I am intrigued by the application of good service design principles to dining establishments, regardless of their type. Some service design principles are obvious—such as considering wait time and effective staff communications. But another important design consideration is transparency—the extent to which a dining establishment should make their processes, communications, and menu options visible to customers.
What level of transparency do customers expect when interacting with a dining service? How can a dining establishment leverage transparency to strengthen its unique brand? In this column, I’ll explore the aforementioned questions by contrasting the experiences of eating at a casual eatery and an upscale restaurant, highlighting the importance of considering transparency in service design for three key phases of a dining experience: access, ordering, and food delivery. I’ll show that, regardless of the type of dining experience, deliberate service transparency is critical to fulfilling customers’ service expectations.
Wonder Bagels and Eleven Madison Park: Some Background Information
Wonder Bagels is a small franchise located in New Jersey. Their spaces are typically small, with just a few bar stools at a counter and some outdoor seating. Customers place their orders and pay and wait for their food at a wide counter, behind which the bagels, spreads, coffee, and appliances are all visible to patrons. Calling Wonder Bagels casual is an understatement. In addition to its stellar bagels, Wonder Bagels is known for its quick, efficient service and its overall simplicity.
Eleven Madison Park is an elegant, high-end restaurant in New York City, which has received numerous James Beard Awards and three Michelin stars. It is known for its experimental approach to service and cuisine—and with that comes an aura of the unknown among its patrons, who are never quite sure what the restaurant will do next. The spacious restaurant has tall, cathedral-like windows, which offer beautiful views of Madison Square Park, but the inner workings of the kitchen are impossible to see. The contemporary, but warm Art Deco d?cor and the muted din of other patrons contributes to the memorability of the ultimate dining experience. (Diners would be better off if this were their last formal dining experience, because nothing else will ever compare.)
Accessing the Dining Experience
One of the first steps in a service process is access. Once patrons become aware of a dining establishment, whether it’s by walking past Wonder Bagels or reading a New York Times review of Eleven Madison Park, they then can access the service. For Wonder Bagels, access to the service is uncomplicated and clear, and the process is completely transparent: a line forms, you get in line, you know when you’ll be served and how the process of being served works by observing the experiences of other patrons ahead of you in line, and you gradually move up in the queue.
Access to Eleven Madison Park is understandably more complicated. While they may set aside a few bar tables for walk-in patrons, the overwhelming majority of customers must make a reservation. When you visit the restaurant’s Web site or the Open Table Web site, the requirements for making a reservation are clear: you cannot reserve a table farther in advance than 28 days, and they recommend that you start calling at 9:00 am, 28 days before the date you want to dine there. So, while the access process itself may be more complex than that for Wonder Bagels, the restaurant is transparent about the steps for gaining access, similar to Wonder Bagels.
What’s different, however, between the two establishments is the transparency of the access process itself and where you are in it. With Wonder Bagels, patrons know exactly where they are in the process. With Eleven Madison Park, if you call at 9:05 am, you often get a busy signal. You might then call back at 9:15 am, and you may finally get through at 10:00 am. Throughout this experience, you’re left wondering, Hmmm , will all of their tables already be reserved? I wonder how many people have called ahead of me. Until you actually speak to someone at the restaurant, you cannot be confident that you’ll even gain access to the reservation service, and your status remains a mystery. (Note—My husband and I have eaten there three times, and we have always gotten a reservation within an hour of our ideal time.)
Both Wonder Bagels and Eleven Madison Park use a first-come, first-served access approach, and both establishments clearly communicate the steps in their process—whether it means standing in line or calling 28 days in advance. But Wonder Bagels’ transparency allows customers to see first-hand where they are in the access process, while Eleven Madison Park’s month-in-advance policy adds an element of mystery—and excitement even—to the service experience.
Either of these approaches—though they are polar opposites of one another—represents solid service design, because both match customer expectations for engaging with a particular type of dining establishment. Wonder Bagels’ customers would laugh at the introduction of a multistep, call-ahead process for getting its bagels, while it would be incongruous and disappointing for Eleven Madison Park’s customers to have to line up outside the restaurant to wait for a table.