Service Transparency in Dining Experiences

By Laura Keller

Published: August 20, 2012

“Regardless of the type of dining experience, deliberate service transparency is critical to fulfilling customers’ service expectations.”

Dining out at any type of eating establishment represents a prototypical service experience: an often elaborate coordination of numerous service employees—including host staff, wait staff, kitchen staff, and cleaning staff— ensures customers enjoy their meal and are able to pay for it successfully. One reason dining out serves well as a prototypical service experience is that I know of no one who cannot tell me stories about both good and bad dining experiences, regardless of the quality of the food a restaurant or other establishment served. Such stories may begin with comments like these: “We waited forever.” “They messed up our order three times.” “The service was excellent, and they were so accommodating.”

Notice that I am not necessarily referring to these services as restaurant experiences. Rather I am referring to them as dining-out experiences, which broadens the service design possibilities tremendously. Dining out might include picking up food from a fast-food restaurant or a food truck or eating at a pub or a high-end restaurant.

I am intrigued by the application of good service design principles to dining establishments, regardless of their type. Some service design principles are obvious—such as considering wait time and effective staff communications. But another important design consideration is transparency—the extent to which a dining establishment should make their processes, communications, and menu options visible to customers.

What level of transparency do customers expect when interacting with a dining service? How can a dining establishment leverage transparency to strengthen its unique brand? In this column, I’ll explore the aforementioned questions by contrasting the experiences of eating at a casual eatery and an upscale restaurant, highlighting the importance of considering transparency in service design for three key phases of a dining experience: access, ordering, and food delivery. I’ll show that, regardless of the type of dining experience, deliberate service transparency is critical to fulfilling customers’ service expectations.

Wonder Bagels and Eleven Madison Park: Some Background Information

Wonder Bagels is a small franchise located in New Jersey. Their spaces are typically small, with just a few bar stools at a counter and some outdoor seating. Customers place their orders and pay and wait for their food at a wide counter, behind which the bagels, spreads, coffee, and appliances are all visible to patrons. Calling Wonder Bagels casual is an understatement. In addition to its stellar bagels, Wonder Bagels is known for its quick, efficient service and its overall simplicity.

Eleven Madison Park is an elegant, high-end restaurant in New York City, which has received numerous James Beard Awards and three Michelin stars. It is known for its experimental approach to service and cuisine—and with that comes an aura of the unknown among its patrons, who are never quite sure what the restaurant will do next. The spacious restaurant has tall, cathedral-like windows, which offer beautiful views of Madison Square Park, but the inner workings of the kitchen are impossible to see. The contemporary, but warm Art Deco d�cor and the muted din of other patrons contributes to the memorability of the ultimate dining experience. (Diners would be better off if this were their last formal dining experience, because nothing else will ever compare.)

Accessing the Dining Experience

“One of the first steps in a service process is access.”

One of the first steps in a service process is access. Once patrons become aware of a dining establishment, whether it’s by walking past Wonder Bagels or reading a New York Times review of Eleven Madison Park, they then can access the service. For Wonder Bagels, access to the service is uncomplicated and clear, and the process is completely transparent: a line forms, you get in line, you know when you’ll be served and how the process of being served works by observing the experiences of other patrons ahead of you in line, and you gradually move up in the queue.

Access to Eleven Madison Park is understandably more complicated. While they may set aside a few bar tables for walk-in patrons, the overwhelming majority of customers must make a reservation. When you visit the restaurant’s Web site or the Open Table Web site, the requirements for making a reservation are clear: you cannot reserve a table farther in advance than 28 days, and they recommend that you start calling at 9:00 am, 28 days before the date you want to dine there. So, while the access process itself may be more complex than that for Wonder Bagels, the restaurant is transparent about the steps for gaining access, similar to Wonder Bagels.

What’s different, however, between the two establishments is the transparency of the access process itself and where you are in it. With Wonder Bagels, patrons know exactly where they are in the process. With Eleven Madison Park, if you call at 9:05 am, you often get a busy signal. You might then call back at 9:15 am, and you may finally get through at 10:00 am. Throughout this experience, you’re left wondering, Hmmm…, will all of their tables already be reserved? I wonder how many people have called ahead of me. Until you actually speak to someone at the restaurant, you cannot be confident that you’ll even gain access to the reservation service, and your status remains a mystery. (Note—My husband and I have eaten there three times, and we have always gotten a reservation within an hour of our ideal time.)

Both Wonder Bagels and Eleven Madison Park use a first-come, first-served access approach, and both establishments clearly communicate the steps in their process—whether it means standing in line or calling 28 days in advance. But Wonder Bagels’ transparency allows customers to see first-hand where they are in the access process, while Eleven Madison Park’s month-in-advance policy adds an element of mystery—and excitement even—to the service experience.

Either of these approaches—though they are polar opposites of one another—represents solid service design, because both match customer expectations for engaging with a particular type of dining establishment. Wonder Bagels’ customers would laugh at the introduction of a multistep, call-ahead process for getting its bagels, while it would be incongruous and disappointing for Eleven Madison Park’s customers to have to line up outside the restaurant to wait for a table.

Ordering Your Food

“Once a customer has gained access, the ordering process begins.”

Once a customer has gained access, the ordering process begins. At Wonder Bagels, the menu hangs above the main counter—visible 7 or 8 customers deep. The menu is clear, and what you see is what you can get: bagels, spreads, and breakfast or lunch sandwiches. Customers use their waiting time to review the menu and make their selections. The employees behind the counter yell out “Next?” to customers, and each customer makes eye contact to be sure that he or she is next in the queue. Customers then place their order, and depending on its nature, the employee serving them may have minor follow-up questions: “Do you want your bagel toasted?” “What type of bread do you want for your sandwich?” “How do you want your coffee?” That person may reiterate your order as well, especially if it’s particularly lengthy. The interactions customers have with the staff all follow the same general script.

At Eleven Madison Park, they take a customized approach to the food ordering process. According to their Web site, “Our menu format is intended to offer an experience in which our guests can enjoy the inherent surprise of a tasting menu, while still maintaining some control. Dishes are listed solely by their principal ingredients, and guests are invited to make their selections, share any thoughts or preferences, including any ingredient dislikes, and allow us to design their meal from there.”

The sample menu available online is atypical. Contrary to most restaurants that describe what’s included in a particular dish, Eleven Madison Park lists out in minimalist fashion 16 ingredients such as lemon, coconut, or lamb. Although I’ve not experienced the new ordering process first-hand, the spirit of the experience is to encourage a dialogue between diners and the service staff around the featured seasonal ingredients, providing the chef and kitchen staff with an overall framework within which to create a meal. The experience is a service designer’s dream: the restaurant and customers co-create in real-time what the customers are going to eat.

Is either ordering process right or wrong? No. Each dining establishment is fulfilling the expectations of its constituent customer group:

  • A bagel shop’s ordering process should be easy, with the available food options completely transparent to customers.
  • An upscale restaurant that is known for pushing the envelope regarding the dining experience gives its patrons the opportunity to contribute to the creation of a dish, but leaves the ultimate control in the hands of the restaurant’s staff.

Wonder Bagels’ customers would be outraged if they could only order a bagel and had to allow a restaurant employee to pick what kind of bagel and which spread. On the other hand, Eleven Madison Park’s customers would feel a loss of control and service if there were a standard, comprehensive menu from which they had to choose—as they would at just any old restaurant.

Receiving Your Meal

“The receiving of a meal is well designed because it is precisely what the customers of each respective dining establishment expect: transparency and simplicity at a bagel shop and mystery and experimentation at an award-winning restaurant.”

At Wonder Bagels, more often than not, the employee who took your order during the previous step is the same employee who makes up your order. Most of the necessary ingredients are visible to customers, and you can observe the employee making your food—grabbing the bagel and the spread you selected, cutting the bagel in half, and putting on the spread. When he is finished, he makes eye contact with you, and you exchange payment: He tells you the total. You give him cash or a credit card. Then you receive your food. Because the same employee who takes your order also visibly makes your order, the process is fully transparent.

At Eleven Madison Park, the process is quite the opposite of that of Wonder Bagels. Once wait staff have conversed with customers about their likes and dislikes, the staff disappear into the kitchen, completely invisible to customers. While customers can begin daydreaming about what their meal might be, based on what they’ve discussed with the wait staff, the details of their meal remain a mystery until they are actually eating it, reinforcing the expectations patrons have of the Eleven Madison Park experience.

In either example, the receiving of a meal is well designed because it is precisely what the customers of each respective dining establishment expect: transparency and simplicity at a bagel shop and mystery and experimentation at an award-winning restaurant. Wonder Bagels’ customers explicitly order what they want—“a whole wheat everything bagel with a little butter”—and receive exactly that. Customers dining at Eleven Madison Park have the opportunity to voice their opinions about a dish or particular ingredients—“I like scallops. I’m allergic to peanuts.”—but the combination of ingredients that a meal ultimately comprises is at the discretion of the chef and his team.

Conclusion: Theatrics and Transparency

“In many ways, the transparency aspect of service … reinforces the established metaphor between service design and theater.”

In many ways, the transparency aspect of service that I’ve discussed in this column reinforces the established metaphor between service design and theater. Without delving into the topic in detail here, service design has many similarities to theater: there are kitchen staff (stagehands), wait and host staff (actors), customers (audience), interactions among them (script, dialogue), uniforms (costumes), and a playbill (menu). In theater, patrons have a certain expectation of transparency—for example, they don’t expect to see a play’s stagehands or hear a prop fall.

Eleven Madison Park takes this metaphor literally and recently announced that they were reinventing their dining approach yet again. According to a New York Times article: “Not long after Labor Day, this understated refuge on Madison Avenue will start treating diners to flashes of Broadway dazzle: card tricks, a glass dome full of smoke, a blast of sea mist from a tabletop clambake, and a cheese course that emerges from a picnic basket placed on the table. It’s all part of a $195-a-head menu—and a risky move to convert the Eleven Madison Park experience into an extravagant, participatory, close-to-four-hour ode to the romance and history of New York.”

The article continues, questioning whether “four hours of participatory theater” might be too much for customers and including a response from Daniel Humm, executive chef:�“‘You’ve got to listen to your guests,” said Humm, who recently began trying out some of the new dishes on unsuspecting customers. ‘And our guests are telling us that they want this unique experience and journey.’”

So, while Eleven Madison Park continues to push the envelope for its customers, literally exploring the use of theatrics and making customers more active participants in its dining experience, some restaurants still struggle with fulfilling basic service expectations with regard to transparency. For example, at an upscale restaurant in Atlanta, Georgia, my husband and I enjoyed a wonderful tasting menu with wine pairings. But toward the end of the meal, a server approached her manager behind us to confirm that she would be able to leave her shift early. He advised her that once she had finished preparing a few tables, she could leave. Was the interaction confrontational or awkward? No. But my expectation of a high-caliber restaurant—or quite honestly, any dining establishment—is that interactions among the service staff should happen behind the scenes.

Transparency is a critical service design element that any business should consider as thoroughly as what logo to select or employees to hire. Dining establishments should deliberately design how transparent various aspects their service should be to customers, ensuring that their transparency matches customer expectations.

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