While the majority of my job is to report new culinary trends, pop-ups and give honest reviews of the city's restaurants, I spend a significant amount of time pondering service at all levels. It's hard to pinpoint what makes great service, but it's unfortunately quite easy to recall that one time that one manager essentially shrugged off one of your questions, or that time a server spilled water on your new dress, or worse, beer on your handbag. It's never fun to sit at a table for 10 minutes waiting for your server to appear and greet you or have them visibly grit their teeth when we ask to split the bill by item.
I get it. Everyone has off-days, and sometimes even the best of servers can only manage to give 75 percent when triple-sat on a busy Friday evening while catering to needy motherfuckers. We've all dined with that hard-to-please asshat that needs their water filled exactly three times before they even consider adding a tip to their total. Hell, I'm prone to hangry dinner visits just like anyone else that forgets to pack office snacks.
As San Antonio's dining scene grows and new restaurants open on a weekly basis, it's even easier for wait staff to jump ship and find new jobs and not commit to a restaurant or chef like they would in days past. In service-industry driven SA, where we only have one two-year hospitality and management associate degree that exists at St. Philip's College, how can management teams keep servers committed to their craft? How does the city encourage turning service in the tiniest taqueria to the hottest eatery in town into a career?
I visited with a trio of service professionals with varying degrees of experience to chat about what drives them, how they keep everyone happy and what can be done to make service great in San Antonio.
La MeseraLong before many of our readers knew the difference between a puffy and a crispy taco, Maria Marquez was serving both at Los Barrios. After joining the team in 1975, Marquez became the right-hand woman to owner Viola Barrios. Now, with Viola's daughter Diana Barrios Treviño at the helm, Marquez is still as invaluable as ever.
For Barrios, Marquez's success as a server is contingent on age.
"It's a generational thing. That's what they know. These are career waiters," Barrios said. "That is what they do to make a living, pay for their homes, car insurance, their education, their children."
For Marquez, the predominantly Spanish-speaking gal with perfectly coiffed and colored brunette hair, being flexible is key.
"[The customer's] aren't the ones that have to change. We have to have the patience to serve customers who are either coming in sick, or divorced or maybe their wife passed away," Marquez said. "We have to be aware of how they'll respond and soften our voice, be nice and try to have a conversation. And smile."
With more than 40 years waiting on Tex-Mex-loving hordes, Marquez serves generations. Regulars will ask for her section, bring her cake and gifts on her birthday (it's June 6, by the way) or wait until she's freed up to sit and chat with her.
"They'll say 'Only Maria knows how to wait on me,'" Barrios added.
The mother of seven is quick to point out what she learned from Viola.
"She'd watch me and another server and tell us to smile," Marquez said. "Sometimes we're nervous or anxious — how am I supposed to wait on people who are so elegant or fancy — but you change, you learn about life and you take advice. She taught me how to smile, and treat people equally. It all has to be the same for everyone."
It's the same advice she gives Los Barrios' younger wait staff. Though she can share tips on treating everyone with respect, her biggest takeaway from her four decades of service in "her little corner of the world" is treating your fellow humans with love.
"Para todo hay que sentir el amor en esta vida, para poder ver al progimo de diferente manera. Con el amor que tu sientes, a si lo vas a tratar," Marquez said.
I could translate, but Marquez's words on how serving requires a certain amount of love just sound that much more mellifluous in Spanish.
The Group EffortMuch like the staff at Cured and Lüke San Antonio, the servers at The Cookhouse are trying to drive Southern hospitality home in the Alamo City. No, you won't find napkin-draped forearms here. Instead, you'll find fine dining service in a casual atmosphere by design.
Led by Susan Sypesteyn, The Cookhouse staff features a slew of characters with all sorts of experience, from front of the house manager Ana Halloway, who previously worked retail, to John Castro, who's worked in kitchens and dining rooms for more than 37 years.
Each was hired to reflect the Sypesteyn's vision for their family-run restaurant.
"Susan did all the interviews and together we sat down to figure out who would join the staff," said chef Pieter Sypesteyn. "For everyone, I'd much rather hire somebody based on personality and humility than I would experience. You can train people to do what we do if you invest time in them."
Training involves everything from pre-shift discussions on menu items to morning-long team-building sessions on a monthly basis to discuss potential scenarios and even recording role playing sessions to see how the staff's body language changes with each customer.
"We have them write down two scenarios and show them how to deal. It's not always about what's right but how to fit into certain expectations the diner has," Pieter said. "We make sure they're up to par with the service and they know what they're doing."
Aside from history lessons on Creole fare, like learning the origins of boudin, the Sypesteyns let the staff develop and hone their own styles.
For Ruben "Panda" Garcia, an industry veteran who's served at all levels of dining for close to 20 years, including at the San Antonio Country Club and most of chef Andrew Weissman's eateries, that might mean taking a fun, relaxed approach that still carries a lot of knowledge with it.
"We sat down, there was nothing but a mess around us, and we were brainstorming the type of service we wanted ... Pieter said, 'I want five-star service, but I want people to have a really good time.' Someone can walk in the door with shorts, or angry or whatever, but we'll treat them like VIPs," Garcia said.
The main goal is helping round out the experience, even if it means dealing with rowdy diners.
"Everyone takes the responsibility of putting out fires. All of our staff is pretty capable of handling tough situations," Jesse Castilla, who's been with The Cookhouse since opening, said.
"Remember the guy that threw the pen at you? But we handled it correctly. He got happy. He left happy. He was just drunk," Garcia said.
The two newest members of the staff also have the least experience in the industry, but that isn't a hindrance in the eyes of other staff members who see the Sypesteyns as great teachers.
"You see how devoted Pieter is and you want to do your best," Castro said. "For us, it means everything. This has changed all our lives completely."
Castilla added: "He'll stop whatever he's doing, he could be doing inventory, and he'll show us what he's doing and it helps us know not just about the food, but what goes into it and how they're developing those dishes. I think that helps us relay that to our guests."
For Carrizales, who hadn't been exposed to this level of fine dining, learning from his fellow team members has helped him share that information with guests.
"He makes it so approachable and he's willing to educate you so you can educate the guests," Carrizales said.
And the friendly, calming power of Halloway, along with her years in customer service, has helped her walk the line between front of the house and back of the house.
"It's different in retail. Generally, the people that come here come for a good experience ... it's about taking time to go to a different world for two hours and seeing what we have to offer," she said.
The Maitre'dAdmittedly, I previously likened our next subject to a candlestick. Not just any candlestick, but Lumiere from Disney's Beauty & The Beast. While that reference may have gone over his head, it didn't with most people Philippe Place has had the pleasure of calling guests.
Place, a Paris, France native who has spent the last 15 years in San Antonio, sees the start of service at Southerleigh Fine Food & Brewery begin when the staff enters the storied 120-year-old building.
"We need to honor the past," Place said. "That means understanding our roots. We want people to feel like they're in their own home."
He credits chef Jeff Balfour's attention to the front of the house staff as much as the food in achieving this goal and driving that wow factor.
It would be easy for a chef-driven joint to focus on the food and have service be an after-thought, but instead Place and his staff of servers and runners focus on putting on a show. The Southerleigh crew leans slightly older with most of the service staff in their 30s. When it comes to keeping servers instead of seeing them hop around to the next best thing, Place tries to make sure they know management has their back.
"There's nothing worse than management not sticking up for you. You have to lead by example and stress that any issue with a table is something they can come and talk with me about," Place said. "You never leave staff out there."
Of course, mistakes can and will happen. And it's in those moments, in such a high-volume restaurant like Southerleigh, that Place will try to keep all tables happy.
"It's in those situations when you really try not to give up, and try to get past that moment, that barrier," he said. "Sometimes it means having to come by with a glass of Champagne and a joke."
Playing to guest egos can also pay off.
"There's nothing more powerful than when a staff knows and can recognize you. It's a dose of ego when you can roll up to the hostess stand on a Friday without a reservation and still manage to get a table," Place said. "It's about building that relationship one hand shake a time.
Everyone wants to be known," he said.