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Service Matters

Service Matters
Written by Jennifer Stewart Kornegay | Photography by Caleb Chancey

Birmingham’s consummate front-of-house pro Pardis Stitt
has long practiced what’s eluded much of the restaurant world

There’s an impromptu jam session unfolding in the area right off the kitchen at Birmingham, Alabama’s Bottega Café. Pardis Stitt is bobbing her head a bit, her shoulders rising and falling to the rhythm of the early 2000s rap song “Right Thurr.” Only those aren’t the words she and two pony-tailed servers are singing through their smiles. “I like the way you pour that Sancerre, that Sancerre,” they chant, followed by a rousing rendition of “Gruner Has It,” set to Adele’s “Rumor Has It.” “I’ve not heard that one yet,” Pardis says. “We’ve got to write these down!”

A Thursday lunch rush is over, so it’s fine to goof around with wine-themed lyric switches for a second. But there’s more than a playful mood behind the warm and award-winning hospitality that Bottega Café and other Stitt Restaurant Group eateries—Bottega, Chez Fonfon, and Highlands Bar & Grill—are known for. It’s multi-layered and balanced, blending attention to detail, respect for all, and the belief that food, and particularly dining out, should be fun. And Pardis, who owns SRG with husband, chef Frank Stitt, is holding the scales.

“I want our restaurants to be a respite, a break,” she says. “In our society, I feel there’s some anxiety, so whatever we can do to alleviate that, that’s what hospitality is to us.” While she quickly admits she and her team don’t always hit this high mark, she stresses that they never stop striving, and there is a tried and true recipe they follow. The foundational ingredient is highlighting the indispensable functions of front-of-house folks (hosts, bartenders, wait staff) who interact with guests.

Their significance in any restaurant’s success hasn’t always been recognized, and while Frank has long been considered a father of the farm-to-table movement, making front-of-house operations a priority has just as surely put SRG on the leading edge of the industry. Now, more and more restaurants are figuring out that service is central to diners’ experiences, taking a page from the Stitts’ playbook. “As an industry, we need to hold ourselves a little more accountable,” she says. “People have options, so when someone decides to spend their time and money with us, we have an obligation to meet and exceed expectations every time.”

As Pardis moves through the large kitchen behind Bottega’s main dining room, she stops to brag on a tray of cooling apple tartlets and pauses to greet every line cook and pastry chef. Leaving the space, she points to a white board with inspirational quotes about gratitude and notes how the restaurants’ service culture moves in a circle. To bring joy to others, she knows her team must have joy themselves. “I want this atmosphere to make it easier for the staff to have that, and serving others well is a great way to get that, so it’s a cycle.” “We talk a lot about what we want to give our guests in terms of service, enjoyment, and that respite I mentioned, but I want this first for our staff,” she says. “This can be tough work, but that doesn’t mean it should be added stress. We all have stuff, right? But I want them to put it down when they are here.” She continually reminds her team to leave their issues at home. “Or in their car, but not at the door,” she laughs, “because it might sneak in.” Service flowing from the inside out is key to Pardis; she believes the authenticity—or lack thereof—is noticed. “We all react to each other’s energy; if you are negative, I can feel that,” she says. And it works both ways. Even when a server or bartender is exuding positivity, there are guests who simply are not. That’s where the restaurant group’s focus pays off. “We don’t know what someone’s story is when they walk in irritated. We don’t know what happened to them thirty minutes or two hours earlier,” Pardis says. “That’s when you dig deep, rise up, and kill with kindness. It’s not about us.”

Hospitality Times Two

Only it is about Pardis. It’s a fact Frank has loudly voiced for years. While she wears many hats—special event coordinator, menu editor, contractor overseer, and more—her most essential role, managing front of house as “executive of experience,” is a part Pardis sees as a natural extension of her upbringing, being raised in Birmingham after her parents immigrated to the United States from Iran in the early 1960s. “I was raised with Southern hospitality and also Persian hospitality, so I’m doubly blessed,” she says. “There is a saying in Persian culture— she says it in Farsi, “Ghadamet ro cheshmam”—which basically means, ‘You can walk on my eyes.’” She rolls her eyes. “Yes. It’s terribly dramatic—Persians are a dramatic people—but it’s true. It’s someone saying they will lay down themselves for another.”

At her sticky-note-covered desk in the office space above Bottega, she describes growing up in Birmingham after her physician father accepted a position with the University of Alabama Birmingham hospital. Much of her childhood was routine. She went to public school; she danced and was active in theatre. She watched her mother equate affection with a bountiful table. “That meant there was always one extra setting for dinner, always,” Pardis says. “It was there for my friends, my parents’ friends, a neighbor, anyone who might happen by at that time.” Seeing every guest at her home greeted with the notion that, “Everything is here, and it is here for you,” sparked Pardis’ desire to share this eternal welcome with others.

After high school, she studied psychology at Birmingham Southern University with the intention of pursuing a career in counseling. A favor for a restaurant manager friend changed her course. “She asked if I could help work the door one weekend. I said ‘sure,’ and I was hooked,” she says. She fed off the excitement of the diners coming in; she relished watching them enjoy themselves at the table before leaving happy and satisfied. “I saw what a restaurant could do in terms of how it could make people feel,” she says. She ended up at Bottega, working her way up to manager. (It was here she met Frank; they married in 1995.)

That’s where her restaurant industry story begins, but it would be years before she fully unpacked what drives her personal definition of hospitality, which has become the SRG standard. “I’m 53 now, and only recently I’ve thought back to my childhood and seen some of the not-so-pleasant experiences I had, times I was excluded, in broader context. I’ve realized that those times put something deep inside me, something that makes me want to be completely inclusive and to ensure that every single person feels comfortable and important.”

If the Stitt restaurants’ many regulars are any proof, she and her team are achieving this goal. “We’re that third space for a lot of people; they spend time at work, at home and then with us,” Pardis says. “Being truly inclusive means inclusive to all, so we work to be a neutral place.”

This feeling is only amplified when Pardis is there, when she seemingly floats across a crowded dining room to greet a waving patron with a “How aaaaaare you,” giving a smiling nod at their positive reply and deftly wiping a small puddle off the bar without breaking eye contact. Or when she ushers a couple to their table for dinner and gives their vacation details her undivided attention, tuning out the hum of activity around her.

Front of House: Front and Center

The crowd that’s packed between the tomato-bisque red walls of Bottega Café on a weekday at noon is lively and cheerful as servers move smoothly through the space, answering questions, explaining and recommending wines, topping off water, taking and delivering orders. When they’re standing still, eyes are darting everywhere, searching for the next need to meet.

Pardis may be the foundation of SRG’s famed hospitality, but she is only one woman. For its consistent execution, she relies on a team in tune with and dedicated to her vision. And when it comes to training this team, she leads by example, according to Matthew Sims, a Café bartender. “I’ve learned so much working here, but not just about food and wine, about how to treat people,” he says. “We all see it in action in Pardis, that respect and consideration.”

Nick Brown, a server in training who’s currently helping Sims behind the bar, wipes a smudge from a wine glass and chimes in. “The training is pretty intense, but I know it’s a valuable learning experience,” he says. But he echoed Sims on what he’s gaining beyond industry knowledge. “I’ve been here like a week, and yesterday, when I know she was so busy, Pardis stopped to ask how I was settling in, and then really listened to my answer,” he says. “It’s just who she is. She genuinely cares, and it shows in her interaction with all of us and with guests.”

When she asks a cook how school is going or a server if they’re feeling better, there’s sincere interest. But she’s also a stickler for professionalism. “We expect people applying for positions to come to us with a resume like they would for other jobs,” she says. “And in the last two years, I’ve noticed most people have it when they come in. They know that’s part of it. I think that says something about how our entire industry is increasing its concentration on front of house and giving it the attention it deserves.”

That’s nothing new to SRG, but in the wider restaurant world, it is a shift from traditions Pardis is glad to see fade. “I think of the history of some New York or French restaurants, the snooty waiters who looked down on you, and how that was cool, and I’ve never liked that. It’s not service,” she says. She pointed to New Orleans’ legendary Brennan family and its hallmark hospitality as well as FIG in Charleston. “Mrs. Ella [Brennan] was all about taking care of people and creating this wonderful, fun environment,” she says. “And then at FIG, I feel like everyone there is just saying ‘Come on in; we’re going to show y’all a really good time.’ That’s what it is all about.”

Her view that the work of front-of-house positions are as important, perhaps more so, than what’s happening it the kitchen informs everything she shows, tells, and teaches the staff. “I say the food is important, very important, but our guests are not just paying for food,” she says. “They’re here to be served. At the end of the day, you may not understand a dish, you may not even like a dish, but you know how you’ve been treated. We want you to feel good, and we do whatever we can do to achieve that.”

Staff longevity is making it easier, with multiple employees at all restaurants hitting decades-long work anniversaries. They’ve internalized this philosophy and helped Pardis and other managers instill it into newer staff.  Seeing a recent hire “get it” is rewarding. “When they receive that good feedback and appreciation from our guests, they feel that joy and energy, and it clicks how that is worth more than tips,” she says. “I love seeing that light turn on.”

Kindness Counts

Late afternoon sun slanting through a massive picture window illuminates a line of black-and-white clad waitstaff in Highlands Bar & Grill. Frank has already outlined specials and highlighted a few new cocktails. Now, the group awaits Pardis’ thoughts. Her voice is soothing but authoritative, her tone gracious but serious, as she reminds them to watch for tarnish on silver pieces, notes several birthdays and anniversaries to be celebrated that evening, and draws attention to the number of waitstaff assigned to a large party. “I think we need one more,” she says. “Yes? We want drink orders to happen efficiently.” She also instructs the group’s waiters on how the checks will be handled, ensuring the final moments of the party’s meal at Highlands are seamless. “Every minute, every detail matters,” she says. “It starts when someone calls to make a reservation; we’re always talking about smiling through the phone.” It continues with a greeting as soon as you enter the door, your server making eye contact, standing in an open stance at the table, pulling a chair and listening intently. It ends with the valet as you leave.

The ultimate recognition of how skillfully SRG does this came in 2018 when Highlands Bar & Grill won the James Beard Award for Most Outstanding Restaurant, which honors the entire dining experience. “That was a total validation of the role of hospitality,” Pardis says.

As soon as Pardis ends her chat with Highlands staff, offering “Thanks! Have a great night, y’all,” guests begin to trickle in the door. She needs to return a call but takes a minute to encourage a server who’d taken the final exam of the restaurant’s training (which requires hours to complete) earlier in the day. It had not yet been graded, so her fate was unknown. “You exhausted? Don’t worry. You got this!” Pardis says.

She later explains why she never hesitates to take a moment for kindness. “I think consideration for others is what’s missing in our society. I know the words compassion and empathy are overused, but it’s so crucial to put yourself in someone else’s shoes for just a moment. That is how I want our team to understand that we are all different, but we are all the same too.”

And a restaurant is perhaps the perfect vehicle for this message; our commonality is clear when it comes to food. “It’s the great leveler. We all eat, and a shared meal is such a natural way to come together,” Pardis says. “If we could get more people with opposing ideas around a table to discuss them, we’d solve a lot of issues.”

It’s not just disagreements that Pardis wants a meal out to fix; the hectic pace of modern life only accelerated by digital devices is eroding relationships too. “That’s another reason time together, face to face, is important. So, for twenty minutes at the bar or for three hours at a table, if we can provide that welcome place for our guests, that break that allows them to relax and connect, then we have succeeded.”

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