Sharpening Your Hospitality Saw Amid a Pandemic with Warren Wolfe

Warren Wolfe lives and breathes hospitality and service. He grew up in the restaurant industry and is currently helping many companies fight their way back from the pandemic. It's a tough road ahead for sure. In this week's In My Network article, he shares some great insights about how to forge ahead, watch out areas and what it means to genuinely care about your customers. Enjoy!


How and when did we first meet?

We first met about a year ago when I began consulting after retiring from the retail and foodservice worlds. Colleagues on the West coast and mutual friends from Starbucks kept telling me I had to reach out to this amazing thought leader and so I did! Been following you ever since.

In our interview, we are going to dig into differentiating factors of great customer service and hospitality and how businesses can excel at this in today's current environment. But, first, I'd like to hear more about your background.  Why did you pursue a career in hospitality and what are some of your early learnings about the importance of providing a great service experience?

I started early following my dad around at Florida State where he was one of the first three faculty members for the Hotel and Restaurant Management department in the 60's and spent his summers helping regional brands and independents build new businesses in multiple markets. I truly grew up in kitchens and meeting the chefs and managers gave me a taste of what kind of people sought work in hospitality; and I liked what I saw.


By watching and listening I quickly caught on that genuine hospitality has to be part of your DNA or this work is too difficult to maintain. There was and still is a lot of burn-out in our world due to the day-to-day pressure of production, managing people and replicating perfection everyday. So I learned you have to really have a strong desire to care for others while being resilient, have a 'Teflon' exterior, a keen business sense and an ability to read the future. That's why only the best will survive this pandemic - they are already pivoting (this season's buzz word) and thinking ahead. I like to be around people who have grit and think innovatively and I've found many kindred spirits in this industry.

What would you describe as some of the hallmarks of, or the gold standards for, great service? In other words, what would you expect from an organization that claims to be focused on their customers?

A company's true colors show in times like these so this crisis has been revealing in many ways. Who is caring for their people? Who is protecting their staff and customer? On the other hand, when you see operators cutting corners now you know they are headed for trouble.


I expect great customer facing organizations to listen to their customer rather than guess what they want and need. There's a lot of lip service about listening to the guest and the staff but are those issues actually being addressed? Right now, we have to acknowledge that safe food production, safe gathering and ease of experience are critical to most guests. So, what are we doing to make that happen first before we try to do anything else? For instance, smaller menus are easier to control and produce, laying out dining rooms so they meet local regulations and requirements, giving staff the tools they need to protect themselves, leading from the front...we have to do them all well and keep raising the bar on service as we can. 


My gold standards are based on 'great food', 'friendly people' and an 'inviting environment'. That hasn't changed even as we adapt to new expectations. "You are only as good as your last meal" is a high bar but it is a meaningful reminder of what is expected of us.

Reflecting on the pandemic, are there certain industries you've seen pivot and adapt to customer needs better than others?  Can you share any examples?

In my opinion, Delta has done a great job of making their flights safer than many others and have shown a commitment to customer safety that others have not. They even quickly pushed status miles through until next year, someone on the mind of colleagues who typically travel a lot and had to cut way back. That's smart.


I've also seen many insurance companies reduce or eliminate monthly premiums the past five months - another smart call.


And of course many food operators showed great adaptability in quickly getting their businesses back up and running with curbside pick-up and touchless delivery.

What industries fell short in adapting or meeting their customers where they were at? What lessons can we take from this?

Retail really missed the boat and has for a long time in meeting the customer where they are at. Amazon didn't just start dominating overnight - it took a decade of relentless effort and retail dug in with their malls instead of moving quickly enough to online....In our world some landlords have worked closely with their tenants and others have forced star operators out of their spaces. What's the use of that to anyone? Obviously the big chains have a built-in advantage when it comes to their people and their leases - they will survive in adjusted formats - but I applaud most the independents who have put it all on the line to protect jobs and legacies in the face of the huge drop in traffic.


The lesson I take from all this shift in the marketplace is you have to adapt quicker than in the past, especially on the technology front, or you will get passed by. And with our margins lower than ever in foodservice, don't jump back in if it doesn't make good sense; if it wasn't working before it won't work with lower volume!

How can organizations rethink and up their hospitality game when their service model might have been tipped upside down as a result of the pandemic? 

While hospitality models may have been tipped upside down this year the fact is people still want the same things from us - the craveable food, an authentic experience, the knowledgeable, friendly inter-actions. Our attention should be on finding and creating new ways  to act and think in order to deliver the branded experience and stay true to our core mission of finding a way to make our customers lives better with every visit. That will last. They can still see us smile even with a mask on for instance - it's in our eyes and our voice.

If a leader wants to double down on customer service and hospitality, what are 2-3 things they can do to create a culture of service? 

I love the idea of doubling down on hospitality this year and have recommended this approach to my clients. I am suggesting you find one area where you feel you excel and one where you could do better and put together a roundtable with your staff (safe distancing of course!) to get their insights into what is possible and what guests would appreciate. One client has had big success with hand-signed cards with each curbside order thanking the customer for trusting them with their meal. Another has made it their mission to only serve food that can come out quickly and perfectly and found that this new smaller menu has helped increase shopper scores and tableturns.


I have recommended to all operators who have found acceptance with online ordering/pick-up and have limited dining room seating to encourage the online order and additionally have a table waiting if desired - pick up your order with the family - enjoy zero production time, no server interaction, the ambience of the dining room....stay thirty minutes and turn the table twice as often. Everyone wins.


Find ways that fit your customers needs and you create an organic culture of service that can be codified and taken to new markets as you grow.

Thanks for sharing your wisdom Warren! Time for your rapid fire round:

  • An organization you hold in high regard for their great service: I get great service at Westin and from BMW. In our world, Union Square Hospitality Group always delivers an exceptional experience.

  • Your service or hospitality mantra: "Be Authentically Caring and Deliver More than your Competitor". In today's climate you can add "Illegitimi non carborundum". 

  • One word others would use to describe your leadership style: I hope they would say 'collaborative'.

  • Favorite hobby or pastime: Travel and dining out with my family.

  • One thing you can't wait to do once the pandemic is behind us: Hike Morocco.


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