OK, I’ll admit, the restaurant scene is not the greatest in Payson. We are a quiet little town somewhere between Phoenix and the recreational Tonto Forest. We are not a destination. We are a way to get somewhere else. Therefore, our restaurant choice is limited to 14 of the 15 top quick-service restaurants and a few diners.

But that doesn’t mean what we have can’t be the best. If you find yourself in a similar situation, raise the bar. Become the best restaurant in your market, not just one of the rest. By becoming a standout, you will capture much more of the sales potential that’s out there.

One way to do this is by improving your service. There are still lots of folks out there looking for work even though we are told that things are getting better. You still have your pick of servers or crew. So pick wisely and make them the best in your market.

The way to do this is training. I am amazed at the lack of training many of our workers are getting. If you don’t have a formal training program for your people, get one. The buddy system still works. If nothing else, no one should be on the floor without a buddy mentor.  

Whether you are a quick serve or a fast casual, you need to be aware of good service and when you are giving too much service. Good service is just good common sense. But here are a few examples and thoughts above and beyond what you might find in the manuals and training DVDs.  

Try to remember the first names of your best customers. Nothing pleases me more than when I am remembered in my favorite restaurant. One place I go writes the first name of the customer on the carryout bag. That also personalizes the order.  

Be especially aware of appearance. Many of us have uniforms, but make sure they are clean and neat. If you don’t have a specific uniform, try a little up-scaling. Instead of jeans and a T-shirt, try a white shirt and black slacks. The right uniform can really improve the image of the restaurant.  

When it is raining outside, position a crewmember at the door, and when a car pulls onto the lot have that crewmember go out with an umbrella and bring the customer in.  

“Become the best restaurant in your market, not just one of the rest.”

If you have table service, make sure your servers take care of the people that are seated before busing the empty tables. I refer to this as “Waiting on the Dead”—taking care of people who are no longer there rather than those who are waiting.  

You should never go to or come from the kitchen with empty hands. There is always something to take away or bring in. You know you have a great server when she wakes up in the middle of the night remembering that she forgot the extra milk for table five.

Empower your crew. Make sure they know exactly what they can do for the customer. When there is a spill, clean it up and replace the food immediately. And don’t make a big deal out of it. The spiller is embarrassed enough already.

Make sure your people know there is no such thing as the five-second rule. If you saw the movie The Bird Cage, you know what I mean. The chicken doesn’t go back on the plate.

Be very aware of your handicapped and senior-citizen customers. Ask them if you can help with their tray or bags, but, again, don’t embarrass them. A simple inquiry does it.

So what about too much service? Ask how everything is but not every five minutes. I’ve always wondered how servers can time asking me a question exactly when my mouth is full. And don’t fill my water glass every time it is down an inch.  

Also, no life-story conversations. A pleasant greeting is always appreciated, but I don’t want to know your life history, I’m hungry.  

Two stories that really happened, I couldn’t make this stuff up. My wife and her sister were in a fast casual and the soup of the day was seafood bisque. The server delivered the soup to my wife and she thought it had kind of a strange odor. The server stuck the spoon into the bowl, tasted it, and pronounced it OK. And then walked away. You don’t want to do that.  

She’s going to kill me for telling you this, but my wife, the rock-and-roll star, once worked in a buffet restaurant in Florida between gigs. Being the kind and helpful person she is, she saw a man in line with an artificial hand trying to serve himself in the line. She immediately thought to help him. So she went up to the poor guy and without thinking said, “Hi, I’m Kate, can I give you a hand?” She said the guy looked at her and cracked up, as did most of the people in line. You don’t want to do that.

Basically, good service, as I have said, is just good common sense. Go into your restaurant as a customer and observe what is going on. Brainstorm with your people how better to serve your customers. Talk to your fellow owners about what they do. Study your competition as a customer. And ask your customers specific questions about their service experience—but not when their mouths are full.  Service can be the standout difference between you and your competition. Remember, there are two concepts to service: fast and friendly. But not so fast that the customer feels like he is part of a machine, and not so friendly that the crewmember becomes part of his family.  

Ray Kroc’s old adage still very much holds up today: “If you have time to lean, you have time to clean.” That also goes for being aware of your customers and what they need in service.

Happy Trails and a most Peaceful Life. And celebrate your independence. Most of the world would love to have what you have.