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Staff as tour guides

Being a flavor innovator in 2018, especially as a chain restaurant, comes with an array of challenges. Operators have to weigh adding a trendy dish against the current call to simplify menus. Plus, between new SKUs, development time, marketing and staff training, the costs add up. But is that new dish—an LTO or a permanent addition—going to help bring guests in and keep a brand top of mind?  

The Cheesecake Factory recently opened its second location of RockSugar Southeast Asian Kitchen in suburban Chicago, so some co-workers and I went to check it out. The menu is large, in the same style as its Cheesecake Factory parent. The items notably are not fusion or funky interpretations of Asian food; RockSugar embraces authenticity (read: on-trend). 

The challenge in digesting RockSugar’s menu isn’t in the size, but rather in the server knowledge—and this is where a strong staffer could have made a difference. While our server was perfectly nice and attentive, he never mentioned a section of signature sodas—which we would have purchased, had we been directed there. He didn’t suggest any of his favorite dishes or highlight any flavors.

Whether a menu is huge or it’s full of lesser-known dishes or ingredients, the server becomes the most crucial element of the experience. An explanation of what “Hainanese style” or “Char siew style” are, or a quick description of the difference between red, green and masala curry, would be helpful in making smarter ordering decisions. Without it, we got what we knew. 

The experience with our clearly green server at RockSugar took me back to my college days, when I was a server at Flat Top Grill in Madison, Wis. One position in the restaurant was the “tour guider.” Part of the job was to literally walk people through the build-your-own-stir-fry-bowl line, making suggestions and asking questions to help guide guests. At the time, we mocked it. As young servers, we didn’t understand; we figured guests would know what to do.

Looking back, though, I get why the manager would constantly call for a tour guider. That’s how every single server should function, especially with less familiar flavors: as a tour guide. 

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