeasurable. We know service drives more return visits than food alone. And your host is a very prominent part of that feeling of being served.
2. But they are largely invisible.
The role of a host is to coordinate, usher, and remove any and all obstacles to a positive dining experience. And in that sense, they remain often under-appreciated and overlooked by staff and customers alike. Very few (except the most exacting) diners will consider the actions of the host — or buspersons, sommeliers, or runners, for that matter — in calculating their tip or writing their post-dine review — unless, of course, that experience was negative.
Because of this relative invisibility compared to the intimacy of the customer-server relationship, many restaurants undervalue the position. The idea of hiring a senior-level employee to effectively manage your seating, reservations, and customer service can seem like overkill to many restaurateurs. And yet, a great host can be akin to front-of-house manager in nearly every way.
3. Hosts need to be trained as thoroughly as wait staff…
The training regimen for a host in most restaurants pales in comparison to that of servers, chefs, and kitchen expediters, but their work is just as complex and crucial to the efficient running of your operation. A host needs to understand the same intricacies of your menu, kitchen, and dining room traffic as every other employee — possibly more. They are the ones fielding telephone calls for reservations, walk-in inquiries, and queries from waiting guests growing more impatient by the minute. Having the right answers at the top of their heads is critical.
4. Because it’s not just about getting people out of the way.
A good host isn’t simply shuffling guests out of your lobby and into just any old available table. Performing their job well involves understanding the flow of your dining room, knowing which servers are able to handle challenge better than others, maintaining balance across sections for tipping purposes, and doing all of that with a genuine smile and a pleasant demeanor.
5. Hosts need to seat your entire party…
It’s not uncommon for guests to arrive for reservations with members of their party still missing. And true, it’s not the best customer service to refuse to seat someone who had the wherewithal to phone ahead, just because someone is lagging behind or parking the car.
But hosts do have to hedge their bets on the arrival of an entire party for good reason. There’s money in those seats. Reading the situation, and figuring out whether it makes more sense for a partial table to order drinks while they wait (that’s money in the cash drawer, too) is something every host needs to be able to do on their feet.
6. As seating can often be a numbers game.
Every time a party of four is seated at a six-top instead of a four-, a poorly trained or inefficient host could be costing their employer an entire table’s worth of profit — not to mention costing the front-of-house staff additional money in tips. Assuming a table can only turn 3 to 5 times in a given shift, that adds up to large loss in revenue for everyone involved.
Add this loss to the cost of those no-show reservations, late seaters who keep staff on the clock longer than usual, and guests who never seem to want to give up their table. Your host has to calculate (and attempt to avoid) all of these scenarios and more in order to keep your night in the black financially. That’s a big deal.
7. Good hosts track dietary requests and special occasions…
Part of manning a reservation line (or tracking reservations made online or through third parties) is making note of any special requests or needs that guests are kind enough to share in advance. Connecting those notes in their mind to the guest as they arrive, plus communicating that special need to the server and/or chef in advance, is crucial. Not every restaurant has gluten-free options planned out or a spare birthday cake laying around. And there’s no excuse for dropping the ball when advance warning is given by the guest themselves.
8. And keep disabilities and special accommodations in mind.
Unfortunately, that advance notice isn’t always an option, and often that can involve sensitive situations. Hosts need to be cognizant enough to seat guests with larger frames or with noticeable disabilities in seating that will be comfortable, safe, and stable — and without doing so in an overt manner.
Seating four heavy-set customers into a physically confining booth, or walking a guest with medical assistive equipment all the way to the back of your restaurant or up a flight of stairs, is not going to make for the best dining experience from the get-go.
9. Hosts can help your restaurant feel full…
Part of understanding the traffic patterns of a dining room is also recognizing how your restaurant looks from the outside when it’s busy — and not so busy. Who wants to eat in an empty dining room? Customers can easily read vacancy as a warning sign to stay away. If your food was any good, wouldn’t you be packed?
The reality is, every restaurant has a slow period, but your host should seat creatively, filling up the front of your dining room (and everywhere within the immediate frame of your front window). That way, you’re a lot more likely to attract customers passing by or those simply interested in dining on a whim.
10. And be the extra hand on deck when it truly is.
When service does get into the weeds, particularly on weekends or during your rush periods, your host can be the biggest asset in your arsenal. This is someone untethered to any one table, able to oversee the landscape and identify the areas most in need of help — and either reassign, adjust, or jump in themselves to lend a hand.
This is not to say any maître d’ should feel compelled to take orders from guests or usurp your serving staff, but a great host will make sure tables are cleaned and reset in the busiest of times, water is brought to the table, and the right staff is alerted to needs as they may arise.
The customer experience is about so much more than a great tasting dessert or the right temperature of steak. It’s about feeling cared for, attended to, and above all, respected. Your investment in a host that can do all of that — and more — may well be the one thing that puts you above the rest of your competition. And that kind of advantage is the key to long term success in a brutally competitive industry.
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