Mar 20, 2024

Northeast Ohio restaurateurs seek a delicate balance between tech and tradition

Restaurants nationwide remain in a post-COVID hiring malaise, a trend that has not left Northeast Ohio entirely unscathed, according to area owners. Local eateries are utilizing technology to speed up worker training, while ensuring that a traditionally human-first industry remains that way.

Although Malisse Sinito’s fine-dining establishments have enough experienced servers on hand, kitchens at his restaurants such as LockKeepers and II Venetian are still reeling from pandemic-era shutdowns, said Sinito.

“Kitchen workers left and never came back,” said Sinito, owner of Savour Hospitality Group. “Those are hard jobs that require skill and intelligence, and you have to want to work as a team to perform in a tough environment. Anyone in it for the paycheck kind of disappeared.” Labor has been a focus of Sinito’s nearly 30-year career as a restaurateur, beginning in 1992 with the transformation of a tiny historic building in the Cuyahoga Valley into LockKeepers. Finding talent is only the beginning – Sinito and other area food entrepreneurs are harnessing technology to get new hires up to speed.

Hands-on training at Sinito’s restaurants is combined with a slow creep of innovation, including a digital “Weekly Tribune” that shares with staff a wide range of hospitality principles and service criteria. Embedded hyperlinks send workers to additional online resources, which encourages them to explore these topics to a greater extent, said Sinito.

Sinito also uses an online reservation system to improve service. Digital notes from servers and guests may include a favorite dessert, seating preference or an upcoming special occasion.

“We’re able to stay organized of who our guests are and what they like or not,” said Sinito.

“Keeping notes to better serve our guests when they come in is really helpful. It helps us make their experience better each time by reminding us of their likes and dislikes.”

Old-school paper surveys simply don’t have the same impact as more comprehensive online feedback, added Sinito.

“I can read a review and find out how Saturday night went in the restaurant,” Sinito said. “We were jammed, but everyone was really happy and enjoyed their service. Even if restaurants won’t admit it, (those reviews) are very helpful.”

Doug Katz, chef-owner of Indian restaurant Amba, Middle Eastern-flavored café Zhug, and the South American ghost kitchen concept Chimi, is currently fully staffed across the kitchen, service side, dish crew and management, he said.

“We’re locating our places where our workforce lives, which gives us more of an opportunity to find people,” said Katz of his establishments in Cleveland Heights (Zhug) and Cleveland’s Hingetown neighborhood (Amba). “We wouldn’t open a restaurant in the eastern or western suburbs, because I don’t know if service employees live in those communities.”

A “family culture” at Katz’s eateries is bolstered by servers who act as friendly, knowledgeable salespeople. Training is used to teach staff the vital sales and communications aspect of this work, he said.

New servers shadow experienced colleagues, learning the business through bussing tables before getting their own table.

“There’s always new adjustments and focuses,” said Katz. “Those usually happen with guest comments or reviews. If we notice a trend of six reviews that say nobody came to clear my food, we’ll emphasize that in our training.”

Most restaurants utilize an electronic point-of-sale system to enable payment processing and track supplies. The cloud-based Toast platform provides those solutions for Katz, delivering precise reporting that also transmits orders from a hand-held device directly to the kitchen.

“(Technology) is not something the guest has to deal with much, although we do have QR codes on the menu for people who want that,” Katz said. “The fine-dining experience is about interaction, fun, relaxation and being guided. In our style of restaurants, technology can take away from that experience. For us, we use it to enhance the experience.”

The lifting of pandemic-related lockdowns brought consumers back to their favorite dining spots, even as restaurants had about 7% less direct-service hourly employees to greet them, according to analysis from the GuestXM industry site.

Staff hired by Brandon Chrostowski, founder of EDWINS Leadership & Restaurant Institute, lead a largely analog existence at the chef-owner’s 45,000-square-foot butcher, bakery and training center in the Buckeye-Shaker neighborhood of Cleveland.

“There’s no QR codes on our menus – we want people to flip through the pages,” said Chrostowski. “It’s very much a humanity thing, and it’s about getting something to someone before they even need it.”

Yet, Chrostowski does not completely shun the digital realm. His company assists the formerly and currently incarcerated in honing their culinary and foodservice expertise for careers in the restaurant industry. To that end, he has 30 hours of online training videos reaching 300,000-400,000 inmates. Participants study curricula and take tests in preparation for future jobs – otherwise, Chrostowski is happy to train current employees the old-fashioned way.

“I know what hospitality looks like; what it feels like,” Chrostowski said. “There’s no TikTok video that will make you feel that pressure. Nothing will replace the touch of a human being. Especially a person who cares and understands the craft and trade of hospitality.”

Restaurateur Doug Katz views technology as a foundational tool that can refine daily operations. However, relying on innovation as an end-all solution is neither realistic nor desirable, he said.

“I don’t want too much automation – too many screens or QR codes where you’re putting work on guests,” said Katz. “Even electronic reservation systems where guests get a text is too far for us. We want that traditional experience with the technology in the background.”