By PAT CARROLL

Of The Patriot-News

When John Sciortino bought the restaurant 2201 in the Boro in Camp Hill, last February, he had never served a meal to a paying guest in his life.

He didn’t know a gueridon from a four-top.

What Sciortino knew was how to serve.

“I’ve served customers all my life, and it’s always been a very pleasurable experience,” said Sciortino, who took an early out from corporate America, then got bored with retirement.

At 2201, his take on hospitality is simple.

“When a customer enters the restaurant, it’s akin to a friend entering your home,” Sciortino said. “We want everyone to feel like they’re at my dining room at my house.”

Be friendly but not too familiar, echoes 2201 server Marcus Flynn, who has made memorable evenings for guests at James Cafe on Market and The Golden Sheaf before his current gig.

Hitting the right note is not hard for well-trained waitstaff. But with the local jobless rate so low, restaurant managers often settle for anyone who can carry a tray to a four-top (a table with four places), or plop it on a gueridon (a small portable table with wheels).

“There are few establishments in this area that have outstanding service,” said Hilton Harrisburg sous chef Jeff Lagyak. “Good food, but the service just isn’t there. Maybe it is a lost art. I hope not.”

Lagyak’s kitchen serves the casual Raspberries as well as the white-napkin Golden Sheaf restaurant, where maitre d’ Joseph Carroll quietly boasts of having the most professional waitstaff in Harrisburg.

The Sheaf uses a front waiter/back waiter system. The front waiter greets customers, takes orders and offers advice. The back waiter brings dishes to the table from the kitchen. The front waiter clears every course and takes the plates and flatware to the kitchen.

The result is an exceptionally calm, clean dining room, with no unnecessary flurries of activity and no dirty dishes in sight.

When the menu is changed every six months, the kitchen prepares and the chef explains all the new appetizers, soups, entrees and desserts to the waitstaff. The tasting and note-taking goes on over five days. By the time they are finished, servers should be able to answer any question from guests.

That’s why the Golden Sheaf gets the big bucks, as Patriot-News restaurant critic Mimi Brodeur wrote last February.

The Golden Sheaf might not be to everybody’s taste or everybody’s wallet. Still, shouldn’t restaurant patrons expect reasonable service regardless of the restaurant?

“You can’t expect to find fine-dining excellence in a diner,” said Marcia Shore, Harrisburg Area Community College associate professor of culinary arts. “But on the other hand, a person should never receive less than good service, no matter what style of restaurant it is.”

That means a warm greeting from the host and swift acknowledgment from the service staff soon after being seated.

“This does not mean that they immediately pounce on the table,” Shore said. But it means eye contact even if the server is busy, and a quick, “I’ll be with you shortly” to show the server knows you’re there.

It also means a neat and clean server with a professional manner who makes eye contact with each guest, speaks slowly enough to be understood and has a good knowledge of the menu items, both how they taste and how they were prepared.

That’s a good start to a meal.

It’s part of the course for Ian Maksik, co-founder of the School for the Service Arts, based in Manhattan. Maksik sums up his teaching in four words: Kill for the guest.

“Don’t listen to the supervisor, don’t listen to the owner,” he said. “Don’t listen to the manager. Just listen to the guest.”

Maksik quotes a survey by the National Restaurant Association on food and table service showing that 73 percent of customers return to a restaurant because of the service. Only 12 percent return because of the food.

Chef Josh Easton at 2201 thought that sounded about right.

“The first thing they experience when they walk through the door is the service, and it stays with them all evening,” he said. “That’s a major part of the meal.

There are 3 million full-time professional servers and 650,000 open jobs in the industry, Maksik said, and the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics describes waiting tables as the nation’s sixth fastest-growing profession.

More restaurants needing more servers open every month, from TecPort on the East Shore to the suddenly lively area near the Silver Spring Shopping Center.

“There’s a tremendous amount of competition for servers both downtown and in the suburbs, with these restaurants and chains,” said Stephen Weinstock of Stock’s on 2nd, which joined The FireHouse 10 years ago at the birth of Harrisburg’s Restaurant Row.

And suburban restaurants keep getting bigger.

One fantasy-scale project in Lower Paxton Twp. will include valet parking, private dining areas, bars, patio seating for 52, an upstairs terrace, skybox seats, two reflecting pools and a waterfall and seats for 587 customers. About half of those will be in a fine-dining venue, which requires even more waitstaff.

“The unemployment rate is so low here, it’s tough finding good people,” said Pat Conway, executive director of the Pennsylvania Restaurant Association. “The industry is growing at a very steady rate. With the projected growth over the next 10 or 15 years, we think there’s going to be a real crunch.”

The federal labor group describes the training needed to be a waiter or waitress as “short-term, on-the-job.”

Not so short, according to server Ed Moorhead of Harrisburg, who took up waiting as his second career.

“Most important in your training is to be patient,” he said. “There is a lot to learn in this business; it doesn’t happen overnight. You have to learn all different aspects of the table service. It takes months of hard work to get to be where you feel comfortable, especially if you’ve never dealt with the public before.”

In a town that already supports a professional bartending school, a professional table service school is not beyond the realm of possibility, Conway said.

“I like the idea, I think it is something that would provide a service to our members,” he said. “We’d be interested in that, and there might be opportunities to partner with educational institutions and culinary programs.

“Having people who are well-prepared to serve in the industry is important.”

As Moorhead said: “The public can be very impatient.”


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Bonjour!

In culinary school and getting ready to trade the writing life for the cooking life. Or not. Might do both. At the moment I'm a feature writer for The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa. My name is Pat Carroll.

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