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Bill Kalmar

Quality Insider

Bon Appetit for Quality!

What makes a restaurant great?

Published: Monday, April 30, 2007 - 22:00

Recently, the AAA organization named its annual list of Five Diamond restaurants. As experienced travelers and faux epicureans, as I consider myself, my wife and I have become accustomed to seeing quality proclamations and awards on a yearly basis, but I didn’t actually know what differentiates a Five Diamond establishment from a One Diamond establishment.  My curiosity got the better of me and thus I embarked on what I would characterize as a quality food journey.

As luck would have it, my travels took me no farther than Grand Rapids, Michigan, where we Michiganders are blessed with the only AAA Five Diamond Restaurant in the state. In fact, this is the fifth year in a row that The 1913 Room, located inside the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel, has been so recognized.

Please understand that I’m not a shill for The 1913 Room, nor is this article meant to be a restaurant review. Having no familiarity with the elements of the AAA Five Diamond Award, I found it fascinating and illuminating to explore the review process. I was pleased to discover that it mirrors many of the quality processes I’m familiar with, in particular the Baldrige Award, and here is a summary of my findings:

  • AAA has a cadre of 65 full-time inspectors who fan out over the United States, Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean reviewing restaurants. Their identity is unknown to the restaurant employees and their site visit is neither announced in advance nor revealed during the dining experience.
  • For 2006, there were 93 hotels in the United States designated AAA Five Diamond and only 58 restaurants in that category. As one who periodically watches the Food Network Channel, I noted that most of the renowned chefs seem to be in New York, so I assumed that the majority of Five Diamond restaurants would be in New York. Au contraire, my friends. That Toddling Town of Chicago leads the pack with seven followed by California with six, and New York—The Town That Never Sleeps—comes in with only three.

To gauge the difference between a One Diamond Restaurant and a Five Diamond permit me to provide some of the criteria:

  • One Diamond—meets basic requirements: familiar food at an economical price, limited service and utilitarian surroundings.
  • Five Diamond—renowned and consistently provides a world-class experience. Menus are cutting-edge, using only the finest ingredients available. It reflects the impeccable artistry and awareness of highly-acclaimed chefs. It has an expert staff that exceeds guest expectations by attending to every detail in an effortless and unobtrusive manner.

As an aside to the Five Diamond ranking, I think it’d be interesting and appropriate to apply those same standards to other organizations whether they be manufacturing, service, government or health care. As such, quality managers would be pleased and perhaps overwhelmed to receive a feedback report stating that their organization ”provides a world class experience“ and has an ”expert staff that consistently exceeds customer expectations.” As a former Baldrige examiner, a member of the Baldrige Board of Overseers and a former Director of a state quality award program, I have been exposed to organizations possessing those attributes, and not only are they very successful, the atmosphere is such that employee turnover is minimal and customer satisfaction is off the charts.

Let’s continue with my AAA Five Diamond review of The 1913 Room:

  • The name “1913 Room” comes from the cornerstone of the building that was obviously laid in 1913. The accoutrements, the atmosphere, the European chandelier lighting and the service are world-class. The room itself is tastefully decorated without being opulent.
  • My discussion with Assistant Food & Beverage Director Andrew Bowen revealed the following:
    • Before the first AAA Five Diamond Award was presented, additional inspectors visited the establishment to verify the initial findings. After that first ranking, only one inspector comes on site.
    • Similar to what quality professionals in other disciplines do to measure progress, members of The 1913 Room’s management team visit other restaurants throughout the world to benchmark their services and menu.

  • Customer feedback is obtained by placing a survey card in the billing booklet. And guests are encouraged to take the survey home and mail it in because those results are more meaningful than cursory comments jotted down after a meal.
  • Maintaining a high level of service and searching for new ways to wow the guests is of paramount importance. Unlike other awards and certifications where site visits are announced in advance to the organizations, restaurants have no idea when one of the AAA inspectors will be on-site. That means that every meal, every reservation phone call, every interaction with a guest is treated as a command performance. There is never any room for error. How many of our own organizations operate under such strict guidelines?

To differentiate itself from competition, The 1913 Room offers “surprise features,” such as a champagne cart offering guests a wide selection of alcoholic beverages in advance of reviewing the menu. After the meal, a specialized cheese cart also makes the rounds accompanied by an extensive wine listing of cordials. And for you chocoholics—a European candy cart!

  • The staff of The 1913 Room are conversant in several languages and are totally familiar with the menu and the ingredients of all the offerings. Staff turnover is minimal. Average age of the staff is between 20 and 25 years of age.
  • At the conclusion of the AAA review the inspector sits down with the staff and discusses “strengths” and “opportunities for improvement.” Bowen mentioned to me that at one of these meetings the inspector suggested an upgrade in the dinnerware, and thus when you dine at The 1913 Room your meal will be served on Versace dinnerware. This sit-down with the staff reminded me of the aftermath of a Baldrige site visit where the team leader provides an overview of the report prior to sending the management a detailed analysis.

As an aside, part of the advantage of being retired is that I can choose activities that interest me. In that regard, I’m a mystery shopper for several restaurants and some upscale department stores. My travels don’t take me to Five Diamond candidates but to establishments that offer a certain amount of refinement and good comfort food. I can tell you first hand that the emphasis in the reports I forward to headquarters deal more with the quality of service than it does with the quality of food. It’s a given that the food experience will be very satisfying—the service, though, must be of a very high standard.

Wait staff must be knowledgeable and courteous. I recall dining in a Five Diamond restaurant in a Midwestern city where the service was so obtrusive that every time I took a sip of water, the waiter popped out from somewhere and refilled my glass. Every now and then I would feign a sip just to gauge his robot-like antics. It was a hoot. This, in my estimation, is not Five Diamond service.

So what did I learn from this review experience of the AAA Five Diamond Awards, and in particular The 1913 Room?

  • Restaurant examinations by outside agencies parallel those found in manufacturing, health care, service and government.
  • Customer feedback is an important ingredient. It must be sought continuously, reviewed and implemented where appropriate.
  • A well-trained staff is mandatory. Feedback from the staff is critical and management practices MBWA—management by walking around. One of the questions on my mystery-shopping form is “Did a manager visit your table and ask for feedback?” Failure to do so in the restaurants I review can adversely effect the final rating. How many managers in other organizations neglect to do just this on a regular basis?
  • Maintaining a high level of service is a daily goal, with no let-up.
  • Benchmarking against competition is integral and provides insights into others’ successes.
  • A chef has customers he or she usually never sees and welcomes feedback.
  • The staff must understand that customers’ expectations are at different levels. I once declined a wine menu at a Michigan Five Diamond wannabe restaurant and the service declined remarkably from that point on. A guest who orders a $100 bottle of wine should be treated to the same high standard as one who orders iced tea (that would be me).

Well, time to call it a day and go out for a meal. I’m thinking of a Detroit Coney Island Hot Dog smothered with chili and onions. My local establishment isn’t Five Diamond but the plates are of a high-quality paper. Please pass the Pepto-Bismol!


About The Author

Bill Kalmar’s picture

Bill Kalmar

William J. Kalmar has extensive business experience, including service with a Fortune 500 bank and the Michigan Quality Council, of which he served as director from 1993 through 2003. He served on the Board of Overseers of the Baldrige Performance Excellence Program and has been a Baldrige examiner. He was also named quality professional of the year by the ASQ Detroit chapter. Now semi-retired, Kalmar does freelance writing for several publications. He is a member of the USA Today Vacation Panel, a mystery shopper for several companies, and a frequent presenter and lecturer.