While the hit series The Bear is ostensibly about life managing a restaurant, it is also an ode to remarkable customer experience.
The Emmy-nominated hit Hulu series follows Carmen “Bear” Berzatto as he first runs his brother’s Italian beef stand, “The Beef,” and then launches his own high-end restaurant called “The Bear.” It’s been referred to as a “love letter to Chicago” with its sweeping panoramic views of the city’s skyline and its insider’s look at top restaurants and food culture.
It is also a “love letter” to customer experience.
I once had the opportunity to ask Chef Stephanie Izard (a fellow Chicagoan of Iron Chef and Top Chef fame) how she would allocate food quality versus customer experience in terms of importance to success. Although she is a successful restaurant owner, I expected the chef in her to prevail.
Instead, she surprised me by saying that the two factors were “50/50.” Think about that for a minute: An “Iron Chef” says that the food is only half the battle in terms of winning over diners. Customer experience is equally important.
Izard’s interpretation matched well that of restaurateur Scott Wise, owner of more than a dozen Scotty’s Brewhouse restaurants in the Midwest, who told me on a podcast that he is “in the business of customer service.”
Wise added that if a restaurant has delicious food but terrible service, it fails because it has no customers. But if a restaurant has great food—or even just good food—and outstanding, memorable service, its customers will remain loyal for years to come.
Back to The Bear. There will be no spoilers here, just accounts of some relevant dialogue between characters as well as my commentary. This post is focused entirely on Season 2.
Carmen needs money to open a restaurant, so he approaches James “Cicero” Kalinowski, often referred to as Uncle Jimmy, who is both a family friend and had previously loaned money to Carmen’s brother. The meeting also includes Sydney, Carmen’s restaurant partner and an impressive chef in her own right.
Sydney begins by saying, “We know that any good restaurant starts with dedication to service and taking care of the customer.”
Note that she doesn’t start by saying, “We know that any good restaurant starts with great food.” Yes, it’s probably a given, but her opening salvo gels pretty well with the opinions of both Izard and Wise.
Carmen then follows with: “We’re going to have to find people that want to learn, which is going to be impossible. But, you know, what’s even more difficult is to teach people to give a sh**.”
It turns out that Carmy, as Carmen’s friends and family call him, has an eye for employee experience! After all, in order to get people to “give a sh**,” we need to create an experience that’s worth coming to work for. Carmy is also well aware of the relationship between employee experience and customer experience; we can’t ask employees to provide a remarkable customer experience if they don’t know what one looks like.
As part of a whirlwind tour of some of Chicago’s best restaurants to find menu inspiration (shocker: the restaurants featured in the show have seen “traffic skyrocket”), Sydney finds herself at avec and face-to-face with its owner, Donnie Madia, who appears as himself in the show.
His advice to Sydney?
“I know that you’re going to have great food. You have to make sure that your hospitality and service is overwhelming.”
Again, it’s just as both Izard and Wise said: great food isn’t enough on its own. A restaurant must have “overwhelming” service to get customers to keep coming back.
As a customer experience afficionado, this is definitely my favorite episode of the series. Richard “Richie” Jerimovich, the original manager of The Beef and best friend of Carmy’s brother, is sent to “stage” (pronounced “stahj”) at a fictional version of the restaurant Ever. (To “stage” is essentially to shadow a more experienced chef around the kitchen.)
Richie quickly learns to appreciate that fine dining at The Bear is going to be entirely different from the experience at a quick-serve Italian beef stand.
Garrett, an employee at the fictional Ever, tells Richie that “Every day is the freaking Super Bowl,” while Jess, another employee, advises that “Every night you make somebody’s day.”
What if we all thought of our businesses this way? That every day is the Super Bowl and every day we have the opportunity to make someone’s day? Sounds like a remarkable customer experience to me.
Richie doesn’t quite “get it” yet, so he asks Garrett why he loves such a demanding job.
“I just like being able to serve other people,” Garrett responds. “Taking care of people is like working at a hospital. Restaurants and hospitals use the same word: ‘hospitality.’”
I was today years old when I finally made that same connection to the word “hospitality.” And yet, it makes all the sense in the world.
Richie later learns that Ever has a designated staff member to “research” every guest – Google searches, social media stalking, and the like – in order to find nuggets to personalize the experience.
One woman is overheard saying that she was sad to be missing Chicago’s famous deep dish pizza on this visit, despite enjoying a meal at one of Chicago’s top fine-dining establishments. Richie is immediately tasked with grabbing a steaming hot pie from Pequod’s so one of the chefs at Ever could add his own panache and surprise the guest. Richie gleefully volunteers to bring the pizza to the diner’s table.
Finally, upon meeting Ever’s head chef Terry, played by the incredible Olivia Colman, Richie learns that she still enjoys peeling an entire box of mushrooms to prep for a course. Terry describes the mushroom peeling as “time well spent” not because every guest will notice it, but because a few will and they’ll appreciate it.
Indeed, it is the little things that matter in customer experience, in part because lots of little things add up to big things.
Richie and Neil (another family friend/restaurant employee) set up a final team meeting with the restaurant staff of The Bear to prep them for Opening Night, which is really a “friends and family” trial to iron out all of the operational kinks before the formal opening.
Neil instructs everyone to “read the room.”
“We read facial expressions. We listen for verbal cues. We want to be inside of people’s minds,” he says.
It turns out Neil understands that Actions of the Customer, or AOC, are just as important as the Voice of the Customer, or VOC. The more we watch and listen, the more we learn about what customers really want.
Richie adds: ”We ask questions. But not too many. We wanna be nice. We remember names. We remember everything. When we walk into this room, we enter a state of profound, heightened sensitivity.”
And later, Richie concludes with “Listen better… Don’t make ’em ask. Listen. Watch. Execute.”
Doesn’t The Bear sound like the kind of restaurant you’d like to visit – for the service alone?
One other scene in this episode that really stands out is when Carmy notices that the bag hook on a table isn’t attached correctly. He and Sydney slide under the table to fix it, even though it’s not technically their “job” – they are the high-powered chefs, after all.
Great businesses with a culture of customer-centricity understand that customer experience is everyone’s job. If every employee is “aware of their surroundings” and pays attention to all the little details, customers will notice.
Why? Because there will be fewer customer pain points and more “wow” moments that customers can’t wait to share with friends, family, colleagues, and social media followers.
Iron Chef Stephanie Izard and Scotty Wise were right when they said that customer experience is just as important as the quality of the food. And while each fictional employee of “The Bear” restaurant in The Bear may lean toward one or the other (Sydney = definitely food; Richie = definitely experience), it’s their combination of skills that makes the whole thing work.
The Bear is highly recommended and deserves both some Emmy wins and some Michelin stars!
Image by Joaquin Aranoa from Pixabay.