Stellar Customer Service Starts with the Hiring Process
A Mediterranean oasis in the middle of the Arizona desert, CALA offers its patrons seasonally inspired dishes with a carefully curated selection of wines and cocktails to accompany them. This business recently opened but has already made an impact with its quality cuisine, customer communication, and exceptional service. Hear from general manager, Robert Meir, and learn about how he is building the team he credits with being ambassadors for the restaurant’s values.
On the Yelp Blog: Read more about CALA’s unique approach to the 360 customer experience.
EMILY: I’m Emily Washcovick, Yelp’s Small Business Expert. Every episode I pick one review on Yelp and talk to the entrepreneur and the reviewer about the story and business lessons behind it. Let’s see what’s behind this week’s review.
DAVID: I saw it through an Instagram feed. I think it’s Welcome to Arizona, right? So shout out to them. And I think that’s where I first saw it. But look, I’ve been to a ton of restaurants. I’ve been to a lot of places in Arizona and I’ve lived here almost all my life. So I’m always looking for something new and fun.
And then when I saw, and it was kind of a Mediterranean vibe—I was like, oh, well, I’m half Middle-Eastern. So that makes sense. And I was like, look, I’m going to try it. I want to go. It’s in Scottsdale, so they’re going to do it right. And it’s kind of, I don’t know, I’m a little bougie sometimes, whatever, it’s fine. I’ll own it.
But the cool thing is that I was able to go there and then there’s been several events there that have happened that I’ve heard other people are doing as well. So again, new fun spots are what I’m all about. Cause you know, I can get bored with going to the same spots, even though I do love them. And I check in everywhere. I still want something fresh and new. So yeah, I was super excited about hearing about it and excited to try it.
EMILY: Yelp Elite reviewer David H. visited Cala just two months after it opened and left a complimentary review, highlighting the restaurant’s good customer service and high quality food.
DAVID: I love the atmosphere, the ambiance, the decor, and the entire restaurant. Overall a great place to hang, eat and be social. So I’m forgiving that I made a reso and I still had to wait 10, 15 minutes to get seated. And that’s because they simply didn’t have enough staff, which is understandable in today’s world. So I’m fine with that. They are also fairly new as I write this review.
The overall food was fantastic. I had the tuna tartare, shishito peppers, lamb cooked at the start. Everything was great. Maybe have the lamb cooked just a tad longer, but still very flavorful. Then for the main dish was a huge piece of branzino. I could have done without the lentils, but I wanted to try the dish as is. Overall a good main dish. I’ll have to try more next time. I was stuffed.
Overall our server Jacqueline was super friendly. She was happy to be there. She was super attentive and she was busy hustling around to all her tables. Yep! Five stars for sure.
EMILY: Led by partner and general manager Robert Meir, Cala opened in January of 2022. The Scottsdale restaurant aims for a modern take on Mediterranean fare in a bright, sleek space.
ROBERT: It’s been a ride. It’s the Mediterranean coastal vibe. When you walk in, there’s an escape feeling – like I’m somewhere different. That’s kind of what we’re going for.
It’s inside a beautiful hotel. Modern hotel called Senna house. Which is part of the Hilton Trio collection. You know, there’s a lot of great vibes you get. Great energy! That’s kind of what we were trying to get from the experience. The food matches the decor. The staff matches the vibe.
You know, you can have a really great location, but I think the staff is kind of where we’re trying to bring it to life. But at the end of the day, at CALA, we’re trying to create an escape in the middle of Scottsdale where you walk in and you’re like, ‘Oh, I’m somewhere else. This is great.’ And then the food really drives that home and then you have that whole experience.
EMILY: Having worked in every position the restaurant industry has to offer, Robert knows how important it is to ensure each guest has the experience they expect when they decide to dine at his restaurants, and he works hard to prioritize that value within his team as well.
ROBERT: To me, it’s our culture. It’s who you hire, you know, we can teach anyone to do anything. Yeah, I can teach you to serve. I can teach you how to bartend, how to make a drink. But I can’t teach attitude. I can’t teach personality. I can’t teach the genuine person, you know, that you either have it or you don’t.
And, when I interview and when I meet people, my first impression of that person – that’s what I feel that is what the guest is going to get from that employee. So it’s important to me, you know, how I feel in that interview, how the connection was, because that’s how they’re going to connect to the guests.
It’s one of our core values, you know. Training Jacqueline – she exemplified all of those strengths. When I interviewed her, when I met her for the first time she was warm, she was kind. New to serving, you know. She had served a little bit but didn’t have the most experience. You know, while a lot of restaurants may hire a server that has been serving for 10 years, I’m looking more for the attitude. I’m looking for more energy. Someone that’s excited, someone that would be happy to be there. Someone that needs a job that wants a job. And that’s what we’ll be passionate about just making a little bit of money and enjoying where they work.
Something I tell them and I preach this at pre-shifts. And when I interview them. I say ‘we give up our weekends, right?’ I have a wife and kids. I’m away from them on the weekend. If I’m gonna spend time away on the weekends and 10, 12 hour shifts, we’re going to have a good time. This is going to be a place where it’s fun. You know, that’s what is expected from the guests.
They want to walk into a place where people are happy. You know, they’re spending their money at a location. It doesn’t make any sense for them to come in and all the staff is grumpy and then, you know, it’s just our culture. So it’s something that I try to preach every day when my managers, and with our teams that the culture and, you know, they’re just young kids that are looking for some work and for some money, we’re just trying to make it a good experience for them and then put some money in their pockets, but also serve our guests as well.
EMILY: But quality customer service can’t stand alone. David’s review specifically called out the delicious ‘five star’ dishes he ordered and how important that is to him—and the curated menu is no accident. It’s born from a talented and passionate culinary team.
ROBERT: Of course, our back of house team is amazing. Top notch. It starts with our culinary director, Chef Beau MacMillian, who is obviously a legend in this town. And we have an executive chef, Peter McQuaid, who I can’t say enough good things about. He’s just amazing. Very, very talented. We have an amazing pastry chef, Gabby. Our sous chefs are amazing. It’s really just a really good team in the back that they’re passionate in what they do.
And it shows they care about the details. They care about the quality. The intention of when products come in, they’re checking the quality of the product to really make sure it’s going to deliver to their expectation. They have high standards. And, what’s great about our back of house team is that they do it with a smile to do it with good energy, and I’m all about energy and attitudes and that it blends right into the foods.
You know, you can tell that the details of the food came from someone that was passionate about it. They change things all the time, because they want to make it better. I’ve seen them change a couple of things here and there. Take an ingredient – let’s make it a little bit better. Let’s make it a little bit better. And I think that’s really what shows in the dishes because they care about it. And that passion really adds to the dish. For sure.
EMILY: Having high quality food and a great team is important, but how can managers and business owners get there? What does it take to recruit and retain such awesome employees who care about their work? Rob focuses on being thoughtful throughout the hiring process and looking for applicants who are displaying characteristics he knows are needed in the industry: being a team player and highly receptive to feedback.
ROBERT: I think there has to be a sense of structure. I think they have to really believe in what you’re saying. They have to believe you, right? You have to be genuine. And come from a place that you are being sincere and the things you say they have to believe you. They have to care as much as you do. So I think it starts with, you know, the people you hire. Hiring the right people and asking them, ‘why are you in this industry? Why do you want to be a server? Why do you want to be a host?’
This is a tough business. I’m very straight up and very honest. You have to be resilient. You have to care about people. You have to care about service. I don’t sugar coat it. I say, this is a tough job. You know, we work hard. It beats you up at times and it’s also amazing. It’s also uplifting. It’s different, you know, we’re not an office – we’re meeting new people. You have to genuinely love people.
And I think they see that and my management team, I hire really good people. And I think the culture really starts with a strong management team because that’s who the ones are overseeing. I’m not in that building every minute, right? So I think we all have to share the same value of caring about people and caring about your service and just being genuinely good at what you do.
It’s funny cause I like asking questions about, you know, tell me about your background. Have you been part of a team? Have you played sports before? Have you danced, have you been a part of a community or anything that required you to really engage with people or being coached by you know, a head coach or someone?
Because that’s the kind of culture we have here. You have to be able to take some, a little bit of criticism and say, okay, I could’ve done this better. Let me fix it, you know. Or be coached up because things change and this industry – this restaurant business is very fluid. You know, there’s always, every day is a little bit different.
EMILY: Hiring a ‘coachable’ team is an important first step, but the next step, of course, is actually coaching them. Robert stays closely involved with his team’s development and credits good communication and transparency with customers as helping operations run as smoothly as possible.
ROBERT: I think that communication is important. It’s one of our core values. You know, when we talk in orientation, when we meet the employees for the first time at Cala, you know, we’re just getting to know a lot of these employees and staff. I met them a month ago, or two months ago, and something we tell them in one of our core values is to be real, to be honest, to be transparent.
Because I think the customer appreciates that, you know. No one likes to be lied to. No one likes to be told, hey, yeah, we’ll seat you in a couple minutes when it’s not really [going to] be a couple minutes. I think they’ll appreciate that – it’s going to be 10 minutes. And unfortunately, in this industry, I’ve been doing this for a long time.Things happen all the time. Accidents happen in any workspace, but when we adjust, you know, finding staff at this time. Yes, it is hard. We actually are pretty fortunate. We’re getting a lot of applicants. A lot of people are coming through the doors, asking for a job.
And we’re definitely grateful for that. But things happen all the time. You know, just recently I had a bartender who was supposed to be working a full bar and got into a car accident on the way to work. So it took us about two, three hours to get a backup to work. To get someone else to come to work. You know, he obviously took the day off.
But then you get a review from the hotel pool saying there wasn’t an attendant from 12-3 in the middle of the day, you know. It’s like, well, no, we had an accident or we’re trying to recover. And we did our best to get someone in and kind of adjust because downstairs was busy.
So things happen all the time. And the best thing you can do is just to be honest. Recover you know, buy that person a drink. Take care of them. So it really starts with our hostess and that’s all training. We train our hosts – we’re going to be honest with our guests, if it is going to be 15 minutes, okay. I think they’ll appreciate that. But grab a manager, let’s take them to the bar and buy them a drink.
There’s still other things that we know we can show them to make sure they have a good time. So, Yeah, these times are a little crazy. And like I said, we are being very specific and particular about who we’re hiring, because I am looking for that, that good energy, the good attitude, and when not hiring just anybody, you know, we, we are making sure we’re staying true to our culture, to our values and hiring the right person matters.
And I think it’s important to be honest with our guests, I’m trying not to make excuses. Right. We’re just trying to be honest with people. And there’s times the reservations are right on point and everything goes well, and it’s the perfect shift, you know, and sometimes there’s a little curveball that we have to adjust to and that’s just the restaurant industry.
EMILY: Hiring just to have bodies isn’t a good practice for your business – and Robert knows it’s not a good call for Cala. They’d rather have the right kind of employee and communicate with customers in the meantime if that equates to a bit of a wait, even if you have a reservation for example. Like in David’s experience. The food quality and service from Jacqueline far outweighed the short wait he had.
DAVID: I think also when the server brings it out and she explains what it is and what we re-ordered. Or how to eat it, right? Or, Hey, here’s what the sides are. That’s important too. So again, and I mentioned that about the server. She was awesome! But she took the time to just, even if it’s five seconds, right. She took the time to present it in an inappropriate manner. And then also explain it too, which is good. She didn’t just throw it down on the table.
EMILY: Getting negative reviews can be tough, especially since small business owners put their heart and soul into their businesses. However, there is an upside to some reviews like this—they point out where the business has room for improvement and help guide leaders in making those changes.
ROBERT: Honestly, I’m grateful for every positive and negative review. I think there’s something to take from every review, you know? And yes, we take them to heart because I genuinely care about the business.
And if we do get a negative review, well, I want to know what happened, right? I want to know what went wrong with this guest so that maybe we can prevent the problem for the next guest. Or maybe I can get this guest to come back. So there’s something to take from every review. I enjoyed David’s review very much because I appreciated his understanding and I appreciated that he had a good time, but that he was honest. And that he didn’t ding us for that little bit of a wait. But like I said, I really enjoy how understanding he was. It could have been, you know, a guest before that was at his table that maybe ran a little bit longer, you know? A two top or three top that usually takes about two/two and a half hours and they’re there three hours and we don’t anticipate that.
And you know, I’m trying to do right by that guest by not kicking them out to seat David. So it could go both ways, you know? And then I get a review from the guests like “I got kicked out because the next guy was here.” There’s just so many details and so many things that can happen in a restaurant.
One of our core values is to do the right thing. All we’re trying to do and what we appreciate the staff is try to do the right thing when it comes through. Like I said, we try to take a little bit of everything from every review. The positive ones I do focus a lot on. I think a lot of restaurant owners, maybe they just take in and go, okay, great. And then move on. I try not to, I take that one. I take it to Jacqueline. I take it to the staff and I say, ‘hey, look! Someone says something great about you’ because it makes them feel good. And then they strive to do better. Many want to do it again, and they want to do it again. It’s just positive reinforcement, you know?
And then the opportunities from the negative ones, we take those and we say, ‘Hey, hostesses—the communication about the wait, you know. I can say thank you for letting them know that they were going to be 10 minutes and sticking to the 10 minutes. And then there may be something negative where someone didn’t enjoy a dish.
You know, we can take that feedback. Mistakes happen. Maybe somebody forgot something in the dish, or if we got the lentils underneath the fish, things happen all the time. So, we’re grateful. We’re grateful for all the negatives, all the positives. There’s something to take from all of them.
And they’re coaching opportunities – positive and negative. That’s just how it is. Like I said, I’ve been in this industry a long time, so I try not to take it too personal. But I do at the same time I think you have to take it personal because you shouldn’t be in this industry if you’re not passionate about it.
If you don’t love it, if you don’t love guests, if you don’t love taking care of people, if you don’t love a service you’re in the wrong industry. So, you know, you just take it for what it is. I try to get better. That’s all you can do.
EMILY: There’s power in fostering that review-based dialogue between your business and customers. Not only does it show that you care and want to make a problem right, but it also shows the humanity of the business and its leaders.
DAVID: I’m a huge advocate for engaging either way, positive or negative. But you have to respond within a timely manner and be consistent about it.
If there are reviews online, whether it’s from Google or Yelp or whatever, and I’m looking at them and there’s no response, it’s just a lack of interest or it’s that you cannot be too busy to respond. That takes you literally 20 seconds. And type it out. So the response is massive. And anytime that I have received one back – good or bad, I’m grateful for it because I’m like, okay, they actually read it.
They’re going to take it into consideration and they’re going to hopefully make the adjustment, right? Because that has to breed action. And there have been times where I have switched reviews to make it higher. And there have been times that I’ve made it lower after the experience, right? So the opportunity is at your hand, they came to your restaurant already.
You either had them as a client already and, you know, as a patron and they loved it or they hated it. Now, if they hate it, what does that do for your business? What does that look like for your reputation? Hey, you can explain the wait time. If I never said anything about the wait time and I’ve given them four stars and listed wait time as a negative and dock them a star for that, they could have responded and said, Hey, we are short-staffed. We just opened three weeks ago. We’re ramping everybody up. We’re training them. So they do the proper service, whatever they want to say in the terms of a response. Hallelujah. That’s great. Boom. Okay. We’re gonna, we’re going to maybe move that star to the next one, because I love the rest of the experience, right?
Being critical in one area without looking at the whole picture too, is also a big thing, but the owners need to respond. It is a must, no matter what, I’m a huge advocate for it. I’m in business as well. And I recommend that to my clients. If you do not leave feedback, it just seems like you either don’t care or it’s not important to you.
And that’s a big deal because people will see it, subconsciously or not.
EMILY: Even though it can be difficult to tell customers about problems happening behind the scenes, reviewers like David value transparency and clear communication—and it’s likely that they will respond with empathy. Leaving customers in the dark only creates space for misinterpretation.
DAVID: I’m expecting wait times, especially now. And again, you have to be forgiving. People need to just chill. And at the same time, yeah, let people know. Hey, they were short-staffed. This is a real thing in real life. Just be graceful, be patient. And I’m okay with that, right. But here’s the other piece of it, going back to my other response: what am I looking for? And why am I writing a review? They had an explanation of why they said, Hey, we’re short-staffed, just be patient with us. And we’ll help like that. I’m satisfied. You tell me, you could have told me it would have been 30 minute. And I would have been fine, but you set the expectation. Hey, there’s a drink on us or, Hey, there’s food or something.
Even if you just say, ‘Hey, you can have a seat at the bar and hangout and chill it,’ look, and everything worked out, right? I met somebody at the bar where we hung out. We had a conversation. Maybe we’ll do business together. It’s just the fact that they acknowledged it right from the get go, which is super important.
EMILY: In the end, reviews do matter, and the team at Cala uses them to both make important changes and celebrate their successes.
ROBERT: I think when we talk about Yelp reviews, we are grateful for the positive. We’re grateful for the negatives because there’s lessons to take from it. David’s experience, I enjoyed that because he had a positive experience and yelped about it and wrote a review.
And for David to take his positive experience and write about it, it makes me happy and it makes me look forward to giving someone else a great service so we can get some more reviews. Because people do watch, and if people do read reviews and they want to know what it’s like before they go there, they’re going to spend their money with us.
And they’re deciding, is this place worth getting up and getting into a car, and valeting my car at Senna house, and going into Cala and giving up three hours of my night? Well, let’s check out some of the reviews and see if it’s worth it, so I think there’s a lot of value in the reviewing. So when someone does a positive one, like David, I genuinely appreciate that.