New CLASS columnist Kevin Armstrong unpicks what his bar Satan’s Whiskers excels at: flexible, nuanced service.

As an industry we talk about service all the time. Venues set out their standards, map out customer journeys, and train their teams rigorously to make sure the expectations of guests and the business are met.

We attempt to strike a balance of prompt and professional attentiveness against warmth and friendliness. But this very much represents the traditional idea of service. Catering to the needs of guests can require thinking on your feet, being dynamic and, as a staff member, being empowered to make decisions about how to proceed.

Now, I am reluctant to associate the word art with food and drink – I don’t believe these things to be synonymous – but there is indeed an art to service, or perhaps ‘artfulness’ would be a more appropriate term. When this is missing, the experience suffers. And so does the business.

As customers, we’ve all been there. I recently visited a famous bar in London, and as it was busy I was offered a table for 90 minutes – very fair given I’d not booked. When my time was up, I expressed my desire to stay longer, if it could be accommodated, but with the bar filling up I was presented with the bill. I moved to the bar only to watch the table from which I was deposed sit empty for the next hour.

Another familiar tale: I popped by for an impromptu early evening drink at another of London’s high-profile bars. Having been held at the door and told it might not be possible to accommodate me, I was led into an entirely empty venue – I was literally the only guest. It wasn’t a one-off – many friends have experienced the same mechanics in this place.

Hard no

One last anecdote: A friend and I recently checked out a new bar. With limited time, we were keen to sample as much of the menu as we could, and ordered four drinks between the two of us. We were met with a hard no – apparently there was a one-drinkper-guest policy. Nuance ignored, rules applied, but once again, who wins? Not the customer and not the bar.

It is these shortcomings of common sense, or lack of appreciation of context over rules, that leaves guests bemused. And bemused guests are not good for business.

A nuanced approach to service is key at Satan’s Whiskers. There are rules, but, under certain conditions, we break them. Take group size. Because of our limited space, we operate a policy on group size and seated guests. In the main part this helps keep the standards of the experience people come to expect. Our product is labour intensive as we don’t pre-batch (a topic for a future article), so catering for large groups can have a serious impact on our ability to deliver the product we’re known for. But we also know how to bend these rules when it makes sense for the business to do so.

We’ll never accommodate a group of eight at 8pm on a Friday, but at 5:30pm on a Tuesday we’ll absolutely try to make it work, and with minimal fuss. And sometimes this bending of the rules is about letting a guest stay that little bit longer at a table.

Do we ever get things wrong? Of course we do, but if the team are asked to apply common sense, as an owner I don’t blame them if things don’t go perfectly. Overall, the business benefits from empowered staff, who read the situation before making decisions.

When it comes to training your team to manage these subtleties, I admit, much is down to the individual’s judgment – and as an industry constantly training new staff, the experience that informs this is often in short supply.

But it’s also down to the mindset of the bar’s leader and the culture of the bar. If you empower your staff to work with the rules, not within them, you’ll find that they more often than not make the right decisions for the business.

When many hospitality venues are fighting for a shrinking public purse, it feels like venues are just too ready to drop the hard no. Saying yes can be addictive, it’s worth trying sometimes.