Welcome to The Gatekeepers, in which Eater Austin roams the city meeting the fine ladies and gentlemen who stand between you and some of your favorite hard-to-get tables. This week: Peter D'Souza of Sway.
[Photo: Patrick Michels/EATX]
Since opening in very late 2012, Sway's inventive take on Australian-style Thai and lively atmosphere has earned it both local and national praise. General manager Peter D'Souza brings years of management experience from Danny Meyer's Tabla in New York to the restaurant's large and busy dining room build around communal tables.
D'Souza thrives on the energy of a busy Saturday night, and his deep knowledge of both proper service and hospitality drives his passion for a restaurant run like a "well-oiled machine." Check out his take on what defines truly great service below.
What got you started in the industry?
My start in the industry was somewhere around '98 in my hometown in India, but I didn't get inspired to start to purse it as a career until I started at Tabla in 2005 in New York City, Danny Meyer's restaurant which was run by Chef Floyd Cardoz.
I looked at restaurants with totally different eyes after working there. Hospitality was something I got to learn, and how it can be such an integral part of the dining experience of the guest. I worked there for about six years, and I started as server and I was part of the management team that closed the restaurant.
How do you define hospitality?
This is textbook Danny Meyer, but a restaurant is 51% hospitality versus 49% technical excellence. I can teach someone where to put a fork and a knife, but I can't teach them how to smile. When I sit down with people or with prospective employees, what I look for is that someone feels genuine. You can usually tell whether you're a warm person or not. Of course they need to have some basic knowledge, how to pour a bottle of wine. Hospitality is a difficult thing to teach. It's got to be a thing in you.
When you came to Austin, did you start working with Violet Crown immediately?
I started serving at La Condesa for a month, with the idea that I would get into management. Then I got into basic floor management and took charge of service over there and promoted to AMG in a short period of time. They asked me if I would like to be the new GM at Sway. They're a great company to work for – Jesse and Delfo are both relaxed and they put a lot of trust in me whenever the decisions need to be made.
At one point, I asked Jesse and Delfo what they expected managers to wear and they started laughing, because they knew where I was coming from, full suits. We're active managers, and it makes sense to wear something more casual. Austin is so casual and it makes me so happy. The best decision we've made is to move here.
Sway is known for its communal seating – what are the unique FOH challenges with that kind of seating arrangement?
When we first opened the restaurant, people didn't understand the whole communal dining experience. Once in awhile, guests would call and ask if they could get their own table, which is unfortunately not a possibility in this restaurant. But in general it can be looked as a romantic place too, because you can sit together in a corner and have a private conversation while enjoying that whole ambiance as well.
Did you take steps to take a restaurant to help people understand what was going on with the communal tables?
We started identifying people who might have been unhappy and tried to take care of them to make the experience better. I don't think it's been a make or break experience, but some times people just didn't care for it. Now I hardly ever have to do something. Large parties love it. We have tasting menus that we can offer for 12 people, they can sit down and enjoy all these different flavors, and people switch seats and keep doing that dance, and then we have to go looking for position number 7. But that's the beauty of it, it's a festive environment.
It's 8 p.m. on a Saturday, what's the wait for a table for two?
On Saturday, our turns are pretty fast. We would quote anywhere between 15-45 minutes for a two top. The dynamics of communal seating can make seating larger parties harder, especially if folks want to sit in a different configuration.
Anyone ever offer you a bribe to get seated faster?
It will often go to the hosts, and it's happened right in front of me. We do not encourage that here. Bribe is an illegal word, so we do not accept them. But it gets uncomfortable saying, "We're really sorry, we can't accept this."
Someone will offer a $20, "Hey, get me a table." People are saying, these people have been waiting an hour, and I just got here and want to sit down. It gets sensitive at that point and stretches your hospitality skills to the maximum. I just talk to them in a nice way. I believe in positive conversation and not using negative words. That's the beauty of Austin, people are generally very nice here.
Do you perceive a difference between New York and Austin diners?
In New York there's big spenders, always in a rush. Of course on the weekends people want to sit down and have a beautiful meal, but there's always something else to do. Austinites are relaxed and happy. They want to learn about the restaurant and experience the food.
Where's your favorite place to sit in the restaurant?
Kitchen 8-9, the last two seats on the counter. I like the direct view into the kitchen, and seeing all the hard work and excitement in there. When I go out to eat, my attention gets divided. I keep focusing on service points and I forget I'm out to eat and enjoy my experience. Sitting at the counter gives me the option to look at the hustle and bustle of the restaurant, and avoid a few aspects that would make me a little, you know, distracted.
What are some of the service points you're particular about?
You talk about a table setup, I'm very particular about that. Everything needs to look balanced and symmetrical. The way a bottle of wine is served, there's a protocol for that. The way a person moves in the dining room. We should move with elegance, and in a calm, swanlike manner, even though we are hustling.
Another thing is what we call open arm service, or hugging the guest. If you get into the guest's personal space putting down a plate, I'm going around you with a sign that I'm actually hugging you, not putting an arm in front of your face. It's important to smile, too. Everybody has rough days, but if you have a rough day you need to bring it to our attention and see if we can help you out. And tables should always be cleared. If the guest doesn't need a plate or utensil, it shouldn't be on the table.
This restaurant functions on a tip pool. You work with each other from start to finish.
Can you talk a little more about the tip pool, and explain how that plays out?
In some restaurants, you work your section and take home your share of what you make there. A tip pool means people get paid in percentages from a big pot depending on which department they're in and the number of hours they worked.
It creates a sense of teamwork. Everyone is responsible for each other, and helps people motivate each other. If you're not pulling your weight it's affecting everyone, so it helps people work together and more efficiently.
What's your favorite time to be at the restaurant?
Saturday nights. I'm more of a floor-oriented manager. I love being in the action and talking to guests. I thrive in that energy, it recharges my batteries. Saturday night is pure, the restaurant looks beautiful, and there's all these different parts that need to keep working together in harmony. It shows me that Sway is a well-oiled machine. And if it's not, that gives me the opportunity to correct it.
Where else do you like to eat around town?
I've been here for about two and a half years, and life's been bit of rollercoaster. My wife was pregnant when we moved here, and I had to work to sustain the family. Affordability and time has been an issue, because I'm pretty much here all the time. That said, we've been to Odd Duck and Barley Swine, and qui which I really liked. Elizabeth Street, Lambert's.
We had a great time at Dock and Roll, that truck that sells lobster rolls. It was beautiful out in the park, and when I had that roll I was like, Man, I want to have a couple more of those. I'm always on the search for Indian food. If I want a vegetarian thali, I'll got Swad. It's really chilled out and not expensive at all. Evangeline's Café is close to where I live, and the stuffed porkchop is insane. I've been still struggling to find good chaat here – there's a place that opened up called Chaat Shop, but I haven't been there yet. Coming from Bombay, chaats were what you eat, they're the epitome of Bombay. We try making stuff at home to satisfy my desires, because you can't find it anywhere.
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