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Taste of Tuscany: Restaurant manager brings Italian 'passion' to eatery

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

Stan Minniefield said he felt "satisfied," not "stuffed," after eating an eight-course lunch last month at a hilltop restaurant in Siena, Italy. Minniefield, the manager of the Olive Garden Italian Restaurant in Morrow, was eating with 99 other managers from the restaurant chain, who hailed from locations across the United States and Canada.

The dishes served during lunch included jumbo shrimp, roasted garlic potatoes, a variety of meats, such as salami and wild boar, and a breaded, baked fish which Minniefield said was on fire when his waiter brought it to the table.

Dessert was a dish which Minniefield said was similar to a crème brûlée with its top ablaze.

Minniefield and the other managers were sent by Olive Garden to Italy March 1-7 to study the Tuscan method of preparing food and operating a restaurant at the Olive Garden Culinary Institute of Tuscany.

"They want to make sure the employees of the restaurants are executing the recipes consistently," Minniefield said. "It's important to ensure consistency in the flavor at each Olive Garden location so the customers will continually enjoy their dining experience."

Since his return from the culinary institute, Minniefield, who has been the manager of the Morrow Olive Garden for two years, said he has tried to use his experience in Tuscany to improve the quality of service at his restaurant. He said he wants the service offered by the restaurant's employees to better reflect Olive Garden's ties to the "rolling hills" of the region.

"One of the things that really stood out over there was that there were no chain restaurants, so when we went out, you saw the managers amongst the customers and making sure they were taken care of," Minniefield said. "They were very passionate about making sure everything was perfect."

Learning in Italy

During the trip to the Olive Garden Culinary Institute of Tuscany, the managers learned about more than 20 sauces, including homemade marsala sauce, a cheese and butter sauce, and a carbonara sauce. They also studied more than 20 types of pastas, including traditional penne, bowtie and three types of tortellini, along with some less-common types like "one that looked like a little handbag," Minniefield said.

The managers also learned about different types of wine, and how to pair a wine with a meal. Minniefield said they also traveled to a fresh food market in Florence, where they had to buy fresh ingredients for the meals they made at the culinary school. "They had the freshest foods, including fish that was caught that day," Minniefield said.

"It's amazing what we compacted into one week," he said. "Just from hitting three different cities, to learning about the different types of pasta and sauces, to pairing the wines with different meals every day."

Bringing Tuscan 'passion' to Morrow

When Minniefield returned to his Olive Garden restaurant in Morrow, he said he had his staff undergo training to improve the quality of service. Customer satisfaction surveys showed 76 percent of responding customers already thought they were receiving "Excellent" service, Minniefield said. Still, the manager had certain areas he wanted to improve at the restaurant.

He started with the restaurant's culinary department - the chefs - to reduce the number of dishes sent back because customers were not satisfied with the quality of the food. Minniefield said he and other managers made the chefs taste properly and improperly cooked pasta and sauces so they would know the difference in quality.

"We explained that what they put in the window [in the kitchen] is a reflection of themselves," Minniefield said.

Culinary Assistant LaTosha Jenkins said the number of dishes returned by customers has dropped 30 percent over the past three weeks because of the new training. Ninety-five percent of dishes which are made by the chefs now go unreturned to the kitchen, she said.

"We strive for 100 percent satisfaction, and I don't think we could meet that goal without having the entire Tuscan dining experience," Jenkins said.

Waiters and hostesses also received training on how to make sure customers had a friendlier dining experience at the restaurant. Minniefield said he also now hires new employees based on their attitude, rather than talent. He said he wants his staff to match the friendly atmosphere he experienced in restaurants in Tuscany.

"They feel very appreciative toward their customers over there," Minniefield said. "There are so many shops to go to, so you just feel that generosity once you walk in there."

Customers give approval

Ultimately, the customers have the final say about whether Minniefield's trip was worth it. Over the past three weeks, 78 percent of customers who filled out the customer service surveys now say they had an "Excellent" dining experience at the restaurant, Minniefield said.

McDonough resident Mayra Pangborn, who occasionally comes to the Morrow Olive Garden location with co-workers from Fort Gillem to have lunch, said she has noticed the restaurant's food is "different" lately.

"It just tastes better," Pangborn said. "I'm glad they send the managers to Tuscany to learn about the food. If you're going to run an Italian restaurant, you need to learn how Italian food should be cooked. It makes it more authentic for us when we eat here."