Schmoozing to soothe the restaurant line

Jacob Fritz Oleshansky, left, the host at Breads Bakery in New York, is among a new class of fast-casual restaurant employees who provide more human contact with customers, whether it be entertaining, instructing or simply distracting patrons from th
Jacob Fritz Oleshansky, left, the host at Breads Bakery in New York, is among a new class of fast-casual restaurant employees who provide more human contact with customers, whether it be entertaining, instructing or simply distracting patrons from the tedium of waiting.PHOTO: ANDREW WHITE / NYTIMES

NEW YORK (NYTimes) - Fritz the Schmoozer has his eye on you from the moment you walk in the door. It's his job.

Fritz, born Jacob Fritz Oleshansky, is the host at Breads Bakery in New York's Union Square, where he relies on old-school skills like eye contact and conversation to make customers feel welcome.

For years, so-called fast-casual restaurants have worked to lower costs by keeping the help behind the counter and adopting a cafeteria format that leaves much of the work to diners, who stand in line, order, pay and carry the food to a table or out the door.

But increasingly, many of these places are getting the message that customers crave a little more human contact. They've created a new class of employee whose mission is to infiltrate the crowds to help, entertain, instruct or simply distract from the tedium of waiting.

Fast-casual restaurants, from small ones like Breads Bakery to chains like Sweetgreen, are the quickest-growing segment of the dining business, combining speedy service with food that they claim is fresher and higher quality than traditional fast food. And as they battle rising competition from a new source - delivery services - workers like Fritz are the first line of defense.

People need a reason to get up from the desk or the couch for a meal, and the promise of some personal interaction may be just the thing to lure them.

Here, then, is a taxonomy of the new specialists filling the service gap from coast to coast.

The Floorwalker

Oleshansky, who calls himself Fritz the Schmoozer, has three distinct strategies.

Between 8 and 9 am, he avoids any customer who is on the phone or wearing earbuds. "If I talk," he said, "I get in their way and make them late for work." He is more voluble with tourists. "They're overwhelmed," he said. "They want to know, 'Is this self-service?' So I say, 'Yes, what are you looking for?' and then we're off," in English, German, Spanish or Oleshansky's smattering of Hebrew.

Then there are the regulars - his favorites, he said, because "they're eager for a little back and forth." He may talk about fine art with one, politics with another. He distracts antsy children while their parents finish eating.

When Breads Bakery opened in 2013, Gadi Peleg, an owner, watched nervously as people walked in, looked around and walked out - or asked where the pastries came from, assuming that they were generic goods from a volume supplier. He stationed himself near the door, spent all day cutting samples and chatting, and realised that he needed a host to make that connection full time.

"If you go to three places, and they know your name at one of them, that's where you're coming back - you feel you belong," said Oleshansky, 22, who started at Breads in September, three months after graduating from Brandeis University.

The Line Manager

Zach Friedlander opened his third Aloha Poke Co. outlet last fall, in Revival Food Hall in Chicago. It was an immediate and unwieldy hit: The lunchtime line at the 250sq-ft food stall was so long that customers bailed and neighboring vendors complained about gridlock.

Shake Shack may have made waiting in line this generation's version of Tom Sawyer's whitewashed fence, but not when it takes an untended hour. Friedlander divided the line in two: an ordering line of 60 people, and a second line of people waiting to get into the ordering line, with space for cross-traffic.

He also created the job of line manager, a friendly gatekeeper for those in the second line.

"Everyone lines up across the hall and keeps their eyes on him," Friedlander said. "It's like Noah's ark; he waves them over two by two." The line manager also hosts a trivia quiz for the first 15 people in the ordering line, with a free poke bowl for the winner.

"From the time you order to the time you pick up your bowl might be five minutes," Friedlander said, "but we try to cultivate as much hospitality as possible." His current manager, appropriately named Noah Feldman, is "a very charismatic, fun person," Friedlander said. "Kind of like the maitre d' of a fast-food restaurant."

The Culinary Liaison

Travis Lett, the chef and an owner of Gjusta, a fast-casual younger sibling of the acclaimed Gjelina restaurant in Venice, California, sells homemade everything: pastries, bread, condiments and smoked and cured meats, displayed at a counter that runs almost the full length of his industrial space.

When Gjusta opened two years ago, the counter help had trouble keeping up with what could be 2,500 orders on a busy day.

"I didn't quite anticipate how many questions there were going to be," Lett said, from people interested in the difference between fermented and yeast-raised breads, or between cold- and hot-smoked salmon, wild and farmed.

He decided to create "culinary liaisons, not just order takers," even though he anticipated a training nightmare. The entire counter staff now has to study a homework packet, work alongside a more experienced employee and survive what Lett calls "the arduous process of tasting and analyzing their way through the menu," all of which takes weeks.

Line anarchy was his other big problem, so he installed a number dispenser, that staple of traditional delis, "to allow people to move around the space without worrying about their place in the queue." He added an express line for coffee and pastry, and dispatched members of the management team to the floor to talk to customers - and occasionally pull a regular out of line and take his order, a codified cutting-in-line policy that rewards loyalty.

Employees allay anxiety about the first-come, first-served patio seating by telling peak-hour guests to grab a seat; someone will bring the food when it's ready. (Even McDonald's has recently begun to deliver orders to tables so customers need not stand and wait.) Is it enough? Lett isn't sure. He says he may have to hire a full-time maitre d'.

The Rover

Second helpings present a service challenge for the line-and-tray model, because no customer wants to stand in line twice.

The Seattle chef John Sundstrom just opened Southpaw, a 50-seat pizzeria on the original site of his fine-dining restaurant, Lark, which has moved to bigger digs. But he worried that his regulars would be rattled by a more casual setup; they weren't accustomed to benches, communal tables and an ordering line.

So he created the "rover," an intermediary whose job is "to watch for your cues that you need something." If diners run out of wine before they run out of pizza, or vice versa, a rover steps up to the counter to fetch that second round. Customers who order dessert get a chit from the cashier that they hand to a rover when they're ready. Guests can open a tab so they pay only once, when they're done.

Even the single-slice crowd gets a hedge against inconvenience: Southpaw's slices are called quarters because they're one-fourth of a 15-inch pie - bigger than the usual slice and likelier to eliminate the need to go back for more.

Cashiers are trained to answer any questions about the menu.

"Because we are still using a lot of farm-to-table ingredients and nicer cheeses, they definitely need to be well spoken about ingredients, to think of it more as fine dining even though it's a casual environment," Sundstrom said. A customer will not have to figure out what romanesco is on her own.

The Salad Chaperone and the Concierge

It's one thing to be hospitable with a small operation, and another when you're a growing chain like Sweetgreen, which has 59 locations, on both coasts and in Chicago, and plans to add 20 to 30 more in 2017.

"Most restaurants, as they scale up, they get worse," said Nicolas Jammet, a founder. "We want to build a connection to the brand even if it's only for 30 seconds." Within the last two years, the company has revamped its build-a-salad operation and added a host to enhance the experience.

When the first Sweetgreen opened in 2007 in Washington, customers moved along an assembly line and faced a new staff member at each station. It seemed efficient at first, but people got tired of hearing "'What do you want?' over and over," Jammet said.

The company now uses a one-on-one model: A single server escorts a guest all the way down the line.

Sweetgreen also offers a mobile app for customers who want to order, dart in, grab a bagged order off a shelf and dart out. It's fast, but no way to build brand loyalty. So the company added what Jammet calls a concierge during peak hours to make sure that the grab-and-go contingent gets help if need be, and to welcome - and placate - the people in line.

It's the thought, not the magnitude of the effort, that seems to count.

"Even if it's just, 'Hey, how are you doing, here's your salad, have a great day,'" Jammet said, "it can be a small moment that's pretty genuine."

The Talking Chef

Not everyone, however, seems to require a human touch.

In September, Wilson Tang, who owns two full-service restaurants, including the 97-year-old Nom Wah Tea Parlor in New York's Chinatown,opened a 35-seat spinoff called Nom Wah Nolita, where a large measure of impersonality is built in.

The small kitchen staff creates specials and a vegan broth, but most of the food is supplied by his other restaurants - including about 40,000 dumplings each month from the Chinatown kitchen, half of them made by hand, the other half by Taiwanese robots. Customers place orders and pay on iPads at the counter. It's easy to eat a meal without ever acknowledging an employee.

This is not the type of dining experience Tang, 39, is used to; he admits to feeling old when he stops by. On a damp Sunday afternoon, he surveyed the crowd and shook his head. Most of the customers were in their early 20s, apparently satisfied with the chef's social media announcements of limited-run specials. Aside from the occasional "thanks" when food appeared, they didn't talk to the staff.

Still, Tang makes sure that his employees are prepared for the unexpected overture. He refers to the NoLIta outlet as "chef casual," instead of the more impersonal "fast casual," and trains his people to take the initiative.

If an outlier wanders in - someone old enough, say, to have voted in more than three presidential elections - a kitchen worker is quick to step out from behind the counter to help with the iPads or to answer questions about the menu.

"We even take cash," Tang said proudly.