Great Hospitality Starts with Empathy

"You don't know what someone's story is when they walk in the door," says restaurateur Pardis Stitt. "Dig deep and take care of them."

FW Pro | The Art of Hospitality | Paradis Stitt
Photo: Cary Norton

The first thing you notice about Pardis Stitt is how her eyes read the room. As she glides through Highlands Bar & Grill, Bottega, and Chez Fonfon in Birmingham, Alabama, her eyes drink in every detail, assimilating data, informing her most crucial next moves. Ambassador, choreographer, coach, counselor—Pardis plays many roles in the restaurants she co-owns with her husband, James Beard Award–winning chef Frank Stitt. But while Frank focuses his attention on what's on the plate, Pardis nurtures and protects something every bit as nuanced and intentional: the welcoming ambience that is the beating heart of their small-but-mighty restaurant dynasty. Here, she shares how she creates a team of A-level hosts.

What does hospitality mean to you?

Hospitality isn't something I spend a lot of time strategizing about; it's more of a feeling—and empathy and respect are at the heart of it. You don't know what someone's story is when they walk in the door. I may be a little extremist, but you don't know if a person has just been served divorce papers, or their mother just had a heart attack. Having empathy for your guests allows you to dig deep and take care of them.

How do you want guests to feel when they walk into your dining rooms?

We want to be a refuge from whatever's going on outside our doors. If we can ease any anxiety as soon as they arrive with eye contact and a smile, we all win. Although language is an integral part of how we communicate, so much of how we relate to others is through nonverbal communication. I want guests to feel acknowledged and looked after from the moment they walk in.

When your team falls short, how do you handle it?

It's not all sugarplums and shaved truffles in our world. Every member of our dining room staff cross-trains at each position—kitchen, front of house, bar, and serving—but we're human, and mistakes and missteps happen. When something goes wrong or a guest is upset, we do everything we can to make it right before they walk out the door. The staff works to find a solution right away. You have to take ego out of it and not take it personally.

You have to be aware at all times; you can't let your guard down, ever.

What's essential to delivering that experience?

Dinner service is similar to putting on a play, where the lights go down and the curtain goes up. The way we walk through our dining rooms contributes to that energy—eyes open, alert, aware of our surroundings, and having a sense of urgency. When I'm training someone, I watch them look around the dining room and ask them what they see. If they flounder a bit, I'll tell them what I see: I see the person at table 12, who seems unsure about the dish that's been put in front of them. I see there's a wrinkle in the tablecloth over at table 15; over at the bar, there's a guest trying to get the bartender's attention, but his back is turned. You have to be aware at all times; you can't let your guard down, ever.

What's your biggest staffing challenge?

Instilling a sense of dedication and commitment in our staff to physically repeat our mission every day, every shift. With 170 employees, I am a supervisor, mama, coach, and teacher—guiding our crew through best practices and following through on our vision for the restaurants. But sometimes it's the small things. Lately, I've been astounded by the number of staff members who have said they have never used an iron before. I think, "What planet are you from?" It's a very different time, and we're learning to adjust our expectations and train accordingly.

What do you look for in a potential team member?

Enthusiasm, kindness, curiosity, and a good handshake.

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