12/14/2012 03:43:00 PM

Chris Haarsgaard of the Legendary 21 Club on Service Mistakes, $5,000 Tips and Never Saying "No" to a Customer

In honor of Service Week, we're taking you inside NYC's iconic 21 Club, known for its unwavering dedication to pleasing its colorful clientele. Director of Operations Chris Haarsgaard has been working the front-of-house for 10 of the restaurant's 83 years, and has more than a few stories to share on what it's like to work at a restaurant whose unofficial motto is: "The answer is yes, now what's your question?" Check out our chat with him below.

Zagat: What's the most difficult/craziest request you've ever had to accommodate?
There have been many, because we've been here 83 years, and we have a lot of guests that have been coming here for over 50 years, and they remember things that they used to have back in 1955. Some of my staff has been there that long, and we have staff that remember old recipes back from the '60s and they have to re-educate the culinary team when those orders come in. We have, on occasion, had requests for something that hasn't been on the menu in 30 years.

Sometimes recipes have changed and they have new names since 1975. We have had some crazy requests - people have brought in their own quail and their own game and asked the chef to cook it. We have a saying here, "The answer's yes, now what's your question?" We have a regular guest that brings in her own potatoes because she thinks they're the best. It obviously gets very difficult in December when we're so busy to accommodate those kind of things.

Zagat: Is there anything you wouldn't do for a guest?
We do everything we can do as long as we have the product. Someone wanted marshmallows one time and we had to send someone out to the store. I can't even recall what the instance was. I can't remember the last time we said "no" to anything.

Zagat: Has anyone ever left any bizarre tips behind for one of your servers?
We had a waiter here 37 years and a woman came in and gave him $5,000 just for being herself,  which was just mind boggling. We've had some very big tippers here and unusual things like trips to the Super Bowl, trips across the country, etc. Our staff has been here many years and developed friendships with a lot of their long-time customers. They have been to their homes for holidays and vacations. Our men's room attendant, Lorenzo Robinson, has been invited to travel all over the county by many of our guests because they feel like he's part of their family. It's like walking into the good friend's home, everyone should know your name and where you sit and what you like and dislike.

Zagat: Has the loosening up of the dress code changed the vibe at all?
Without a doubt - I think a lot of us here think that it's for the better. We have a few critics that have been coming here a long time, but I would say they're in the minority. We built Bar 21 last summer, and now we're coming up on a year and a half. It has definitely changed the perception of the place of being old and stuffy, and also from the street it's given us the new exposure of walk-in traffic because when you looked in before through the iron gates you saw what looked like a waiting area. Now you just see a vibrant bar scene, which draws people in. Dress code has relaxed, and I think for the better, because we eliminated ourselves from such a market for so many years - we were the last ones to require a tie at dinner in New York. We made a business decision that we'd like to stay open and in order to do that, we've relaxed a little bit, and it's improved our business. We've gotten a little younger, and I think that's a good thing.

Zagat: What other changes have you had to make over the years to keep the restaurant relevant?
A lot of the changes were made in my time here. We have done private rooms, and we've probably renovated all but two or so over the last seven years. We've renovated eight of those rooms to remain contemporary. We recognized a couple years ago that most of the party planning is done by women, so we needed soften our image a little bit. Away went the dead animals, the rifles and things like that up in the private rooms, and I think we've gotten a softer image which has helped us a lot. In regards to the bar room and the restaurant, in my 10 years here we've never been better at service, the staff knowing the ingredients and being aware of the current food trends. That's made a big improvement in terms of staying current on what's going on in NYC, instead of hanging on to the past and going the way of many restaurants that refuse to change.

Zagat: How much of your clientele would you say are regulars?
In the mid-'80s probably 50% were what we would consider regular diners. That number these days is now around 13%. In order to remain open in a 20-something-year span, we had to replace those regulars with first-time diners and then try and create regulars out of those first-time diners. This place is on everyone's bucket list. Everyone says, "I'm going to go there once and try it," and if you don't impress those people with such high expectations, you'll never get them back. They're walking in thinking about everything they've heard about this place, and they're expecting us to deliver every time. So it's a bit of a challenge. Our regular clientele is still strong and very loyal, but, unfortunately a lot of them have retired or moved to other parts of the country, so we see them less often.

Zagat: What do you think is a common mistake restaurants make with service?
I think the minute you take your clientele for granted, you may as well put the "closed" sign up front - these are the people paying the bills. If you get into some older places, the staff almost takes an attitude that they're doing you a favor rather than the opposite. Unfortunately some of my colleagues at other places have forgotten that, and they give the stereotypical gruff-type service. You have to remember to always appreciate the guest, even the difficult ones - the ones where when you see the name on the sheet and say,"Oh my gosh, so and so's coming tonight - it's going to be a tough night." But that's what you're there for. 

Zagat: Do you think FOH staff should go to some kind of school, much like chefs go to culinary school?
In other countries I think the service professional is probably more respected than in this country. I think that's changed over the last couple of years, as people become more aware of what it takes to be involved in a restaurant and do a good job. The stereotypical actor/waiter has died, because people in this profession take it very seriously and make a good living because of it. Whether or not you need a formal training - i.e. an education at an institution - I'm not a believer in that. A lot of my best waiters and captains have grown up in the business. They've learned it from the ground up - they've been a dishwasher, a prep cook, etc. And so they have a much better appreciation for what they do every day.

Zagat: How much of your staff would you say are career-service professionals?
I would say probably 85% of my staff are service professionals, meaning this is the career that they've chosen. The exception to that might be in private dining, where we do have seasonal waiters and captains that we hire for the busiest time of the year and those tend to be more temporary. That includes busboys as well - I can't think of any that have been here less than 20 years. I plan on keeping them here. We had our most recent retirement this past year, one of our waiters who had been here 46 years. It's not unusual for our service staff to make it 30 years, but 40 years is a credit to him.


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