A few months ago, a member of our product team came to me with an offsite idea: have the product and design teams to spend a leisurely lunch together in San Francisco. While not necessarily a new idea on the surface, this time there was a twist.

As a bit of background: Many people realize that OpenTable builds products for diners to find and book the perfect table for their next meal, but don’t realize that we also build powerful tools to help restaurants manage their front of house operations. The suggestion for this event was to have the restaurant product teams stepped in to their customer’s shoes.

We partnered with the talented team at Stones Throw, who let us take over their Russian Hill spot for the occasion. Product managers and designers learned from owner Ryan Cole and his team in the kitchen and on the floor about the steps of service and the work that goes into a lunch shift.

This was one of the biggest surprises for the team at work. We underestimated what we needed to know to be good at waiting on our peers. We truly gained empathy for the people who do this seamlessly, understanding it’s a difficult art.

We got together a few weeks after to share with each other the experiences that resonated with us most – before, during and after the meal. We share the top takeaways below, in hopes the experience inspires product and design offsites to take advantage of opportunities to step in the shoes of another.

Our top six takeaways

  1. Live your Customer’s Journey. Whether someone was the one serving or being served, the experience taught us so much and reminded us that nothing replaces actually being in your customer’s journey. We spend a fair amount of time with diners and restaurateurs doing product discovery of various sorts. However, really having a restaurant to ourselves for an entire meal service encapsulated the pieces in a way that forced us to see nuances and details that had their own flavor of inspiration.  This was worth all the time, coordination, and effort.
  2. The Restaurant Experience Starts Before You Arrive. With the team members who were simply coming to eat, we noticed a lot of communication and back and forth around transportation and location as well as just general excitement around going out to eat. The team in charge of serving was busy with homework, memorizing not only the menu but every ingredient in the dishes. This was much harder than we thought it would be and was key to helping people with food allergies.
  3. The Unwritten Rules Matter. Our boot camp highlighted all sorts of learned behaviors big and small that make the flow of a meal go well (or not): what side to reach around to clear a plate, when and how to refill water or refold napkins, how to pass one another in a small dining room and ask for help when busy. Equally, we learned what behaviors from diners make this job harder for servers – an example: stacking or attempting to clear your own plates.
  4. Accommodating Dietary Preferences is Hard Work. We had a large group who all sat at one time. We had attempted to gather restrictions ahead of the event, but not everyone was able to provide them. In the heat of the moment, when food is getting fired and expedited, remembering who gets what at what seat at the table is its own form of Tetris. Even a small number of exceptions can add to the complexity of service for the night.
  5. Servers are Superheroes. We watched the orchestra of the Stones Throw team work together harmoniously and truly appreciated that they serve many roles in this small restaurant. From managing preferences to knowing just when to approach a table, the restaurant staff really made what is a hard job look easy. Talking to them made us realize that these people truly took every step to make sure that each person had an amazing experience. Zach, a member of our team, put it best: “There’s an art to waiting tables. The kitchen is like the heart/pacesetter and the waitstaff is like the blood that gets pumped around the body. It’s always interesting to see how in tune these pieces are with one another.”
  6. It’s Hard to Beat a Restaurant For Team Bonding. Our team noted a lot how much fun they had on the day. For those getting served, the comments were around the food and the wine but also around the great conversations and the laughs. For those of us who worked the meal? We had the same experience, just an hour later.

In short, letting our team run a restaurant for a day was a hit. We vowed to keep this on a regular rotation, so long as the restaurants will have us. It was great too to spend time digesting what it meant to us and what we learned from it. “Put Yourself in Their Seat” is a key value at OpenTable. We built this value to inspire us to resonate with one another at work, across levels and areas of focus. What we realized is restaurateurs theoretically put themselves in the seats of their customers every day, to ensure each person at their tables has an experience they themselves would be proud of.


Stones Throw Recipes

The team from Stones Throw kindly gave us permission to share two of the recipes prepared for our offsite, including the critical metadata they use to track elements of service and hospitality, like silverware pairings and potential allergy issues.

Stones Throw Puffed Potato and Egg

Components

  • Main – Puffed Potato – baked potato dough, eggs, salt, parmesan. baking powder, flour
  • Filling – Egg yolk – yolk, gelatin, chicken stock
  • S/O – Cauliflower Mousse – cauliflower, cream, shallot
  • G/W – chicken skin crumble – deep fried chicken skin, chives, shaved cauliflower
  • F/W – Parmesan cheese in gnocchi dough and as a sprinkle on top

Share Silver

  • Spoon and fork

Allergy

  • Dairy
  • Gluten

Stones Throw Warm Mushroom Ragout

Components

  • Potato-leek panna cotta – potato, leek, cream, butter, milk
  • Confit egg yolk
  • T/W – butternut squash, potato, porcini, trumpet, maitake mushroom cooked in porcini butter
  • G/W – sylvetta (or mustard greens)
  • S/W – Firebrand sourdough (grilled)

Share Silver

  • Spoon

Allergy

  • Dairy
  • Gluten