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Annie Stoll Takes Us Behind the Hiring Process at Locanda

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Following up on yesterday's reveal on the Locanda "Facebook" experiment, today we bring you in on a recent chat we had with owner Annie Stoll at Locanda's big sister restaurant, Delfina. Although things will be different at Locanda, a lot of the tried-and-true processes the Stolls have honed over the years at their other restaurants (Delfina, Pizzeria Delfina) will carry over into the new spot. Here, Annie Stoll gives us an idea of what goes on with the front of house before a big restaurant opening and after the doors are open for business.

Tell me about the history of hiring at Delfina. Have you always done it all? When we opened Delfina almost 13 years ago, I was the front he was the back. I've hired every single person in the front for all the restaurants since we built them. Now we're at the point where each manager in each location does the interviews, but I have to meet them before they make the final cut.

How do you think staffing has changed in the past decade? All the online stuff is really all that's different. As far as staffing I think the people that came into Delfina 12 years ago are getting the same service and spirit that they always have. The only thing that's affected servers a little bit is that now we have a $1 per customer service charge and that's hurt them sometimes because people will take it out of the tip. But San Francisco servers are doing well.

Describe your hiring process. It's changed over the years obviously. I have three general managers, one at Locanda, one here for Delfina and Delfina Pizzeria and one on California Street; and they'll let me know what they're hiring for. So I'll put an add on Craigslist and I filter through all the resumes and forward the good ones to the hiring manager. They do the initial interview and then if there's anyone they love, I'll meet them. Then we'll set up a trail so they can see what the restaurant is like and we can see what they're like.

What catches your eye when you're looking at a potential hire? I have this sixth sense, it's crazy. I try to teach my managers about it. Some get it more than others. It's really a spark that I look for. It's happy people that are really genuine and that have a passion for the business. The one thing I hate about service is when it's very robotic. In the original Delfina service manual, the servers weren't allowed to say "enjoy." Because it doesn't mean anything anymore. My new pet peeve is when a waiter comes to the table and asks if you want still, sparkling or tap water. And another thing I don't like: "do you have any questions about the menu?" Things have become robotic and there's no creativity in that. So my waiters might say, "What can I answer for you about the menu?" or "Let me tell you about some of my favorites."

That's what I always ask, "what's your favorite thing on the menu?" Right! Depending on the guest and the server the interactions are different. I went to this really great high-end restaurant last night where I felt like I was just a cardboard cut out, not a customer.

What's your take on the "Is everything to your liking question?" Isn't that just asking for a compliment in some ways? There's a way to check in on your table. You have to be there. You can be pouring wine when everyone's having their first bites, so if there's a problem they can say something. But if you're asking if everything is ok, well why wouldn't it be ok? That's how I think about it.

So the dialogue is more of a normal conversation. There's no script. The servers are humans. They have real personalities. You know, be respectful, be polite, but be yourself. When we opened Delfina, no one was having their servers wear what they want. I remembered working at Scala when you had to wear the bowtie and everything and I noticed that it stifled personality. So I thought we should let our servers wear what they want. We were one of the first to do that in 1998. Now that I'm older, sometimes I'm like, maybe we should go back to uniforms. Once in a while there's a shirt that's a little too low cut, but you can wear a wig if you want, tattoos. We used to be known for having servers with tattoos here, now it's all in the kitchen.

So is there anything that you see in the hiring process that's a red flag? When I'm in an interview and they're speaking negatively of their last experience. I try to get them to talk, I'll say tell me about your last experience. And what I look for is anger. If there's going to be unhappiness in someone, it's going to show to the customer. I said to Craig last night when we were at that other restaurant, "this guy's angry." You know, it's a lot of work at Delfina. We have tests and mandatory meetings once a month. You have to study the food and wine when you're off. So you can't just be wanting to make money and go home.

Tell me more about that. What do you require on an ongoing basis? When they're hired we give them a meeting schedule that's out 18 months. They're all on Mondays, monthly, and are two and a half hours long. They start with a test. And at the meeting we'll give them a packet for the next meeting. Two of the meetings are service. Three meetings a year are seasonal food. And the rest are wine. Then if they don't pass their test, they can't be on the floor until they pass. And same with new hires, they're tested and they can't wait tables until they pass.

What's your training program like? For waiters there's four days of training on site. One as a runner. They follow a server twice. And then they're followed. They also have a two hour wine meeting with our wine director during the day and a two hour meeting with the chef during the day. So they get downloaded with all the information. Then they're tested.

Do you ever hire someone who's never served before to be a server? I used to because personality is way more important than the technical aspects. I figured if I could spend the time teaching them which I could do before Lucy [her daughter with Craig] was born 9 years ago. [Laughing] Now I just don't have the time. We just hired a food runner who doesn't have any restaurant experience, and that person is a project for the managers to get her up to speed, but the right personality will work for a runner. But never waiters anymore.

You probably have a large enough pool anyway. We do. Not so much for runners because they don't make as much money. It's more of a foot in the door. We don't have bussers. We never have at any of our resaurants.

So will the service program differ at Locanda from Delfina? Yeah, bread service is different, wine service is different at all of our restaurants. Similar to Delfina but a little different.

How? We have our pizza bianca. But I can't tell you any more until after we open. [Similing] We're doing some really exciting things.

And it's going to be very Roman as far as the food, correct? Yes, very. We're taking some liberties here and there. You remember we have that Universo oven. I do, not powered by hamsters. Funny I posted that on Facebook and no one understood it was a joke. They didn't get it!

What are the biggest mistakes you've made in the past? I've learned a lot and I'm still learning and unfortunately at other people's expense which I feel horrible about. I never had a GM until two years ago and so my expectations for a GM were different two years ago. We grow and we change. Like Craig and I will say these table numbers don't make sense, let's change them around. But as far as servers, I've definitely made mistakes. I've brought people in who were rude to a customer and it didn't work out.

Do you find that a lot of your staff members end up being similar in age and demographic? No but there's a common goal. Everyone's really into it. We have this thing called a no bitching policy, no complaining allowed. If someone has a problem they can come to us, so if someone's complaining it really stands out. To me, the most important thing to have is a happy staff. And if someone seems unhappy, it just makes the work harder for everybody. So there's a certain age group that always applies. What is that? Mid-twenties. I used to get tons of shit because people thought I would only hire women. When we first opened it was all women for a while. Now we have a pretty good mix. But I have always picked who's best in that pool at that time.

Do you do any team-building type things? We're open too much. We do parties though. We have amazing holiday parties. We go all out. We do them off site. Our last one was at Thirsty Bear. We had a photo booth going all night long, we had a card reader, pool tables. Everyone can bring a date. We go all out on food and drink. We'd love to do trips to Napa but we're just...open too much.

More on Locanda vs. Delfina, how does the size of the staff compare? Locanda is a little larger. Similar in that we're not having bussers. We're going to start with much smaller stations. How many are on now? We just had our orientation yesterday. There are 30 front of the house. Amazing crew. I'm really excited about them.

We created a little roster of our new servers. Because it's so hard in the beginning when no one really knows each other besides "oh you waited on me before." So we created this little Facebook to help them out. I'm excited about every single one of these people. It was really an inspiration for them at orientation becuase Anthony talked and Craig and I talked about our vision. There's a lot expected of them. And one of our Delfina servers was promoted to managing Locanda. I was telling them every day they're going to be tested. They all sort of do have the same sort of type-A personality where they want to be pushed and want to grow, to be better. Our managers are so hands on and they are able to work with them.

From what you can gather, what do servers say makes working for your restaurants different? People say we have the most friendly, warmest staff they've ever seen. At any of our restaurants when you walk in, you're greeted immediately by a genuine warm person. We're happy you walked in. I told the staff at the orientation, after 13 years, we're so happy we're busy. I'm happy every time the phone rings. There are a lot of choices out there; and that people decided to walk into our door, I'm grateful. I want the staff to feel the same way. And I think they do, because I do. We don't take it for granted that we're busy. We know tomorrow we could be dead. When a guest comes back two nights in a row, we're blown away.

Where do you spend most of your time? I'm usually at Delfina. I get to California Street twice a week. I spend nights with Lucy. We have the best managers and I don't feel crazy even though I'm opening a restaurant and I've got three others because I've got incredible help. They're really smart, they care, they know what they're doing. They're really blowing me away. At every single location. Like I said, I'm still learning; and all the sudden it occurred to me that my life would be so much easier if I had great managers. The hard thing is letting go. I still have to meet every single person we hire.

Where does Lucy like to eat best? She loves the pho at Out the Door. She loves oysters and French fries at Zuni. How about at your restaurants? We come to Delfina for special occasions; so we'll come for Valentine's Day or Christmas Eve. We don't come here just casually, but sometimes she'll come into Delfina Pizzeria with the baby sitter just to see us. And we'll get pizza to go sometimes.

What are you most excited about with Locanda? Honestly I'm really excited for Anthony [Strong]. He's so incredibly talented and I'm excited for him to do his thing. It's an incredible location. You know we looked at that for our second Pizzeria Delfina. And Ron [Silberstein] came to us years later. Also the physical space is great. And the fact that our company is growing and we have another full-on restaurant.

Did you figure out who's going to run the bar program yet? No, but Eric's here. We're talking to some people that have experience that can take over. But it's going to be Eric's program for now.

All Previous Locanda Coverage [ESF]

Locanda

557 Valencia Street, , CA 94110 (415) 863-6800 Visit Website

Delfina

3621 18th Street, , CA 94110 (415) 552-4055 Visit Website

Delfina

3621 18th Street, , CA 94110 (415) 552-4055 Visit Website

Locanda

557 Valencia Street, San Francisco, CA

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