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Lessons in Service from Charlie Trotter

Lessons in Service from Charlie Trotter

4.0 1
by Edmund Lawler, Ed Lawler
In the second book in the Lessons from Charlie Trotter series, the lauded chef shares his strategies for success in this guide on how to give the ultimate dining experience.

As winner of the James Beard Foundation's Outstanding Restaurant Award, Charlie Trotter and his service staff run what many consider to be America's finest restaurant. But it's not


In the second book in the Lessons from Charlie Trotter series, the lauded chef shares his strategies for success in this guide on how to give the ultimate dining experience.

As winner of the James Beard Foundation's Outstanding Restaurant Award, Charlie Trotter and his service staff run what many consider to be America's finest restaurant. But it's not just about food in this renowned Chicago hot spot. It's about a subtle relationship between food, wine, ambiance, and service—a relationship Trotter has perfected by hiring passionate staff with the ability to surpass his incredibly high standards. In LESSONS IN SERVICE, journalist Edmund Lawler reveals the secrets behind Trotter's unequaled success and shows other businesses how to improve their levels of service. From unconventional motivational techniques, staff empowerment, and mentoring to role playing, preservice meetings, and an obsessive pursuit of excellence—Trotter leaves nothing to chance. The service is a nightly ballet that leaves guests feeling pampered, educated, and of course, wonderfully satisfied. Follow the advice of Charlie Trotter, and no matter what your business, your customers will keep coming back again and again.

• Charlie Trotter's was nominated for the James Beard Foundation's 2001 Outstanding Service Award, and the restaurant received the Beard Foundation's Best Restaurant in America Award in 2000.

• Charlie Trotter's books have sold over 300,000 copies.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"No restaurant in America comes closer to delivering a flawless total dining experience." —Wine Spectator"Every day at the restaurant is a journey. We consider the day a success if we can answer yes to a simple question: ‘Have we improved today?'" —Charlie Trotter

Product Details

Potter/Ten Speed/Harmony
Publication date:
Star Chefs Series
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
6.16(w) x 9.13(h) x 0.77(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Charlie Trotter and His Weird
Sense of Attention to Detail

If your business can't get the little things right, what are the chances of mastering the larger matters? At Charlie Trotter's, where an evening is essentially an accumulation of little things done right, the intensely customer-focused service staff sweats the small stuff. Such attention to detail costs a business nothing.

    Charlie Trotter's service philosophy springs from the simple question: "How would I like to be treated if I were the guest?" Like royalty, of course, although Trotter forgoes the regal trappings in favor of sincere, gracious, and flawless service.

    Trotter himself would resist being treated like a king. "I would rather provide service than be served," he says. "I have a hard time when people are waiting on me. Too many people mistake serving for servitude where you subordinate yourself socially or economically to the person you are serving."

    He believes there's a true nobility to service. His twenty-two-person front-of-the-house team (which includes servers, sommeliers, food runners, dining room managers, and receptionists) executes his personal vision of sincere, dignified service on a nightly basis in the intimacy of a nearly hundred year old, two story townhouse in Chicago's Lincoln Park neighborhood.

    Diners who feast on his brilliantly conceived dishes are to be treated with the same degree of care and respect they would receive in Trotter'sown home. Trotter has scrupulously schooled his staff to never say no to a diner's request, even when it seems to border on the ridiculous. Well-dressed, well-spoken, and well-versed in the products they serve, the Trotter team have elevated service to an almost operatic status.

    In an age when service workers sometimes seem to resent interaction with a customer, Trotter's service team is devoid of such antagonism. Trotter has no tolerance for employees who would dare to bite the hand that feeds them. The service team have a deep appreciation of their guests. For without them, there would be no Charlie Trotter's.


On the night he accepted the Outstanding Chef Award at the 1999 James Beard Foundation Awards, Trotter declared that service is as important as or more important than the food, and that that is the first thing a chef has to understand. Although he was hardly ungrateful for the award for which he'd been a finalist for five years previous, Trotter admitted that he would have traded the Outstanding Chef Award for the Outstanding Restaurant Award. "That's more important to me." Trotter received his just desserts only a year later when the Beard Foundation honored his restaurant with the Outstanding Restaurant Award, the equivalent of an Oscar for the year's best picture.

    No detail is too insignificant for the much-decorated Trotter and his service team, and no single element is more important than the next. In other words, the restrooms are tended with the same degree of care as the presentation of the restaurant's $115-per-plate grand menu. In the kitchen, Trotter's chefs are fond of saying that it's just as important to carefully close a glass door on a cabinet as it is to sauté a chicken. Let one small detail slip and the larger, seemingly more important matters begin to suffer as well. But that would never happen at Charlie Trotter's.

    Newsweek asked its readers in a July 31, 2000, article headlined "Management à la Trotter" what it would be like if Trotter applied his golden rule of service to driving a cab. The article said, "If Charlie Trotter, the famously perfectionist Chicago chef drove a cab, its door handles would gleam like polished flatware, and if you weren't satisfied with your ride, he'd offer to drive you somewhere else, gratis.

    "It would be so easy to say, 'Hi, how're you doing?' he mused recently, apropos of his favorite topic: why the rest of the world can't be more like Charlie Trotter's restaurant. 'Where can I take you today? Do you have a preferred route?' So of course you'd want Charlie Trotter as your cab driver even if, based on the prices in his restaurant, a ride to Chicago from O'Hare might set you back $175 before tax and tip."


Trotter wishes that more people in the service industry would simply think about all the things they could do to go the extra mile on behalf of a customer. But the extra mile—much less the extra step—may be too much to ask. "To me it's just doing the obvious. It's just common sense." He recalled watching postal workers in his neighborhood routinely leave the gates open after they've delivered the mail. It would be so simple to pull the gate shut. Or it would be so simple for a retail clerk to wrest himself from a long-running personal phone call and come to the rescue of a customer who appears lost or confused. Or it would be so simple for a florist to call a customer to inform her that the delivery of her flowers has been delayed. Or perhaps you've heard the story about a customer in a well-known seafood chain restaurant who complained to her server that the food was too cold. The server stuck his finger in the food and declared its temperature just right.

    The oldest of four children, Charlie Trotter was born with an instinct for getting the little things right, although he chafes at the notion that he's a perfectionist. "Let's just say I'm an 'excellentist' because perfection is an unattainable goal. Perfection isn't that interesting. Et is more interesting to do things with sincerity and a certain quirkiness. With perfection there's no tolerance for failure, and there are enormous benefits to failure because of the valuable lessons they impart."

    Call it perfection or call it excellence, Trotter has always pursued it with a relentless—some would say fanatic—zeal. Unfortunately for most service providers, even mediocrity seems like an unattainable goal.

    Ironically, Trotter, who majored in political science at the University of Wisconsin, found himself being drawn to the restaurant business, where perfection is more the exception than the rule. In Madison, he tended bar, waited tables, and began cooking for his friends, who seemed to appreciate his early, and occasionally overcooked, forays into the culinary arts.


Discovering that he had a flair for cooking, Trotter began charting a career in the restaurant business. He was impressed with the energy level and the dynamic, electric atmosphere of some restaurants. He was also struck by how much better restaurants could run their businesses—from the kitchen to the bar to the dining room. There seemed to be an industry-wide tolerance for things that weren't quite right—broken doors, half-baked food, and service that was indifferent at best. "Here, we have an almost weird sense of attention to detail," he says.

    After graduating from Wisconsin and returning home to Wilmette, a North Shore suburb of Chicago, Trotter began his career on the ground floor by waiting tables for one of the best-run restaurants in the country—Sinclairs, owned by Gordon Sinclair. Famed chef Norman Van Aken allowed Trotter to learn the craft at his restaurant, first in the dining room as a waiter and later in the kitchen as a line chef.

    Trotter knew he had found a home and then explained to his father, Bob, that cooking was not some passing fancy. He wanted to open his own restaurant. Although his father, the owner of an executive recruiting firm and himself the possessor of a keen eye for detail, had serious reservations about restaurants as viable businesses, he agreed to help financially support his son's dream of owning and operating a restaurant.


But Charlie Trotter realized he was a long way from being ready to launch a restaurant, especially in a market as competitive as Chicago's. He headed west to attend the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco to be formally schooled in the culinary arts. Restless and eager to get back in the kitchen, he dropped out of school after only four months. He remained in San Francisco, where he cooked at several restaurants and the Hotel Meridien. Not far away was the Napa Valley, which Trotter visited frequently to develop a deeper appreciation of wine.

    From San Francisco, Trotter moved to Florida, where he rejoined his mentor Norman Van Aken and restauranteur Gordon Sinclair at a new restaurant called Sinclair's North American Grill. Trotter occasionally visited New York, where he dined in some of that city's most renowned restaurants. He expected to be overwhelmed by the experience, but wasn't. What he was impressed with, however, was how some of the top gourmet restaurants operated from stately brownstones in the city rather than from the ground or top floors of office buildings or hotels. He found the brownstone atmosphere more welcoming and the service more intimate. His New York visits inspired him to house his own restaurant in a similar venue.

    After working in Florida under the watchful eye of one of the nation's most respected chefs, Trotter began the final leg of his self-educational odyssey by moving to Paris.

    He wasn't going to Paris to attend school or to apprentice in a kitchen, but to wine and dine. For six months, he sampled the sumptuous fare and experienced the exquisite service in the city that invented haute cuisine. He studied the lives of the great chefs and read their cookbooks.


The crowning moment of Trotter's grand tour occurred at Girardet in Crissier, Switzerland, where legendary chef Fredy Girardet presided until his 1996 retirement. It was a magical moment for Trotter, who realized "that enough was enough." It was time for him to bear down on his dream after having experienced the best restaurant on the planet. He was struck by how Girardet masterfully orchestrated the cuisine, the wine, the ambiance, and the service. Those four elements would become the pillars of his own restaurant that he and his father opened in August 1987, a month before his twenty-eighth birthday.

    "No one of those four elements do we consider more important than the other," says Trotter, who's ever mindful of how a poorly served meal can overshadow the kitchen's and the sommelier's best efforts, not to mention the damage it can cause to the restaurant's reputation. And no one knows that better than the restaurant's servers, who are acutely aware that the 125 guests who visit the restaurant five nights a week are anticipating a monumental dining experience.

    "Because the reviews have been so glowing, the guests' expectations are very high," says Jason Platt, a server. "Some people might be looking for a flaw in our service." For some, the visit to Charlie Trotter's is a once-in-a-lifetime event, perhaps a fiftieth birthday or a twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. Other guests may have flown to Chicago specifically to visit the famed restaurant. Another guest may be hosting an important business client and hope to impress the client with a well-chosen venue. Still other guests—call them foodies—frequently dine at the restaurant and have come, like the rest of the guests, to expect a perfectly executed evening.


With a clientele like that, the pressure is on the service team to perform like it's the seventh game of the Word Series—every night. "Our clients can be demanding, and that's fine," says Trotter. "We like demanding guests. They bring out the best in us."

    Trotter encourages his staff to dine out as often as they can—be it a casual dining establishment or a fine dining restaurant—so they get a sense of having the shoe on the other foot. He wants them to empathize with the people they are serving. Bank, hotel, retail, and airline managers can encourage their service employees to do the same. Become a customer to discover how you would like to be treated. See life from the other side.

    At the first preservice meeting after the restaurant had been closed for a two-week break, Trotter asked each server to describe a dining experience during his or her vacation. Most of the service staff expressed disappointment in the way they were treated at the various restaurants. One server was appalled by how unfamiliar the server was with the food. It was as if the server was simply delivering the goods, sight unseen. Indifferent, uncaring, and flawed service seemed to be the norm. Then again, these disciples of Charlie Trotter, whose nightly marching orders are to do whatever it takes to satisfy a customer, have come to expect an almost impossibly high standard of service.


Trotter's service staff may be a bit spoiled. While the elegant, carefully maintained trappings, the state-of-the-art equipment, and the unique foodstuffs are ultimately to impress the guest at Charlie Trotter's, the investments in such quality and the attention to detail are not lost on the staff.

    They note the enormous expense, for example, of opening up to sixty bottles of wine for tasting at training sessions or the cost of having two sommeliers on staff or the unusually high ratio of service staff members to the number of guests served. "These are not the kinds of things that would be done at a restaurant that was finance driven," says Kevin Cronin, a server who's worked at such places. "The goal here is to make the guests extremely excited about being here and blown away by the experience."

    Marvin Godinez, who coordinates the restaurant's team of server assistants and food runners, says there are plenty of perks, but the best reward is hearing a customer tell him that he or she has just enjoyed the dining experience of a lifetime. "That tells me we have accomplished our goal," he says.


Achieving that goal would not be possible without an infrastructure of the best that money can buy. In the kitchen are custom-made French Bonnet stoves with solid brass hinges, pieces of original artwork to make the environment more pleasant, and smoke-eating vents built into a stainless ceiling that purify the air and remove the grime. Only the world's most discerning food purveyors supply the kitchen. Below, the restaurant's wine cellars are meticulously maintained. They are truly showrooms, not just storage bins.

    In the dining rooms, meals are presented on the finest china and the wine is served in pristine crystal stemware. Colorful bouquets accent each dining room. Every inch of the restaurant is as spotless as the crystal, and when something breaks or burns out, it's quickly repaired or replaced.

    The investments in quality don't come at the employees' expense; they are rewarded with one of the industry's top compensation packages, including health benefits, vacation time, and a retirement plan. The staff are trained to the hilt and treated like professionals.


"People know that they are going to have the best things to work with here," says Trotter. "If the equipment is treated with respect, employees know they will be able to do a better job. I think they also realize that they have a boss who cares enough to buy the best so they can work at the top of their game.

    "To succeed, you need to be surrounded by the best people, the best equipment, the best-maintained equipment, the best product, the best customers, the best of everything." But the best of everything doesn't come easy. "You have to earn the best of everything every single day," says Trotter. "You have to earn the best customers coming in the door. You have to earn the best employees willing to come to work with you. You have to earn the right to have the boss give you the best new equipment because of the way you are treating the current equipment.

    "You have to earn the right to work with the white truffles and the black truffles and beluga caviar by the way you treat it," he says. "And I think we have that mindset here where fifty-five people have complete respect for everything around them. They are earning the right every day to continue earning these great opportunities. They take nothing for granted."

    Of his fifty-five employees, twenty-five have been with the restaurant from five to fourteen years. "They are the unofficial archivists or reviewers of the policies. They can point things out to the newer employees and remind them that it's not always done with such attention to detail at other restaurants."

    The staff are excited and motivated when they see the restaurant put something back into the business such as refurbished or upgraded equipment and expansions such as a new $350,000 studio kitchen or a new wine cellar. They realize that they have a stake in the business being profitable; their hard work produces those exceptional results. They're working for more than just a paycheck.


"I don't think people want to work in an environment where a scratched chair or a broken door goes ignored. If there is something wrong with the floor, our attitude is not to find the cheapest way to fix it but to repair it in the best way possible. We're not concerned about the cost."

    Trotter has enjoyed some splendid meals in other restaurants. But what he can't stomach is the frequent lack of care for the fine points. Chipped seat backs, cracked plates, and shopworn carpeting seem to be tolerated at even some of the best restaurants. But Trotter believes that guests notice those seemingly insignificant details, and so do the employees.

    "The staff notices when the little things begin to slip. It could be as simple as a light bulb that's not been replaced, but it can be demoralizing," says Dan Fitzgerald, dining room manager. Guests are just as aware. "The whole evening is an accumulation of small details. That's why we check the restroom after each guest. Water could be splashed on the floor or a towel could be on the ground when the next guest walks in," says Fitzgerald.


Ironically, doing the little things costs a company nothing, yet few companies are willing to do them, says Fitzgerald, who has worked in several sectors of the service industry. Companies are more efficient when they do the little things right; the employees are more content and the customers are more satisfied. But it's easier said than done, says Fitzgerald, who once tried to apply the Trotter rules to another business. But it all fell on deaf ears. The mindset simply wasn't there.

    People have to buy into the mindset, he says. After his first stint in the mid 1990s at Trotter's, Fitzgerald says he developed a keen eye for detail, a condition he shares with nearly all of his fellow Trotter employees. Addressing a flaw, and doing it quickly rather than waiting for the next person to do something about it, is second nature.

    Trotter says attention to the minutiae is the glue that holds the entire dining package together. All along the way, the details have to be tended to—from the first contact on the phone, to how the guest is greeted at the curb, to how the guest is brought into the restaurant, to the presentation of the menu, to the service of the food and wine. And if all those steps are done right, then the guest should have no problem paying for a dining experience that would otherwise seem ridiculously expensive.

    "But if you think of it in terms of cost per hour, perhaps $50 to $60 an hour, then you realize what an absolute bargain it is. You can't see a doctor or a lawyer or an accountant for anything close to that," says Trotter.

    "In exchange for their $50 to $60 an hour, you have a team of forty-five people, many who are experts in their field and many who have been honing their craft for more than ten years, who are pouring their skill and their time into this dining experience," he says. "The guest is eating off exquisite plateware, picking up beautiful flatware, and sipping from $25 stems while being cared for by people who are charming, knowledgeable, and experts in the service field. The guest is getting a pretty good deal. We've had people tell us that they've been dining out for years but this was the best experience they ever had in their life. It seems cheap at $150 to $160."

Excerpted from Lessons In Service from Charlie Trotter by Edmund Lawler. Copyright © 2001 by Edmund Lawler. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Meet the Author

EDMUND O. LAWLER teaches journalism at DePaul University and is the author of five books. He lives in Chicago, Illinois, with his wife and two sons.


What's the history of your name?My last name is a distillation of my ancestral name O'Leathlobhar, which is Gaelic for half-leper.What was your first job?Out of college, my first job was as a reporter for the City News Bureau of Chicago. I got to cover cops, politicians and crooks. Some of the categories overlapped.If you owned a horse, what would you name it?Mr. EdWhat's the farthest you've ever traveled?I traveled to the Persian Gulf in 2004 where I taught journalism for two weeks at the University of Bahrain.What did you want to be when you grew up?I wanted to play shortstop for the Chicago White Sox.

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