|By Sylvia Rector, Detroit Free
PressMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Oct. 1, 2007 - Writing the luxury-laden menus and creating the expensive interiors may have been the easy parts of opening SaltWater and Bourbon Steak, the new destination restaurants being unveiled this week by star chef Michael Mina at the MGM Grand Detroit.
In the restaurant world, the real challenge is service, and the Mina Group promises to bring world-class service to Detroit.
Whether they'll deliver on that stratospheric hype remains to be seen. But it won't be for lack of trying.
We ducked behind the scenes last month to meet Mina Group Vice President for Operations Patric Yumul, learn how he defines excellent service and see what it takes to turn more than 150 strangers from all over metro Detroit into a single, seamless team in less than 30 days.
Among other things, it takes a 4-inch-thick ring binder of handouts for each employee. Two weeks of eight-hour days in the classroom. Up to four written quizzes daily. Endless role-play. More lectures and quizzes. And 100 hours of mock and real service with everyone from staff to VIPs.
In the Mina Group's case, it takes an organization focused on -- no, obsessed with -- details.
"I think everybody wakes up in the morning and says, 'I want to be good.' They're not going to wake up today and say, 'Let's be mediocre,' " Yumul says. "You operate under that assumption and show them the way to be good."
At the Mina Group, the way to be good is to do things the Mina Group way -- not because they say so, but "because it's the only way to do it, and it's the best way to do it, and to have them understand it," Yumul says.
Each service detail is important and exists for a reason. Iced tea is served with liquefied sugar because granulated sugar doesn't dissolve well. Coffee cups are warmed so they won't chill the coffee. Cream should be warmed, "because why pour cold cream into hot coffee?" And butter should be softly spreadable.
"You take a busser -- who's responsible for butter service -- and you sit them down and you give them frozen butter and butter that's at room temperature. You say, 'What's easier, what's better, to spread on the bread?' They make the connection, and now they understand."
If they understand, Yumul says, they'll buy into the idea and be sure to execute it correctly.
The servers, bussers, runners, hosts and bartenders hired for SaltWater and Bourbon Steak are veterans, in almost every case, of metro Detroit's finest restaurants. But all must start at the beginning.
Many classes are taken by everyone, while others are more specific to a particular job classification.
Every task and activity has rules and guidelines, even if guests aren't always aware of them.
The SaltWater server's training binder -- "A Server's Guide to the Universe" -- lists 13 rules, reminders and standards in "How to greet guests at the table," starting with greeting them within 1 minute of their being seated and three reminders for the server to smile.
"How to Serve Beverages" has 22 instructional points. "How to Serve Food" lists 15. And "How to Clear a Table" has 10, including how bussers should ask guests if they have finished with a course.
Legions of diners will feel vindicated to hear that it is not the annoying question, "Are you still working on that?" The appropriate inquiry, it says, is "May I remove your plate?"
"Never use 'We!' " the manual adds in boldface. "Do not include yourself in their dining experience."
Exhaustive as it is, the training manual represents only a small part of what servers must know to present the menu confidently, effectively and graciously to guests.
Besides seeing and tasting every dish on the menu, they must memorize the ingredients, the steps in preparing them, the food allergies they could trigger, any tableside service they require and the best wine to have with them.
They also must know how products ranging from cheeses to shellfish to beef are grown, produced or harvested. They learn about that in classes like one a couple of weeks ago, taught by corporate chef Anthony Carron.
Among the dozens of items he covered were several cheeses, including Camembert, a French cow's milk cheese; Boucheron, a French goat cheese that looks like a light brown log; and Humboldt Fog, a California goat cheese with a layer of ash through its middle.
Given all the information presented that morning, are servers really expected to remember whether Boucheron is from goats, sheep or cows -- or why there's ash in the Humboldt Fog?
"Absolutely," Carron said at the end of class.
There would be a quiz later, with questions like these from classes the day before: "Flatiron steak comes from which primal cut of beef?" "Where are the anchovies in the Caesar salad from?" "What is an aquifer?" "What type of salt is used to make the bread?" "What is the difference between a Porterhouse and a T-bone?"
No matter how well they're followed, rules alone don't create memorable dining experiences, Yumul says.
"What needs to resonate throughout those four walls isn't so much about the details of service" or the famous owner or high-profile interior designers, he says. "It's not about all the money that was put into the restaurants" -- a figure that hasn't been revealed -- "or the Bernardaud china or the Guy Degrenne silverware.
"It's about those individuals and how they interact with the guests -- the sincerity and the charm and the warmth they have. Because if you have cold, stoic, stuffy, unpersonable service, it doesn't matter if the coffee is served correctly.
"If they're not allowed to shine through, in a proper fashion ... and have their own personality, but always err toward hospitality and warmth and sincerity, then we're not going to be successful."
Service in Detroit is intended to be the same as that at other Mina restaurants such as Michael Mina at the Bellagio Las Vegas, Stonehill Tavern at the St. Regis Resort in Dana Point, Calif., and SeaBlue at Borgata in Atlantic City.
"I think that's capable of being reproduced," Yumul said as training began a month ago. "Maybe the knowledge base isn't there yet, but they'll get there."
Will the experience at SaltWater and Bourbon Steak be different from other restaurants in Detroit?
"Absolutely," he said. "I don't want to say, 'Oh, we're going to be the best restaurant in Detroit.' But I don't think anybody worth their salt in the industry doesn't go into any market and not want to own it."
Contact SYLVIA RECTOR at 313-222-5026 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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