Hail to the Chef: How to Run a Restaurant Without Waitstaff

Give your guests a unique dining experience by taking the middleman off the menu.
chefcooking
Raise excitement levels in your restaurant by sending your chefs to the front lines. (Photo: David Tadevosian/Shutterstock)

Consumers today are seeking out more authentic dining experiences, and restaurant owners are meeting this demand by giving more patrons a chance to interact with their chef.

“Over the years, guest interaction with chefs has definitely increased overall — even in traditional, full-service restaurants,” said Anthony Ferrari, chef and restaurant consultant at RealFood Consulting. From sushi bars and noodle shops, to establishments with an open kitchen setup, guests like being able to watch their food being prepared.

Some restaurants are taking a more radical approach to creating a “chef-driven” experience for their guests and cutting out waitstaff entirely. Instead, chefs and kitchen staff interact directly with guests before, during and after the meal, providing a more personalized dining experience.

So what’s the secret to running a restaurant without waitstaff? Read on.

The appeal of a chef-driven dining experience

When chefs interact directly with restaurant patrons, said Ferrari, “it raises the level of excitement about what’s coming to the table. Servers can’t always do that. Hearing a chef talk about a menu is always going to be different than a server or front-of-the-house person, just because it’s their baby; it’s their passion.”

Related: Chef-Owners Share the Advice They Never Forgot

Christian Darcoli

“Most chefs have not been trained on the finer points of meal service and wine selection. We’ve had to do a lot of training, as well as look at hiring those that have traditionally held front-of-house positions and train those persons to become chefs.” -Christian Darcoli (Photo: Christian Darcoli)

One restaurateur who’s trying out this new model is Christian Darcoli, owner and chef of Pinoli Cucina Rustica in Guerneville, California. “Our diners have fully embraced our chef-driven experience,” he said. “Getting to interact directly with the very chefs that are cooking their food allows them to learn more about how the dishes are prepared, discuss any modifications to the meal that they might want, and also get first-hand knowledge from the chef regarding what is fresh in the kitchen, or recommended.”

Darcoli said the model is just as important for their staff as their guests. “Most chefs rarely get out of the kitchen to interact with their guests,” he explained. With a chef-driven model, “chefs get the gratification of meeting their diners face-to face, and seeing the satisfaction that the meals they create bring to the guests.”

Focus on cross-functional training

The biggest challenge is recruiting restaurant staff capable of running both the kitchen and the dining room, said Darcoli.

“Most chefs have not been trained on the finer points of meal service and wine selection. We’ve had to do a lot of training, as well as look at hiring those that have traditionally held front-of-house positions and train those persons to become chefs,” he said. “Everyone working for us has to learn how to run all aspects of the restaurant.”

Ferrari echoed the importance of having flexible staff for this type of service. “What you’re looking for in a server is not always what you’re looking for in a chef — and vice versa,” he said. “Do a lot of mock training,” he advised. Give your chefs the tools they need to handle the wide variety of situations servers typically deal with.

Related: A Consumer Psychologist’s Tips for Handling an Angry Customer

Set guest expectations

Because this restaurant format is new and very different from most restaurants, it’s critical to set expectations for your visitors. Darcoli: “It’s important to communicate the model to your guests so they understand how the restaurant is working,” he said.

The good news, according to Ferrari, is that the timing on this approach is perfect and likely to be welcomed by consumers looking for a fresh dining experience. “Chefs are revered, which is a wonderful thing,” he said. “I think there’s a lot to be said for people wanting to really interact with chefs. That’s a real niche that these establishments could fill.”

Adjust your tipping policy

tipping

Because chefs are paid more than servers, consider implementing a service fee in lieu of gratuity. (Photo: Anastasiya Aleksandrenko/Shutterstock)

Another major consideration is labor costs. Chefs are generally paid more than servers, who work on tips, said Ferrari. “If you’re loading up on chefs in the house, you definitely have to understand how it’s going to affect your bottom line.”

Darcoli’s restaurant charges a service fee in lieu of gratuity, “which allows the chefs to all increase their wages as they share the service fee. This has given them the opportunity to earn higher wages than they might earn at another restaurant,” he said.

With minimum wage increasing dramatically in California and throughout the country, Darcoli said he sees this model as a solution for restaurants to pay higher wages to more skilled employees and eliminate low-paying positions.

Related: The Pros and Cons of Adopting a No-Tipping Policy

Consider your restaurant size and concept

Finally, keep in mind that the “waitstaff-free” model doesn’t work for all restaurants — large establishments in particular.

“You can only have so many people in the kitchen,” said Darcoli. “Our restaurant is on the smaller side, which allows us to implement this.”

Related: How to Improve Your Kitchen’s Efficiency

Restaurant owners must also prioritize which part of the dining experience is most important to their brand, said Ferrari. While this model may be a great fit for a small, gourmet eatery, it probably wouldn’t work as well for a restaurant chain or more family-focused establishment.

If you decide to experiment with the chef-driven model, “you have to own it,” he said. “You might drop the ball in one little area for a little while, but you might create something really different and unique in this kind of interface with the chefs.”

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