Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Lessons in Service from Charlie Trotter

I don't get to read as often as I like. Sometimes it will take me months to finish a particular book, especially if I have three or four that I'm working on at the same time. It's not often that I finish a book in less than a week, but Lessons in Service from Charlie Trotter by Edmund Lawler was an exception.

Charlie Trotter owns a restaurant which is not only one of the most famous in Chicago, it's also one of the most famous in the world. At $125 (per person) for the grand degustation menu, not counting tax and tip, it's a little richer than most people are used to. But consider this: a standard meal takes anywhere from three to four hours, and can include anywhere from seven to fifteen courses. The menu can be completely customized and even abandoned at the whim of the guest. But most importantly, every guest, regardless of social status, will be given exactly the same royal treatment as any other guest. Indeed, Charlie Trotter's is a restaurant built upon the best food accompanied by the best service.

Lawler spent countless hours observing and interviewing employees from all areas of the restaurant. Servers do not wear uniforms at Charlie Trotter's. Rather, they wear suits. They go well beyond the concept of "the customer is always right". They realize that without they customer, they would have no business at all. When a server sees a guest sneeze, they do not ask the guest if they need a tissue. They go to the restroom and grab a couple of tissues and bring them to the guest. If they overhear a guest mention that this visit is because of a birthday, you can bet money that a special course will show up at the table for no extra charge. Food allergies are taken very seriously at Trotter's, and the staff will ensure that every step is taken to ensure a customer is not at risk, all the way back to using a different cutting board and knife to prepare that customer's meal. Every need is anticipated.

Something that truly impressed me was the policy concerning recipes. The story of the Neiman Marcus cookie recipe has flooded the Internet for years, yet you will never find any "secret recipes" at Charlie Trotter's. It would seem that any recipe may be requested by the guest, and staff has even gone out of the way to compile recipes that had been created impromptu by Chef Trotter at special events. One guest even called to ask for help with a "top secret" recipe for chocolate black shephard pie that they had at a different restaurant. The staff member walked the guest through the various steps that might be taken to reproduce such a recipe. Yes, that's right my computer geek friends: whether or not they realize it, Charlie Trotter's is actually an open source restaurant. In fact, every area of the restaurant is open to guests, from the million dollar wine cellar to the studio kitchen that Trotter tapes his PBS cooking show in.

Particularly valuable are the service points discussed at the end of each chapter. Indeed, this is not a culinary book, but in fact a book discussing service techniques. The major underlying theme of this book is not the greatness of Trotter's food, but in fact the greatness of his service. Most, if not all of these techniques can be applied not only to the food service industry, but to any industry. Most of what the food staff does costs little, if anything, but makes all the difference.

It wouldn't be right of me to ignore Trotter's various philanthropical gestures, from culinary education for local schools and culinary students alike, to an older woman who lived in the neighborhood who was weak and frail, and unable to leave the house much. A member of Trotter's staff would bring the woman a meal each night, and on special occassions they would bring her into the restaurant and give her the royal treatment. She never paid a dime for any of this. According to Lawler, "The woman, who died in 2000, has never been a customer. Just a neighbor."

This is a fabulous book, both for its stories and its service points. I highly recommend it for, well, anyone. The more principles you apply in your everyday dealings, the more loyal your customers will be, and the more the customers will become your friends.


  1. Re: Open Source Food

    I heard a comment on a podcast, although I forget which one. KCRW's Good Food maybe? A chef was asked why he gave his recipes out to whomever asked for them. His reply was, if Picaso told you how to paint a picture, would it make a difference?

  2. I'm aware that this was posted nearly a year ago, however, I am in the process of reading Lessons in Service as well. It has been great. I am a new server at The Penrose Room of the Broadmoor Hotel. It is a 4 star restaurant that is striving to make the leap to 5 stars. This book is a great primer in what is necessary every step of the way.


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