Invisible Perfection

What the Diner (Hopefully) Doesn’t Notice

At Le Bernardin, one of New York’s premier four-star restaurants, excellence happens best when it’s not seen at all. A meal there is usually so relaxed and gracious, it’s hard to imagine the military precision with which the dining room is run.

• Before meals, the area is prepared according to checklist

• During meals, all staff adhere to strict training guidelines

• A florist makes a daily flower change on all the tables

• Silver and flatware get a weekly polish in a burnishing machine

• The concept of “mise en place” – put in place – extends to the dining room as well as kitchen

Le Bernardin

Le Bernardin

When we succeed, it looks effortless, but it’s not. It’s all codified into different organizations. It’s totally controlled – and the guest should have no idea

– Executive Chef Eric Ripert

Can you say the same about your organization and its interactions with guests?

Why not?


photo courtesy Kok Chih, CC


The Elements of Service

The center of attention in a four-star restaurant may be the food, but it’s the service before, during, and after that creates the experience.

Chef Eric Ripert

Chef Eric Ripert

At Le Bernardin in New York City, the service is as much the creation of Executive Chef Eric Ripert as is his exquisite dishes. Along with the restaurant’s founder Maguy Le Coze, Ripert has created the elements of service that keep Le Bernardin at the top of its class.

Hiring – while they prefer staff with a two- or three- star background, they have been known to go with their gut instinct and hire the people they like, those that have the demeanor and willingness to please.

Training – the standard of perseverance and constant training is set at the top and carried throughout the organization. General manager David Mancini and Maitre d’ Ben Chekroun want each hire to know what goes into every other job on the floor. The constant cross-training that goes on enables the entire staff from the captains to the busboys to operate in a seamless, fluid manner.

Knowledge – The level of service expected by customers at Le Bernardin is matched and exceeded by the knowledge the staff constantly pursues. From the technical side (knowing the menu by heart, how each serving is prepared, the correct place settings, etc.) to the human aspect (learning to watch guests for clues, anticipating their needs), the staff is always learning.

Attitude – over the years the atmosphere has become less formal, but Le Bernardin’s staff will provide what you are looking for: to celebrate, to eat, to do business, to entertain the family. Their goal is for you to enjoy the experience and leave happy with a smile.

The Sixth Sense – Chekroun says that the ability to read a guest is the key to providing four-star service. “You can tell if someone is used to a four-star restaurant or it’s their first time. It’s our job to put them at ease no matter the situation. Intuition is very important on the floor – before a guest can ask “Where’s my waiter?” you must be there.”

Teamwork – At Le Bernardin, service is like the proverbial chain – a weak link will compromise the whole thing. Anyone on the chain, from the time you make a reservation till the moment you leave, can ruin the experience. It’s all about functioning as a team; even though the service is broken into sections, that’s merely strategic. The entire team is expected to understand the ebb and flow of the service and step in before needed.

Presentation – The hallmark of the food at Le Bernardin is the exquisite simplicity of the food, which calls for adding the final touch at the table. The sauces for the meal are served at the table, which provides several advantages: warmer service, better flavors, and eye-catching presentations.

Hungry yet?

Okay, let’s step away from the elegance of Le Bernardin and visit your church. Is it too big a jump to imagine that your guest services need to have the same elements of service as a four-star restaurant?

I think not.

In each of the areas above, why don’t you brainstorm how you can deliver four-star hospitality to your guests?


photo courtesy Kok Chih, CC

Establishing a Culture of Service

Yesterday’s post introduced what I have found to be the number one question I encounter in talking with leaders in ChurchWorld:

How do we discover/train/keep more volunteers in our church?

I have dozens of conversations with church leaders every week. In almost every conversation – no matter what the original topic – the question above comes up. Large or small, rural or urban or suburban, traditional or contemporary, denominational or non-denominational, the question is always being asked.

Yesterday I began a series of posts on the concept of volunteers in ChurchWorld. I introduced the topic with the first of two  articles written in 2009 for Church Solutions magazine. They were based on a unique experience I had at my church that summer – one that changed my perspective and trajectory. You can read the first one here. And here’s the second… 

Establishing a Culture of Service (originally written for Church Solutions magazine in August 2009)

If you took a poll of church leaders about some of their biggest problem areas in churches today, you are sure to find some variation of “we need more workers” in the top three. I grew up in the home of two very committed parents who served in a lot of different church positions over the years. As a young teenage believer, I helped out where I could. As a young married adult, my wife and I volunteered for numerous positions in our college and seminary churches. While serving in church staff positions for over 23 years, I also served in different volunteer capacities. When I transitioned into the role of a church consultant, I continued in volunteer roles in my church. As I look back over these decades of experiences, the need for more workers is a prominent and consistent memory.

What if it didn’t have to be that way?

A few weeks ago I wrote about Elevation Church in Charlotte NC and their efforts in enlisting volunteers for their kick-off Sunday in the fall. In that post, I noted the events of the day and posed a question: Where do I sign up? It wasn’t a rhetorical question, because my wife and I had already made the decision to serve on the volunteer staff at Elevation. Here is the rest of the story.

On that “No Show Sunday” Elevation had an additional 560 volunteers sign up. That was critical because on 8/23/09, the church opened their first permanent campus, added three new worship services at two campus locations, and upgraded the facilities at their third location, thus requiring the additional volunteers. In the two weeks before the opening and expansion, each of the campus locations had volunteer recognition and training events on-site. Each of the 4 areas of volunteering had a session with the team leader going over the responsibilities of that area. Volunteers were given the task of “shadowing” a position to see if that was indeed where they wanted to serve. Our team leaders emailed and called us before our first Sunday of service. A volunteer leader packet came in the mail. So it was no surprise that a whole new cadre of volunteer leaders were eagerly in place on the first day!

Some observations of my recent experiences at Elevation:

  • Does your church have a culture of service? Do you expect that everyone will serve somewhere, doing something? If not, why not?
  • Many times, all you have to do is ask. People want to serve; they just need permission from you!
  • Make sure you are ready for the response. If you asked for volunteers and got 50 or 100 or more, would you be ready for them?
  • Establish a training/shadowing process. Volunteers don’t need 4 weeks of intensive training before they serve; most can begin right away with a minimum amount of training, continuing to learn as they serve.
  • Do you have a process to keep up with volunteers, seeing how they are doing and challenging them to strive for more?
  • Do you celebrate the volunteers who serve in your church? You couldn’t pay them to do what they do, but it is nice to recognize their gifts of time and service throughout the year.
  • Is volunteering a high value for your church? Do your full-time staff positions recognize the crucial role volunteers serve and respond appropriately?

I have been fortunate to serve in dozens of volunteer leadership capacities over the past four decades, but I’m very grateful to be a part of a church that knows the value of volunteers, challenges us to go beyond ourselves, and do it all while serving our Lord.

What’s the culture of service like in your organization?


Church Leaders Are Always Asking This Question…

How do we discover/train/keep more volunteers in our church?

I have dozens of conversations with church leaders every week. In almost every conversation – no matter what the original topic – the question above comes up. Large or small, rural or urban or suburban, traditional or contemporary, denominational or non-denominational, the question is always being asked.

With that in mind, I wanted to visit the concept of volunteers in ChurchWorld. I’ll introduce the topic today and tomorrow with a couple of articles written in 2009 for Church Solutions magazine. They were based on a unique experience I had at my church that summer – one that changed my perspective and trajectory.

Volunteers-The Lifeblood of Your Church (originally published 8/9/2009 in Church Solutions magazine)

 What do you do when a church experience built on volunteers throws a “No Show Sunday”? That was the experience at all of Elevation Church’s (Charlotte NC) multiple campuses this weekend as the staff designed a unique service both to honor current volunteers and encourage new volunteers as Elevation (3 campus locations, 8 services) prepares to add their first permanent site this fall and increase the number of services at each location.

Initially crafted as a response to being “a one-man show”, the weekend services began with no greeters, no parking crew, or no signs all over the place – typical Elevation features. As a matter of fact, one of Elevation’s core values is honoring guests. Not this weekend! Participants walked in to the campus locations with only a single sign at the entrance: “Elevation Church worship today”. No welcome team of any kind. Only a couple of staff members checking in kids at the different children’s areas. No resource booth. No energetic music or hosts outside the worship center: just a single sign pointing out the printed lyric sheets. A bare stage with a couple of portable speakers and a single mic stand. At each location, a single worship leader came out and led the crowd in music printed on the sheets. 

When it was time for the sermon, Pastor Steven Furtick was onscreen as usual, with a simple greeting: “Welcome to the worst Sunday ever at Elevation Church!” What followed was a powerful message for the church today, based on Jesus’ first public miracle as recounted in John 2:1-11.

  • The wedding scene in John 2 reflected a time when guests received honor; today at many churches, guests show up and we have nothing prepared.
  • Jesus disassociated himself, deferring to another time. He owed nothing at the event, but gave everything. We, who owe everything, give nothing.
  • Mary’s “do whatever He tells you” gave us instructions for obedience.

I was reminded of a comment by Uptown campus pastor Larry Hubatka several weeks before: “You never get the full experience at Elevation until you volunteer.” I wrote it down, and it came back full force today in the absence of all volunteers.

Elevation Church is driven by volunteers: 1,860 volunteers are in the database. Each weekend over 860 volunteers work over 3,295 hour per week in the four broad areas of Family Services, Guest Services, Production, and Administration. 

The powerful close came when Furtick reminded the audience that when Jesus turned the water into wine, the only ones who witnessed the miracle were the servants. When you serve, you get to witness the power of God.

Where do I sign up?

(the numbers at Elevation have changed now – we have 7 campuses, twice as many volunteers, and are continually expanding – but the principle is the same)

Tomorrow: Establishing A Culture of Service