by Gordon Ker, founder of Blacklock

You know the best publicity your business can get is the one that money can’t buy: it’s the extraordinary value of positive stories from current and past employees. Why is it so valuable? Because it’s completely honest. They know what goes on behind the scenes, behind the curtain of glamour and fun presented to guests, and they still think that it rocks.

So when photographer Caitlin Isola waxed lyrical about her time working front of house for chop specialist Blacklock, we listened. She told us that Blacklock do ANYTHING to make sure their customers have an incredible time, and it’s the way that they do it that really made us prick up our ears. Founder Gordon Ker believes in achieving peak guest experience by giving staff greater autonomy and agency in their decision making, by ensuring that they feel cared for and empowered, and by ensuring that there is money set aside to support them in their decision-making.

In this fascinating article Gordon details how putting your team first with policies built around trust can result in game-changing guest experience – and how that staff culture and patron engagement results in a game-changing reputation.

What I love most about restaurants is how they can make people feel. They are a sanctuary from whatever is going on outside, whether it’s a quick bite over your lunch hour or a decadent dinner that spans the entire evening, cheering someone up in bad times or celebrating good times. Restaurants have the potential to foster personal connections that extend beyond the food and drink we serve.

In order to create a fantastic guest experience, our primary focus at Blacklock is to establish a positive working environment for the entire team. I believe that people can accomplish great things when they are passionate and motivated by something. If you have a genuine love for the guitar, it’s likely you’ll excel at it because you’ll invest time to practise and commit to learning new chords. Conversely, if you don’t love it, the guitar will likely sit in the corner and gather dust. With this in mind, at Blacklock, we channel our energies into building a great workplace where our team is driven by passion and motivation in both what they do and how they do it. With a little luck, a successful restaurant will naturally follow.

In our pursuit of running successful, fun, and experiential restaurants, it’s essential that we always consider how we make our guests feel. Ultimately, from the moment they arrive to the moment they leave, they should feel special, genuinely cared for, and that we are on their side. Our desire is for them to have a memorable time, and we are prepared to go to great lengths to make that happen.

We are hugely inspired by Danny Meyer and his approach to service and hospitality. His book “Setting the Table” is our bible, and we focus very clearly on the distinction he draws between service and hospitality. Danny talks about the balance between Service and Hospitality being 49% service 51% Hospitality. Service is the practical skills and knowledge needed to do the job; think wine knowledge, food knowledge, the ability to be able to open a bottle of wine or be able to use the POS system. Whereas Hospitality is about how you make people feel – it’s the emotional response to the experience. Although we lean our focus slightly more towards hospitality and how we make you feel over the technical nuts and bolts of service – which we encapsulate in our 48:52 mindset with bursts to 55 where we dial the hospitality up to make your experience unforgettable.

To champion this in the restaurants, we look to empower our teams as much as possible and give them the freedom to do what is needed to ensure everyone leaves happy. We encourage them to treat their section as if it were their own restaurant. This, we hope, engenders a feeling of ownership and pride that comes through to our guests.

Our company values include Genuine Care and being an Agent, embodying a can-do attitude while actively seeking solutions and saying yes rather than focusing on problems and saying no. I hold the belief that genuine care is fundamental, and while we can provide an environment conducive to nurturing this trait, we cannot physically teach someone to genuinely care. However, I am confident that if someone genuinely cares, we can instruct and guide them in other aspects.

We’re very clear to ensure that our team has the autonomy to work to principles over rules. Blindly following rules might lead to the wrong outcomes in certain situations. For us, the fundamental principle is that Everyone Leaves Happy. Do this, and you have done your job really well. How we get there might change in any given scenario, particularly if (as can happen) things go wrong. We believe that by being genuine, having an agent mindset, and following the principle over the rule, we should be able to ensure everyone leaves happy, in all circumstances.

Alongside that, the restaurants all have generous hospitality budgets – up to 1% of sales – to spend on boosting experiences for people. It might be sending an extra side on us so there is no FOMO when you can’t decide between two salads, running to the shops to get a spirit we don’t have but you really want or covering the cost of an entire meal – if it’s your third visit this month.

Ultimately, however, the best hospitality is free. A warm “nice to see you again” as you walk in, reserving your favourite table in the corner for you, or making sure we go above and beyond in any pertinent guest notes. A perfect example, and a particular favourite of mine, was when one of our team decked a booth out with pictures of Barbados beach in response to a request for a table with a view in our basement Soho restaurant. All these gestures cost nothing yet build a personal connection that will remain with you long after you’ve finished your meal.

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