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Service with a smile

Caramie Schnell
Dominique TaylorJosh Cook waits tables at the Beaver Creek Chop House in Beaver Creek.
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Pollyanna Forster knows good service. And she should, considering she co-owns eat! drink! and the soon-to-open dish! in Edwards.

But not long ago she had a bad experience at a valley restaurant that will remain unnamed. The root of the problem, Forster said, was a server’s lackadaisical, I-don’t-care attitude. When Forster sent her overcooked tuna back, the waiter had to get his manager to take it to the kitchen because, he said, “the chefs will yell at me.”

Later, when Forster told the manager about the bad service and overcooked food, he didn’t make any effort to amend things.

“Not even a basic apology,” she said.

And that’s too bad, she said, because at that point the manager had an opportunity to keep her business.

“Depending on how you handle the situation, you can turn somebody that has had the worst experience ever into your best customer.”

It’s all about flow, Forster said, and the style of service should be reflective of the restaurant’s philosophy.

“At some restaurants I expect, bam, bam, bam and get out of there. At a place like La Tour, I want to spend a few hours dining and not be pushed out the door. Not that I’ve ever been pushed out of La Tour,” she added, “They’re great.”

On a scale of 1-to-10 Forster, who lived in Hawaii, San Francisco and Fort Collins before she moved to the valley 10 years ago, gives the valley a 7 or an 8. But because she and co-owner Chris Irving go out so often, she worries people know them and the service is better because of it.

Usually.

And to be fair, she gives a restaurant what she calls “best out of three” – she’ll go three times and assess the experiences before she crosses them off her list. Unfortunately, this was the third time for that restaurant. They’ve since been voted off the island.

So what’s it going to be tonight – an attentive waiter flanked by fantastic food, or a chilly server followed by an even colder meal? The bottom line when it comes to the Vail Valley restaurant scene is oftentimes service is hit-or-miss.

As a food and travel writer for such publications as 5280 Magazine in Denver, Sunset Magazine and Zagat Guides, Lori Midson is an expert on food and service – what’s good, what sucks and where to find it, or hide from it.

“Overall, I think Colorado’s mountain dining scene, particularly in Aspen and Vail, is terrific, but I especially love the fact that smaller bedroom communities like Avon, Edwards, Carbondale and Basalt are giving some of the loftier resorts a real run for their money.”

By and large, she said, she’s found service in mountain restaurants to be simultaneously laid-back and professional. And when asked about comparing our mountain town to the city, she said that no matter where you are, it’s unpredictable.

“The time of career servers is over, so you’re inevitably going to have a mish-mash of newbies and veterans, some of whom know what they’re doing, some of whom just plain don’t, but I don’t think there’s a marked distinction between restaurant service in Denver and restaurant service in the mountains. It’s the luck of the draw, really.”

The Vail Valley Chamber and Tourism Bureau started the Platinum Service Program in 2002. The director of the program, Katie Barnes, said the goal was to create a culture of customer service in the valley.

“We wanted to be able to quantify it and also to give the businesses in the valley the chance to improve on their service.”

For $350, businesses are mystery shopped eight times. Scores are given based on everything from the appearance of the building to if they were greeted when they walked through the door. Businesses that score 90 percent or higher are deemed a platinum service provider. According to Barnes, about 60 different businesses participated last year and out of those, 24 got the platinum designation.

“The average score that first year was 85 percent,” she said. “This year we’re at 88 percent, so we are seeing it grow.”

Breckenridge’s Chamber of Commerce started a similar program called Friend’s Welcome in 1999 because the town had developed a reputation for bad customer service, director of the program, Nissa Erickson said. Though Erickson is employed by the Chamber, the program is truly a community-wide initiative with the Chamber only providing 12 percent of the funding while businesses around Breck contribute the rest.

“Basically the community got together and realized in order for the resort town to remain competitive we needed to provide a higher level of customer service,” Erickson said.

The program, which has four basic components – free employee training, recognition and awards for employees and businesses, mystery shopping and a concierge finder – has been quite successful. That first year, Breck got a dismal D with 66 percent. Each season, the score has improved and this past summer, the town scored 91 percent.

Some locals in the valley think that the service sector needs to step things up a bit in our valley. Jennifer Beatty, a designer at Slifer Designs in Edwards, goes out to eat often with friends. Her experiences have ran the gamut.

“The casual restaurants have better service than you would expect and the higher -end restaurants usually have worse service than you would expect,” she wrote in an e-mail. “And yes, there are a number of restaurants whose wait staff believe that they are more needed than the doctors in our valley.”

She said that overall she’s had much better service at restaurants in larger cities than she’s had here.

“There are a few restaurants in our valley that exceed expectations, but most don’t meet that of which the valley boasts.”

Service in valley restaurants varies a lot, Carolyn Gash agreed. And the main problem for those with bad service is attitude.

“Restaurants in cities that take reservations months ahead have less attitude than most restaurants in the valley,” she said. “I should not have to feel like I need to get down on my knees and thank the wait staff for doing their job.”

The snotty attitudes stem from inconsiderate tourists, but Gash said it’s important to remember those same vacationers are the reason we all have jobs.

As owner of the clothing shop Luca Bruno in Vail Village, Jenn Bruno is hyper-sensitive when it comes to customer service. It’s her bread and butter, after all. And in general, Bruno said the valley needs to step it up when it comes to service with a smile.

“It’s little things that could help,” she said. “I think everyone who works in a retail establishment or restaurant should smile more. I am surprised at how people bring a bad attitude to work sometimes – we live in a beautiful place and we’re lucky to be here and share that. People come for their vacation, they don’t need attitude or unhappiness from us.”

Bruno guesses that 90 percent of the tourists who come to Vail leave with a good impression. It’s the other 10 we need to worry about.

“People remember the bad impression sometimes, rather than the great ones,” she said. “And our town survives on good impressions.”

Having lived in Los Angeles and other large cities, including New York and Montreal, J.P. Delespinois, 24, said the service industry in Vail is pretty good in comparison.

“It’s nice because you get to know most of the people in the industry, whereas in a big city you almost get a new face every time you walk into a restaurant,” he said. “I think a huge part of service is personal experience and actually getting to know the people. That’s where service really stands out and it’s almost impossible to do (that) in the big cities.”

Overall, Delespinois, who works in guest services at the Antlers in Vail, said he enjoys how casual many of the bars and restaurants in the valley tend to be. But he wishes there were a few high-end, exclusive clubs in town.

“But with the upscale club comes really horrible service, everyone knows that,” he said. “There’s so many people trying to go and they’re making so much money they don’t need to have the perfect, best, friendly service. They’re offering a place to stay and drink, not a place to make friends with the bartender.”

Restaurants and bars in bigger cities, like New York, tend to be more about the image, said Nina Velez. Velez used to bartend and wait tables in the Big Apple, but has spent the last year serving and bartending across the valley, from Mango’s and Bob’s Place, to more upscale establishments like the Chophouse and Up the Creek. There are a few differences that Velez has picked up on. First, New York is extremely image-centric – people head to the trendiest spots to see and be seen – whereas in this valley, food and service tend to be reign supreme.

In New York, Velez said she felt more like “eye candy.” She’d look her best when she went for interviews, she remembered, because she was selling herself as well as her experience in the biz. “I worked at one restaurant where I wore all black and took the order, stood there and looked pretty. Same thing as a bartender, I worked hard at busy places but I also worked at some high-end martini bars where I wore skirts, boots, flirted with the guys and made great money … I felt I was presenting this image for the bar or restaurant I was working for.”

In Vail, people tend to want more than just a pretty face, she said.

“People are very demanding here when it comes to service, even more than when I worked in a big city. I’m not sure why, either. Maybe it’s because the atmosphere and image thing doesn’t play a role as much here so they’re searching for exceptional service all the time.”

Caramie Schnell can be reached for comment at cschnell@vailtrail.com.


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