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The Gravity of Hospitality: Restoring the intimacy of eating

Americans are so busy. We tend to rush through our days, dashing from business meetings to conference calls and then from soccer practices to charity functions. We barely have time to eat, much less cook. We pride ourselves on productivity, so breakfasts are taken to go and lunches are eaten in front of spreadsheets. Food becomes an afterthought: a means to an end. When we do sit down to eat, we often have a fork in one hand and an iphone in the other as our minds race to focus on whatever is next on the agenda. The significance and importance of sharing meals is lost on us simply because we don’t take the time to let it be the sort of intimate experience that it is intended. As members of the restaurant industry, it is up to us to understand and restore the intimacy of eating for our guests.

You might think that this sort of approach is inappropriate for some situations, for instance: business lunches. These folks have gathered, not to talk about food or feelings or any of that silly esoteric nonsense, but to save time by continuing to work while they eat. And yet, so many important relationships are built and decisions are made over a bowl of noodles or a steak. That’s exactly the point: no one has to talk about the underlying significance of meal-sharing to make it so: it simply is. Here are some concrete ways that you can ensure that your diners get the most out of their time with you:

1. Turn off the TV: Unless you run a sports bar, turn off the TV. Have you ever noticed how people can’t help but watch a television once it’s turned on? Even if we’re not really interested in the programming, the flickering light of a television is distracting and has actually been proven to subliminally cause stress. If you want to give your guests a peaceful and relaxing experience, turn of the television.

2. Provide space: This goes without saying, but remind your servers to give their guests enough space to enjoy their meal. No one can truly relax when a server is hovering about. Train your staff to understand the difference between delivering excellent service and being over-attentive.

3. Never rush your guests: It can be so tempting to try to hurry along a dawdling table, especially if it is your last of the night, and all you really want to do is go home, put on your footie pajamas, and watch reruns of Friends over a giant bowl of popcorn. Remember who you are and what you have the power to do. These are your guests, and they are at your table to fulfill a very basic human need that extends beyond food and drink.

When guests enter our restaurants, we are essentially inviting them into our homes. (Let’s face it: as restaurant professionals, we spend much more time there than in our actual homes.) As such, our guests should feel just that: at home. Meals eaten in our dining rooms have the potential to be a retreat from the hustle and bustle, but only if we truly understand and take our roles seriously. It’s easy to lose sight of the gravity of the work that we do in hospitality when it becomes routine, as most jobs tend to do. This is precisely why it is so important to remind ourselves that when people come together around a table to share a meal, essential and lasting bonds are forged, decisions are made, and families are built. We, as restaurant professionals, have the power to facilitate those connections, a burden that really shouldn’t be taken lightly.

As always, we’d love to hear your thoughts. What are some of the ways that you have found to help your guests take a break from the outside world while enjoying a meal? Do you think we, as Americans, can re-train our brains to actually enjoy eating together without distraction? Feel free to leave a comment below.