Learning the fundamentals of service from customers with refined tastes
You finished up your 1-year stint there and then moved on to the next place, right?
As you can imagine I wanted to work with French cuisine. I talked to a more experienced colleague of mine from my days at Maxim’s and said that I just needed a place to learn and that I didn’t mind if the pay was low. From there I interviewed with 3 different restaurants and settled on the “Perignon” restaurant group.
The main branch in Ginza was established in 1984 by 4 elite restaurant servers. This particular location offered French food and Western-style cuisine. The clientele consisted of corporate executives, politicians, celebrities, and a lot of people like that. It was a very exclusive place to be. Today there is a different manager there, and the branch in Ginza is the main hub for “Dompierre,” which specializes in Western food, but at the time “Ginza Perignon” and “Kyobashi Dompierre” were the main pillars of the restaurant group, along with several other branch locations as well.
Did you meet anyone there that you could think of as a teacher?
One of the founders was Masanori Akenaga. He passed away 5 years ago, but at that time we was group’s president. He had an elegant way of being and a composed demeanor that I could really respect, both as a server and on a personal level as well.
Mr. Akenaga had a full repertoire of experience from working at first-class restaurants. He loved Maxim’s, and he took a real liking to me when he found out that I got my start there.
What was it like working for the Perignon group?
I had the opportunity to get a lot of experience during that time. At first I was assigned over at Ginza Perignon, and then after about a month I was moved over to Kyobashi Dompierre. There were a lot of customers at Dompierre with very refined tastes, and they would give me a harder time than my actual boss. I learned a lot from that experience.
They would say things like, “why are you bringing out food from your right side?” and “pour wine with your dominant hand,” or “that’s no way to describe something.” They would criticize me about every little thing, so I learned everything from all the right gestures to all the right words to say.
Back then it was standard policy at the Perignon group that you couldn’t say no to customers. No matter how indulgent the request was you had to say okay no matter what. That was incredibly tiresome, but entertaining as well. People would order stuff that wasn’t even on the menu like fried cutlet rice bowls and somen noodles (laughs). During times like that it was crucial to approach the chef and ask for these requests in an amicable way.
One time the chef said something like, “Crap, there’s no bread here. Go to Mitsukoshi to pick some up at Johan,” and then I had to run off to go shopping. I can only say this now, but I would take customers to their next destination with the company president’s car. But even with really indulgent customers like that, I was compensated much more than the occasion required, and I learned quite a lot. When I look back on it now I really had a good time back in those days.
The significance of hearing “thank you” from customers.
What was the most fun you had during your work in service back then?
I always had a ton of fun on those days where we had all of the customers laughing and enjoying themselves. During the first 4 years out of the 6 that I worked there the original manager, Takayoshi Fujioka, was still there. Mr. Fujioka was the type of person that paid a lot of attention to regulars, which earned him many fans. There would be large numbers of people who couldn’t wait to see him.
Mr. Fujioka would be there focusing on a single table, while I was running around working all of the other tables. By that point I was used to that hectic pace, and I would see how happy customers looked as I ran around. That gave me an amazing sense of accomplishment when I managed to pull everything off each day. During that time I was getting a lot of fulfillment each day from the whole experience.
So after this the next manager in line came in to take the reins for Mr. Fujioka?
I worked under the next manager for around 2 years. There was immense pressure to not lose customers or profits, so early on I decided to concentrate my efforts into these two points.
So for the first point, the original manager, Mr. Fujioka, had a lot of personality, which lended itself to the restaurant’s atmosphere. For a solid year I imitated his particular style of service to try to make sure we didn’t lose any of his loyal customers. Because of that we only lost two groups of customers during that year.
And then for the 2nd point, I noticed that our Chef, Masayuki Suzuki, had been in control of the kitchen ever since the restaurant first opened its doors.
What all were you planning?
The general perception of the restaurant was basically “Dompierre equals Chef Suzuki.”
Because of that, we would have the chef come out for us so we could get ample media coverage on TV and in magazines. I certainly wanted the restaurant’s reputation to go up, but I also wanted to get even better food out there by motivating the chef (laughs).
To indulge our customers he would also come out and visit the tables and see them off when they left. He made a lot of time to go out and see customers face-to-face.
And so the customers would ask for some other food and make a special request. Then I would have to go call on the chef. Customers were always happy to see the chef in person after catching him in magazines and on TV, so there was no way he could refuse them when they asked for something special and risk breaking their hearts. My work was also a lot easier when these requests went over smoothly. It was a little bit of a scheme on my part (laughs).
Oh, now I get it! So, you wanted to the entire staff to have fun at work, not just the customers. It might be a scheme, but it’s a pretty professional one at that (laughs).
Providing service was important to me of course, but as a staff member nothing motivated me more than hearing customers say “thank you” in person. I just can’t tell you how much those words meant to me. So, after I became a manager I would try to work behind the scenes and have our younger employees directly interact with customers as much as possible.