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  • Nick Lander
Written by
  • Nick Lander
1 Mar 2003

The past 20 years, which I believe has been the golden age of restaurants, has produced some exceptional and highly unlikely occurrences: the emergence of exciting British and Australian chefs; French sommeliers who now acknowledge that great wine can be made outside their homeland; and the sheer iconoclasm of many American restaurateurs.

But perhaps the most unlikely is the emergence of two young New Zealanders, James O'Connell and Nick Penrose, who have set up The Greatwaiter School in the South Island's capital Christchurch, a finishing school for professional waiters. They firmly believe that, on the back of their skill and passion, the initial success of their business and their conviction that its principles can be transferred internationally, they can generate more caring waiters to look after all of us worldwide.

They begin with impressive credentials. Penrose, who worked for several months at Chez Nico in London, is a fully trained butler who was picked to serve the Queen on her last tour to New Zealand. O'Connell, 26, began waiting when he was 14 but is quick to dismiss this relatively brief apprenticeship as a handicap.

'It is not the length of time but the quality that is important and I do believe that I started with a great, natural advantage in that my parents were the best hosts I have ever met. In a way I have been in hospitality all my life.'

Allied to this are enthusiasm, passion and fantastic energy which over six weeks is taking him round restaurants in London, Paris, Prague, Bordeaux, Chicago and New York. Early on in our conversation O'Connell confessed with a broad smile that he is 'a bit obsessive' about service.

He immediately corrected himself, however. 'At the school we teach care not service, that a waiter's role is to take care of their guests who must never be referred to as customers. The analogy we use is that you take your car to the garage for a service, where there is no social interaction between you and the mechanic. And a customer is someone who goes into a shop for 20 minutes to buy something. A restaurant waiter cares for guests and the closest analogy I draw is with a nurse.'

O'Connell believes that most restaurateurs fail to understand this. 'I get frustrated when I see advertisements for food and beverage service staff or attendants. You don't attend to food or wine, you care for your guests.'

And whilst O'Connell appreciated that the challenges of running a team of waiters in London with its broad racial mix was much more difficult than in less diverse New Zealand, he had been terribly disappointed by the lack of care evinced at a recent lunch at The Connaught. 'Eleven different waiters came to our table over the two hours. They all served us but not one wanted to take care of us.'

The Greatwaiter School was born not just out of a desire to change this but also out of economic necessity. 'It's quite simple,' O'Connell explained, 'New Zealand is at the end of the world. In Christchurch there is not the constant flow of customers that there is in London. If restaurants don't care for their customers they fail and in the past decade over 60 per cent of eating places in New Zealand have closed, sadly. We want to change that and to bolster tourism, now my country's second biggest earner.'

Currently, O'Connell and his partner focus on teaching courses for waiters and coaching contracts with restaurateurs. Whilst the former concentrates on honing waiters' skills over six weeks, less predictable ingredients are included. 'We bring in professional acting coaches to demonstrate what it is like to be on stage, to explain how you can communicate without talking but using body language instead. And we teach waiters how to be tourists in their own city because they have to act as ambassadors too.' Etiquette and personal appearance are vital, too. O'Connell's line to waiters is firm: if you don't look sharp, don't turn up.

Whilst waiters are keen to enrol because the restaurateur is paying for their tuition, the contract with the restaurateurs is more original and, at NZ$20,000 per annum, more expensive.

For this, each restaurateur gets one hour per week face to face with O'Connell and another three hours per month on the phone during which time O'Connell acts as an 'agony uncle'. 'The restaurateur always begins with a WIFLE, "what I feel like expressing" in which he or she can talk for five or six minutes about what is troubling them most - sales, marketing, problems in the kitchen, gross margins, anything they like. Then I start to dissect the problems and together we solve them. One good example is Retour, a really good 45-seater restaurant in Christchurch. After a year of working with us they had managed to improve their net profitability by ten percentage points.'

O'Connell believes that there is a future for Greatwaiter worldwide because so many restaurateurs still fail to benchmark their business. 'Measurement is the key to any business but there are still very few incentives in restaurants other than the basic salary and a share of the service charge. Restaurant managers, bar managers, chefs should all be incentivised and the end result will be much, much better. And, of course, it does not have to all come out of the restaurateur's pocket. In New Zealand wine companies incentivise waiting staff by offering trips to the winery to whoever sells the most of their wine. This does not cost the restaurateur anything but definitely motivates the waiter.'

The difficulty I foresee for O'Connell and Greatwaiter, particularly in the UK, is that their approach to customer care requires the waiter to introduce himself personally to the table. Although they practise a very low-key approach this will still remind many of the more intrusive American approach. But O'Connell is confident. 'The restaurant trade is probably the easiest to learn and undoubtedly the worst executed. I have really enjoyed my time as a professional waiter looking after my guests. Now it's time to pass all that experience on to others.'

The Greatwaiter School, PO Box 29, 400 Fendalton, Christchurch, New Zealand (web