Acme F&B's Jeana Johnson Knows How To Pick a Staff and How All of Us Can Get Better Service
Charcuterie plate with head cheese and chicken liver pate.
While dining at Acme F&B, the subject of this week's review, I couldn't help but notice the polished staff. Maybe they stood out against all the rusting metal worked into the design of the dining room, but I had a feeling it had more to do with a management team that chose employees carefully and trained them well. I asked Jeana Johnson, who owns and runs the restaurant with four other partners, what it takes to put together a top-notch front end staff. She had a lot to say.
Before they open any concept Johnson and her team take a research and development trip to cull ideas, see what's working in other cities and get excited for what they're about to create. For Acme F&B, they flew to New York and traipsed around Brooklyn and Manhattan where their last meal at Gramercy Tavern offered an anecdote they share with new hires.
Long story short, their waiter was a bit of an asshole till Johnson made a comment about place settings that clued him to the fact that her group was also in the service industry. The waiter's demeanor instantly changed when he realized the table he was waiting on played for the same team. The waiter's behavior was short-sighted, but Johnson uses the story to paint a picture for her staff. If you want to work for her and her partners you need to be waiter number two instead of that first guy.
It's hokey stuff, but pair it with Johnson's interviewing style and you start to see a pattern. While many restaurateurs are interested in experience, Johnson is more curious about demeanor. Instead of asking where potential employees have worked before, she asks what is the most thoughtful thing they've done for someone lately. Johnson's thought is she can teach anyone to be a waiter, but it's much harder teach a jerk to be a nice person.
With a stable of employees with good parents under her wing, Johnson started training. For 10 days she ran bar sessions to teach booze, beer and wine parings and menu sessions that called for every employee to try every dish. She held mock services where half of the front-end staff waited on the other before flipping so everyone got a chance to critique each other's work. All this before a soft opening for friends and family to iron out those final kinks.
The hard work paid off. Acme's front end service out-shined many of my dishes and I always felt well cared for. Johnson's story about the Gramercy Tavern waiter offers more than a training tip, though. It illuminates how we can all get better service.
When I dine out, I always ask questions about ingredients, preparations and the booze I'm drinking. I ask those questions with enthusiasm because I'm generally excited to be there, I'm a naturally curious person and I really love food. I get consistently good service at most of my meals, and if you think it's because I'm a dining critic, you should know I enjoyed these experiences long before the Observer gave me a dining budget. Many times through my meals I'm asked if I'm in the industry, and I think that's the trick. If you're a happy, curious person who's enthusiastic about your meal and your interactions with a wait staff, they're far more likely to be interested in being kind to you.
The main dishes at Acme F&B, like this riff on chicken and dumplings, outshine many of the appetizers.
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