For those who want to know everything.

Senza

Senza

Chicago, IL

For a good time, (make reservations): Here

Check out their website: HERE

Key words: Michelin star. Eager. Progressive. Family. Proud. Passion. Cooperation. Funny. Warm. Real. Committed.

When I arrived at Senza I had just driven from Minneapolis and the eight hours on the road made me feel…um, crabby. But leave it to one of the best, most vibrant, genuine service teams to pep me up. They were welcoming and forthcoming from the moment I walked in. This was my favorite stop on my tour.

 

The most baffling lesson

 

It is a shared opinion among everyone in the restaurant industry that if you have never worked in a restaurant you can not manage or own a restaurant–at least successfully. Cara, the FOH manager of Senza dashes that opinion.

Up until Senza opened two years ago, Cara had never worked in a restaurant. She had worked in the banking industry. Her husband, Noah, previously of Schwa, was hired on as executive chef by the two woman who opened Senza. He didn’t know how to run the FOH and needed a manager for that area, so he asked his wife Cara and there you have it.

 

I asked Cara if the transition was a big leap. She said, “Ya!” But that leap could be the reason this team is committed to excellence and each other. If a manager is secure, they set the service structure and parameters and that’s that. But for Cara, “I really didn’t know what I was doing so I asked a lot of, ‘How would you do this?’ because I don’t know! I was really lucky to find some really great people who were willing to help. Everyone here is a go getter. I had really great support.”
The entire service team at Senza helped bring Cara up to speed on procedures, practices and how-to’s. But Cara brought something from her past. “I worked for a bank that was really into customer service, and the fact that they put such a focus on that has helped me a lot. No one is having fun at the bank, and there’s anxiety that people get from banking, you learn how to head off people’s anxiety and I feel like I transferred that here.”

 

 

And let’s be real, fine dining, especially for the first time, can freak some people out. Cara noticed, “There is a lot of anxiety for a lot of people, especially now that fine dining is becoming a more mass interest. Some people aren’t really used to ordering a tasting menu and then they walk in here and they’re feeling nervous about the experience. The fact that it’s “fancy” and we give them new silverware for every course and we replace their napkin–there’s a lot of pomp and circumstance around it.”

The name of the game for a restaurant like this, that has exceptional food and impeccable service, is being genuine and warm. Your restaurant can be all that and a bag of chips but if you’re not friendly and kind, you’ll lose out. Of the team Tory said, “We genuinely care and it comes across.”

Zack explains, “Cara is generally the first one to greet guests and it feels like you are at her house. I think that is what this place is to us.”

From the moment a guest walks in the door, “Everyone is really eager to show what we do and get them excited about it. I think we all get a high over [that],” Cara interjected. “We want people to leave feeling like they are a part of our family.”

 

 

Boh love

 

This “family” feeling is not just for the service team. Cara’s pointed out that, “We are all friends. We have a really good relationship with the back of house.  Some restaurants… there seems to be a struggle, there’s a front of house vs the back of house, which we don’t have here.”

The servers have respect and appreciation for the kitchen team.  Bill pointed it out outright,  “One of the bonuses of working here is having pride in the food we serve. We are really fortunate when we put a course in front of people and they’re like ‘oh wow!’ ”

Zach agreed, “Obviously we’ve known, but to learn how much goes into every single thing. When we put a plate down we are proud.”


 

Conflict

 

When you spend as much time together as this restaurant team does there are bound to be some disagreements. It happens; in every restaurant. The difference is, some restaurant teams don’t deal with the issue, the problem, or the annoyance; instead they let it fester.

I asked the team what they do when there is an issue among the staff. How do you handle it?

James came back quickly, “We drink.”

Everyone laughed.

He expounded, “We drink after work. Since we do hang out enough, you find your moment and say ‘when you said this it made me feel this.’ Sometimes there are pressure points that build and we’ve always done a really great job at just releasing them.”

Cara pointed out that the humor of the team helps. “We are all good at joking so if someone does something that puts you off, it’s easy; we give each other a hard time.”

 

On my tour I observed that better restaurants, like Senza, create an inviting atmosphere for seeking “pesky” issues. They welcome the find. Here’s an example James gives. “Let’s say one night our wine pours are too big, next time we have a Saturday meeting like this one, we’ll practice that. It’s kind of like juggling, whichever one is the lowest we bring that one up.”

Bill backed up James’ point, “We have a meeting nearly every day and that’s just so important (to constantly bring everything up to standard). We bring things back to have a high standard all the time.”


 

Many restaurant teams have a hard time bringing up problems or issues to a member of the team. They deal with conflict by not dealing with conflict. And maybe that is to be expected for the restaurant service teams that have scattered standards and expectations.

But we should all take note of Senza. Think of the implications that their kind of culture fosters. When you are part of a group of people who are always asking the questions, “What can we fix? What can we improve on? What’s an issue, big or small?” When you are problem seeking and solution focused, hearing from a teammate that you, personally, can alleviate an issue because you are sole owner of the issue, that’s welcomed information, not frightening or maddening.

In Summary

 

This team is, by far, the most passionate team I had met on my tour. Their relationship with each other is strong, friendly and respectful and that comes across to anyone in their presence. Add to that a stunning menu from a dedicated and creative Chef and brigade, and you have Senza, an outstanding 1 Michelin star restaurant.

And remember, they’ve only been at this for 2 years. They’re gunning after excellence and I believe if excellence can ever be achieved, Senza is the restaurant to do it. Move over EMP and French Laundry, there’s some Midwestern kids on the playground and they’re not f’n around.

 

This restaurant teaches us that passion mixed with constant communication can be the engine that propels a restaurant to head of the pack.

 

Thank you Senza team!  You guys were absolutely outstanding. Thanks for welcoming me into your restaurant home with open arms. Cara, James, Bill, Charles, Tory, Mel, Zach, Noah, Chris and everyone else who makes the Senza engine purr.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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