Peter Avis, Restaurant Manager, Babylon, The Roof Gardens

The Staff Canteen

Originally from Liverpool, Peter Avis is restaurant manager of Babylon at The Roof Gardens in Kensington.

He left the UK aged 17 and first entered the hospitality industry in Miami, where he learned the tricks of the trade before moving to Las Vegas as head waiter at MGM Grand. Four years later he headed back across the pond to London and he took up a position at the Royal Garden Hotel in Kensington where he did a two year restaurant management course. In 2001 he was approached by Babylon and since joining the team he has won UK Restaurant Manager of the Year in 2009 at the Academy of Food and Wine Event and most recently the Catey award for Manager of the Year 2014.

Babylon, The Roof Gardens
Babylon, The Roof Gardens

The Staff Canteen spoke to Peter about working in America, his love of difficult customers and why the industry must embrace social media.

Why did you move to Miami and what made you want to be part of the hospitality industry?

I fell into it, I was in construction before – believe it or not. I had moved to Miami with my sisters when one of them got a modelling contract. We were young and fearless! I got a job as a dish washer and one day the comis waiter called in sick and I was asked to wear a black shirt and run the food.

Worst behaved customer: I can remember serving one guest who complained about part of their starter. I really took the time to try and turn it around so their experience wasn’t affected and so changed the dish. A little later the same guest complained that the garnish on their main meal was not good (even though they’d eaten the entire dish!); this routine went on and on. Aware I was dealing with what I thought was a very unhappy guest I made sure the meal was fully comp… after doing this the table adjacent told me that our unhappy guest had been fully aware what they were doing throughout, with their intention being to get a free meal! Top 5 service experiences:  When the restaurant heard it was my guest’s birthday and they sent a small cake I once visited a restaurant in New York where the waiter took time to verbally explain the menu in a really unique way! At our sister property in South Africa one of the waiters remembered how I liked my eggs and arranged them on my next visit! I had lunch at Galvins restaurant and they knew the wine I had on my previous visit At Ramusake after checking in our coats it became clear how good their lines of communication are, by the time we got downstairs a glass of champagne was waiting for us and the staff knew our names.

I was daunted by that task because I was really shy back then – but I took a chicken and a beef, stood talking for five minutes and my boss said I’d go far. So I became a waiter and that’s how it began. I went on to work at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas for a year. It was amazing, the hospitality game back then was being taken very seriously which was great for me so there was a big focus on training and there was a lot of structure to the role so I was getting developed well. By the time I was 21 I had four years under my belt of really good training and development. In 1996 I came to London and got a job at the Royal Garden Hotel in Kensington. I went in and said I had silver service experience, which I didn’t, I exaggerated! They pulled me out because I was a terrible silver server and put me on a restaurant management course for two years. They had spotted that even though I exaggerated I was ambitious. Then I got a call to say Richard Branson had built this restaurant, they said I would be a perfect fit for what they were looking for.

You talked about training and development early in your career, is that something that is key at Babylon?

What we do differently is we really look after and develop our staff. The management team I have here, all came in at an operational level and have been promoted up. There’s a great work/life balance here which is a rarity in this industry. We don’t just bring people in and work them and work them – we look at their personality, figure out what each person is about and how can we develop them. All of our team get to taste all of the dishes, they get time to talk to the chef and there’s not a sense that they should already know about a dish or ingredient. If they are unsure they are encouraged to go to the kitchen and ask. We have a big map on the wall in the kitchen showing where the products are coming from in the country. So they’ll see where Colchester is and that’s where the oysters come from for example.

Is personality more important to you as an employer than skills?

When I’m interviewing for new Babylon front of house employees, I’m looking at personality, passion, the enthusiasm. I love finding someone with a twinkle in their eye, you know you can develop and nurture them.

How have things changed front of house in the last 20 years?

Back in the day, rising up through the ranks it was silver service. So a waiter’s job was to take the food, and serve it to the guest. The whole nature of what the guests now expect has changed so chefs plate the food from a creative point of view and it’s our job to serve and sell that to the guest. I think there’s an understanding now that the kitchen know they need the front of house to present that dish correctly – which comes down to training, development and food tastings.

Do you think there is still a place for silver service?

I was a terrible silver service waiter! I’ve got really clumsy fingers so I don’t miss it at all personally but I do think there’s a massive place for it. I visited a restaurant in New York and they had a real modern way of doing it – so I think there is a place for it but I do think the industry has evolved.

Do you have a good relationship with the chef? Do the kitchen and front of house operate as one team?

Babylon, The Roof Gardens
Babylon, The Roof Gardens

One thing I love is the close relationship I have with Ian (head chef) and Megan (reception manager) it’s genuine and we are always looking at how we can move things forward – I learn from the team every day. I’ve had experiences in the past, certainly not here, where I’ve gone into tell the chef the customer has complained about the sea bass and the sea bass has been thrown back in my face. But in those days you just took that and you had to carry on and wipe the sea bass off your face! Those days are gone thank god! The relationship between the restaurant manager and the head chef is key to a happy restaurant and the whole customer experience. That’s where, I think, the industry is changing.

How do you deal with social media and instant reviews of the restaurant?

When I came in to the industry you would be lucky if you got a letter every other week, then the emails started and then the food associated websites started and then Instagram, twitter and Facebook. I’ve always maintained, and I’ve spoken in the industry to say that we need to embrace that – that’s where it’s at, everything is instant.  These operators who say I’m not getting on with this, you have to get on with it, you can’t bury your head in the sand. The same with feedback, if we don’t acknowledge the good, the bad and the ugly we’re going to fall behind because guest expectation now is so much higher than it used to be.

Babylon, The Roof Gardens
Babylon, The Roof Gardens

What about negative criticism, is it hard not to respond?

You do get people who aren’t happy, we had a couple last week, and we got it wrong for them. So we invited them back, we did it right with the full performance of what they should have got and they were very complimentary. I say to the team, the expectation guests have of us is huge from the quality of service, to the food to the wine – so the attention to detail is so important. If you get it wrong you have to address it. Every guest who comes through the door is a VIP they should feel like they’ve had the best experience. I like the challenge of a difficult customer, it’s my job to win it back.

So is the customer always right?

After my many years of running restaurants, I embrace difficult situations. I listen to them and take responsibility – these people are coming in and if we haven’t exceeded expectation or at the very least met it, we’ve got to put it right and I hope those people become our most loyal guests. There’s a personal line and people can sometimes cross that and in those circumstances we would look after our staff.

Babylon, The Roof Gardens
Babylon, The Roof Gardens

You’ve won several awards, most recently you picked up the 2014 Catey for Manager of the Year how did you feel winning those awards?

We also won best London Restaurant and that for me was the biggest achievement because it was the whole team. It’s just so nice to be recognised by our industry for what we do. For me it was a proud team moment and to be part of that was amazing. I also see the awards as a massive responsibility to inspire young people and encourage them to be part of our industry.

Ever thought about working in London like Peter, we've got various positions over on our jobs board including front of house here.

>>> Read more of Are You Being Served here

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The Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 12th February 2015

Peter Avis, Restaurant Manager, Babylon, The Roof Gardens