Restaurant psychology: an interview with service industry pro Robin Dibble

My eighth People Who Read People podcast episode is an interview with Robin Dibble. Robin is an experienced Albuquerque-area service industry professional who’s worked all sides of the business, from waiting tables, to cooking, to managing restaurants and night clubs.

Most recently, he helped open and manage Poki Poblano in Albquerque, which just recently shut down but racked up some great Yelp reviews in the 10 months it was open. Robin is also available for restaurant consultation/strategizing, especially for people new to the restaurant business. His Twitter is @dibblerobin and his Instagram is @dr._.dibbs.

Links to the episode:

Some topics discussed:

  • Psychological strategies that get wait staff higher tips
  • The importance of reading the room as a restaurant manager
  • The importance of trying to make it up to a customer you think is displeased, even if they insist they’re okay
  • Factors that go into deciding to cut someone off from alcohol, and optimal approaches
  • Menu design strategies
  • Pricing strategies (including using .95/.99 cents)
  • Why MSG is awesome
  • Importance of lighting, acoustics, outdoor elements in establishing good atmosphere
  • Discussion of one of Zach’s favorite Portland restaurants, Yataimura Maru

In this episode we talk about a few studies and articles. Here are some links related to that:

Some people had sent me some questions that I either didn’t get to or that were interesting but not really connected to psychology, so I’ve got Robin’s answers to those below.

What’s an idea you implemented that you thought would totally work but fizzled?

Special events are often a challenge for restaurants. I’ve been privy to some comedy events or paint nights that were depressing. The main issues usually stemmed from a lack of promotion and follow through, which can fall on both promoters and operators. Also, forcing comedians into a space that is not acoustically friendly and is void of warm bodies is a recipe for sadness.

I think a big mistake I’ve seen made is changing menus, policies, procedures or dishes on a whim. When you do something new, you need to have a plan. There is a period for development and testing, followed by training, and finally launching the new program. In every instance that I’ve seen these sorts of things fall flat, it has been from a lack or preparation, time, planning, or all the above.

What are some verbal signs customers didn’t enjoy their meal? “It was okay” for example. Or pause before answering. 

One of the most volatile situations for newer managers to navigate is when a guest says, “It was okay”. This is a loaded statement. There you are, bright-eyed and full of ambition, standing in front of a table who says to you, “It was just okay”. As you furrow your brow and cock your head to the side, some questions can run through your mind:

  • “Why is the dish more than half-eaten?”
  • “Why didn’t you tell me when I checked on you earlier”
  • “Was is a prep or food quality issue?”
  • “Was the line cook just off his game tonight?”
  • “Is it just a matter of preference?”

…The list is long.

As you try to find more information from the guest, there is often an awkward interaction that follows. When someone says it was “just okay”, it can have a backbone of passive-aggressiveness. They may want you to know they didn’t care for the food, but they will often initially argue when you offer to discount their check or replace a dish. Sometimes it’s just honest feedback from a guest who just wants to see you do well. But that’s generally not the case. When someone doesn’t feel like they got their money’s worth, it often triggers some anger or distrust. This is the most concerning aspect because if you become defensive, you may not be able to recover. It’s very easy to read the frustration/passive-aggressive attitude, and this is usually when the communication starts to break down with inexperienced managers. How you proceed at this point is more about damage control and saving face.

I’ve found myself arguing with guests who refuse to let me compensate them. When someone gives you an “out” during an uncomfortable situation, the first reaction is to take it. This is where many managers make a mistake. If someone says they don’t want any compensation, your job is to ignore their request in the most respectful way possible. Sometimes managers in this situation will grant the request to not be compensated, and simply hope the guests will come back. Unfortunately, bad experiences tend to fester in the minds of unhappy guests. Guests who leave unsatisfied will share their experience with others. As they share their bad experience with friends or family, others tend to ask questions like, “Did you ask to speak to a manager?” or “Did you at least get a free dessert?” Over time, they develop a more negative memory about the restaurant, and ultimately you may never get their business back.

I’ve often seen negative Yelp reviews come through weeks or months after the fact. This is the most frustrating outcome for the business. What could have been fixed with a slice of cheese cake or a few free drinks, can turn into negative reviews, or even a series of emails, apologies, invitations to return, and further compensation. I have learned to not allow the guest to give me that “out” and to make sure I do anything I can to bring them back.

Ever study pathing on CCTV?

No, but I did often use our cameras to investigate productivity and performance issues, incident reports, crime etc. Cameras are very helpful when you run any type of retail business, and even more so, if that business involves alcohol sales. I could put together quite a compilation of all the things I’ve seen on CCTV in restaurants and bars.

How often are kitchen staff ex-cons?

In my experience…some of them? I can’t say for sure, but it takes a certain type of person to want to get their ass kicked every night for almost minimum wage. Everyone has a story; this I know for sure.

When somebody dines and dashes, do you chase them and/or call police?

I have chased people out the door before. It’s generally not recommended but I have collected a tab from someone in the parking lot because they left their keys inside the restaurant. Bars and restaurants would often threaten to make employees pay for “walk-outs” to keep people honest. This practice is illegal, but many mom-and-pop operations still do it. [Note from Zach: this happened to me my very first night serving at a sushi restaurant; a couple ran up a large tab, walked out, and the sushi owners took it out of my tips.] In Albuquerque, its probably not safe to chase people out.

I have heard that restaurant managers pretty much work 7 days a week. Is that true?

Quality of life is different for us. I have had many weeks while opening a new concept where there were no days off for months. Managers usually have 2 days off each week. Some places only give one day off, but some of those shifts may be shorter than average. The normal hour requirement is a minimum of 55 hours per week, but I have seen closer to 65-70 on holiday weeks like Mother’s Day. I am guilty of working a few 90 hour weeks, but those were rare.

Since they are probably not in it to get rich, are restaurant managers motivated by a satisfaction from “feeding people”?

Ultimately, we do it for the money, but the money is terrible until you get into a higher tier of management. Servers and bartenders often view a promotion to management as the next logical step, but many of them don’t last. It takes years of hard work and dedication to the various crafts to put yourself in a position to succeed in this business. We are an alternative workforce and often don’t aspire to have conventional jobs. There is certainly some magic and excitement to working in restaurants (not to mention there is always delicious food and alcohol around).

When you share an experience with someone through food, it is meaningful. Customers generally come to you to satisfy an emotional need. Families and friends are always connected through food. For many of us, it starts with being a “people person”. I love to talk to people and I gain a lot from social interaction. I also realized in my 20s that I loved to be a good host. I loved to throw parties at my house and I really enjoyed cooking and mixing drinks for friends and family.

Some of those qualities helped me quite a bit in the hospitality industry. Ultimately it is a very rewarding process to have an idea for a dish or cocktail, put it all together, sell it to the public, and then listen to someone tell you how great it is. We are narcissists, degenerates, sociopaths, criminals, alcoholics, fathers, mothers, entrepreneurs, leaders, and everything in between. Why do we do it? I can’t really say, but for me, it’s been rewarding on so many levels… I’m absolutely one of the lucky ones, I think.