Halfway to opening day and I needed to exhale, practice some armchair mindfulness. I stopped by a cafe near the restaurant to reflect on things. It was about 8:45pm and the room was empty. This was my exchange with the server when I entered:

SERVER: (Sweeping under a table) “We’re about to close soon.”

ME: “Oh, can I still get an espresso?”

SERVER: (Her back towards me as she moved behind the counter) “Sure.”

I took a seat at one of the tables that didn’t have a chair propped on it.

ME: “Slow night?”

SERVER: “Yeah, sorta. What would you like, single or double?”

ME: “Double, please. You’re closing early.”

SERVER: “Nobody out tonight and I have a test to study for tomorrow.”

Sitting there in the brightly-lit cafe, while she swept around me, I thought about some of the “softer” issues I had to deal with in the coming weeks. Most of my friends in the industry roll their eyes whenever I explain to them how I interview and hire staff. Invariably, all of them find it a bit hokey. Sometimes they would laugh and, in fact, it might be very funny if their laughter didn’t reverberate so loudly off the walls of their empty restaurants. The truth is that most restaurant owners/managers in Toronto don’t know how to train their staff to truly serve their guests. In large part, it’s because they don’t know how to truly serve the guests themselves. Between the ruthless efficiency of Chinese fast food joints and the equally efficient, but soulless, professionalism of many acclaimed Top 10 restaurants, there is little in between that captures the spirit of true service in this city. (The few who achieve this- and I love them- are all too rare). Savvy customers know this and so do most servers who have ever traveled to countries where it seems imbedded in the nature of the indigenous people to truly serve, like in Japan or Singapore (and now, Korea), for instance.

I always ask the same questions to potential candidates:

1. What was the first thing you thought about when you woke up this morning?

2. What was the last non-profit organization or charity that you were involved in any way?

3. Have you ever served anyone outside of your work in a restaurant? What did “service” mean to you in that context?

Hokey, I know. But you would be surprised by the answers I receive after the interviewees get over the surprise of being asked such “unprofessional” questions. Some of them are shocked by my questions, as though I was violating some International Human Rights Code, while still others breathe a sigh of relief that I wasn’t just another manager following the script of the Employment Standards Act. Most people don’t know how to answer these questions because they come with prepared answers. My questions abruptly shift them away from their comfort zone. If I have learned one thing about service in this industry over 27 years, it is this: that you can train anybody to do anything in this business, but you can’t train character or values. They either have it or they don’t, and it really doesn’t matter how they attained it. And it is those qualities that are most important for me when I consider hiring someone because it becomes the foundation upon which I can make service training truly work. Sure, often, I misread people, fall into the trap of their much-practised charisma and this has lead to problems. Nobody’s perfect. But every once in awhile, I find a diamond in the rough.

Today, for instance, I interviewed Paula (she gave me permission to put her photograph on my blog).

A third-year university student, studying childhood education, who has experience as a nightclub bottle and cocktail server. Recently, she worked at a popular Japanese restaurant as a diningroom server but wanted to gain experience as a bartender. Most of my friends in a restaurant that was attempting to do something interesting with food would have dismissed her immediately. But when I asked her those questions (and I ask them quickly with little time for them to think about it), this is how she answered:

1. “I thought, oh, another day awaits!”

2. Most recently, she volunteered to serve food and drinks at a dinner for an organization that helps teachers and students and community members come together to dialogue about improving education.

3. She described how recently she tried to ”serve” her friend, in some trouble, by taking her out to dinner, calling her daily etc. Simple acts of grace that made her realize that true service had very little to do with waitressing to make ends meet.

The answers may seem banal, ordinary, but it is always in the way it is expressed that tells you everything of worth about that person. There was very little buffer between what she felt and how she expressed it; a genuineness that means something to me and, by extension, our guest. I asked her to join our team; she said yes. Will she quickly pick up the training? Will she make it past the few weeks? I don’t know yet and neither does she. But I have faith that if we both strive to serve each other and let our values dictate our every action in the diningroom, our guests will also feel that they had a genuine experience, and that they had truly been served.

Hokey, yes, to many in this all-too-jaded city. Not to me.