Ceia Kitchen + Bar focuses on the dining experience and not just the food.

Hiring, Training, Evaluating

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One restaurant thanks its vigilance with its staff and its use of mystery shoppers for its success.
By Amanda Baltazar January 2012 New Concepts

Staff training, careful hiring, and mystery shoppers have been the most essential investment that Nancy Batista-Caswell has made.

These were essential, she says, to the success of her year-old restaurant, Ceia Kitchen + Bar, in Newburyport, Massachusetts.

We’re in a suburban commuter area so we made sure we didn’t just focus on food,” she says. “We wanted to provide an experience and not just focus on dining.”

And the payoff has been good for the 60-seat boutique restaurant serving European food. Sales are 10 percent higher than Batista-Caswell anticipated and she ended her first year last month with sales of $1.1 million.

Batista-Caswell brought in a local etiquette trainer, Jodi Smith, before she even opened her restaurant to make sure her staff members were up to par.

“She understood my philosophy. She knew I wanted a genuine approach and knew I wanted people to feel that they were dining in my home—with fine dining skills in a casual dining setting.”

Smith set about training the staff on everything from how to read diners’ body language in order to know how much server interaction they want and to how to know if they’ve finished eating; to napkin folding, proper silverware placement, and how to diffuse conflicts.

Along with etiquette classes, all employees are regularly trained during their time at Ceia.

“We teach employees that they are the face of the restaurant. Everyone works full time for the sake of consistency. So they know what’s going on, they know what we may be out of, and so on. So they’re more invested [in the restaurant],” Batista-Caswell says.

She also tries to do things that pique employees’ interest. She lets them teach in-house wine classes, for example, or runs competitions to see who can sell the most bottles of wine.

“I try to replace the motto that everyone is replaceable. I want people to feel that they’re part of our family and that they are not replaceable.”

To that end, she spends a lot of time communicating with her employees both by email and in person. Employees also have permission to raise their own concerns and are given a comment card at the end of every shift to provide information on anything that needs improvement or didn’t work.

Wine gets particular attention in training classes, Caswell says, because she offers many European wines and it’s important that the servers can describe them properly.

The wine list is around 120 bottles strong and many wines are offered by the glass first so employees already know them and can describe them. Batista-Caswell also regularly brings in her vendors who taste the wines with the employees and talk about them.

During the hiring process, Batista-Caswell also pays a lot of attention to personalities as it’s important that employees get on with each other, she says.

“When we bring somebody on we spend a lot of time talking about how vital it is for them to be part of the team. I listen to the trainers’ feedback because they have to put all their energies into this person because they’re all sharing gratuities. We’re all making money together so they know they’re working as a team.”

She also puts a lot of work into the hiring process, talking about food and restaurants. “The passion of the industry typically shines through in the right candidate,” she explains.

“I always ask the applicant where they last dined because I think it's just as important for the server to understand trends and competition. If the industry conversation isn’t engaging I don't think the applicant will work well with the current team. Our group is really food-, wine- and hospitality-driven.”

And as soon as Ceia was up and running, Batista-Caswell started working with PatronEdge, a restaurant mystery shopping-style company, to ensure everything in the restaurant—from the bathrooms to the servers' uniforms—pleased customers.

Typically one or two mystery shopper couples come to the restaurant each month and after their visit, they fill in a checklist supplied by Batista-Caswell about their experience. This details everything from the cleanliness to the lighting and the music.

What surprised her, she says, is that her staff really cares about her business.

Once she receives the reports, which are very detailed, she reads them, then disperses them to her management team. “It’s discussed at our manager meeting; we then email it to the staff; and discuss it at premeals.”