Serving Up Hospitality Smarts at Creative Dining’s First Service Lab

Exceptional hospitality service is at the core of our business, and that requires staying on top of the latest trends. Back in June, we wrapped up our first-ever Creative Dining Service Lab, a three-day event to refresh our team’s service and hospitality skills while challenging them to think differently about their approach to service.

The event’s robust agenda tied in key hospitality skills and trends that provided our team with training, observable essential hospitality skill demonstrations, and the chance to apply their newly acquired skills with groups of peers in a lab-style service competition. Participants left with lasting memories, new connections in the company and industry, and—most importantly—brand new skills to benefit our partner relationships. Here are a few highlights from the event.

Successful Leadership

We were grateful to host Melissa Stanley, the Operations Manager of JW Marriot, as the Service Lab Keynote speaker. She spoke on how to be a successful leader, emphasizing the importance of believing in yourself, never giving up, developing a voice, and—most significantly—finding good mentors.

Stanley stressed the importance of mentors in career advancement. She demonstrated this by sharing how past personal struggles could have stifled her career if she hadn’t found wonderful mentors along the way. It was their belief in her and in second chances that allowed her to become the leader she is today.

Stanley also stressed the importance of being a mentor figure to others. She emphasized that you need to show up for your people the way that you’d want your mentors to show up for you. “If I keep it all to myself,” she said, “then what do they have to learn?”

The Importance of Mindfulness

Dr. Werner Absenger, the program director for the Secchia Institute for Culinary Education at Grand Rapids Community College, led our first breakout session. With a doctorate in mind-body medicine, Dr. Absenger shared his expertise on developing mindfulness skills.

To kick things off, Dr. Absenger led a roundtable discussion, where everyone shared their own experiences with various stressors. Dr. Absenger shared the three pillars of mindfulness: focused attention, open awareness, and kind intention. He explained that accessing mindfulness is about being intentional. For example, active listening and intentionally focusing on the speaker is being mindful of others.

Another key component of mindfulness is deliberately choosing to react to situations with calmness and not stress. To practice this, take an extra moment to really listen and actively choose to stay calm. “You need to take care of yourself,” he said. “You can’t help your team if you don’t take care of you.”

Clear, Effective Communication

Aaren Bruce, a Creative Dining Catering Manager, identified concise communication as the cornerstone to successful business, she explained that everyone—from team members to clients—requires different forms of communication to operate effectively.

Aaren dove into a few forms of communication, starting with verbal communication. The way we speak—tone, speed, inflection, volume—all have an enormous impact on how we’re perceived. For example, she explained that we can verbally convey confidence using an even tone and a slow speed. That said, the way we speak is only part of the equation.

Studies show nonverbal cues make up 70-93% of communication. The message you’re trying to convey can fall flat without the support of confident non-verbals. Aaren also discussed active listening, which includes pointedly paying attention and avoiding multitasking.

Through both written and verbal communication, it’s important to remember who you’re communicating with. Ask yourself, “Who needs to know what? How can they best receive this information?”

Planning a Successful Event

Amanda Harper, the catering director at Calvin University, led the third breakout session. Right before her session, she was in the kitchen assisting the GRCC staff as they washed dishes. It was a great example of service-minded leadership, right there at a Service Lab!

Harper spoke on event planning and execution. This type of planning involves sitting down with the client and defining important aspects together, like the event’s theme and decorations. It’s vital to stay on top of organizational details, and proper time management is imperative to any event’s success. From a dining standpoint, she puts great emphasis on the style of dining service, as well as the formality of the event’s setting. The setup for a cocktail hour looks much different than the setup for a four-course sit-down meal!

Once everyone has agreed upon the details, it’s time to loop in the rest of the staff to keep the process rolling smoothly. Amanda stressed that both the back-of-house (BOH) and front-of-house (FOH) need to prepare for event operations in case anything goes amiss. By ensuring everyone is on the same page, both the BOH and FOH teams can work together to host a successful event.

Wine & Beer Pairings

Everyone had a fantastic time at our fourth breakout session, focused on wine and beer pairings with different types of food. Two faculty members of the Secchia Institute for Culinary Education, Holly VanRyn and Allison Hoekstra, led the session, highlighting their food-beverage pairing expertise.

The beverage that accompanies a meal can greatly enhance the dining experience, and there’s an interesting science behind how it all plays together that Holly and Allison were happy to share. Many of us have heard that red wines tend to go well with steak, but it may be less common knowledge that a good lager can really complement crab legs or whitefish. The duo taught participants to recognize first-hand how fat, salt, sweetness, acidity, and bitterness in foods impacts the flavors of wine and beer.

The Mocktail Trend

While many think of food and drink pairings involving alcohol, mocktails are an enormous trend in dining and can complement food just as well. Keaton Krupa, food service director at GRCC, took the lead on the fifth breakout session highlighting mocktails. Keaton took great care to acknowledge the creative and memorable experiences that accompany mocktail creation. He discussed balancing flavor profiles, creative pairings, garnishing ideas and unique presentations while emphasizing that the special details are what guests will remember.

A Big “Thank You!”

We are so grateful to the speakers and attendees for making the first Service Lab as successful as it was fun. Service-minded leadership is at the heart of our company values, and We’re already seeing the positive impact of what our team learned at this event, and we can’t wait to see how that continues to evolve.

If you’re looking to partner with a dining service provider who shares your values and holds a service-first mindset, send us a message. We would love to get to know you.

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