The Forces at the Front of the House

by Kristi Willis • Photography by Molly Winters

When deciding between favorite restaurants, service usually takes a backseat to other considerations, namely, food and libations. Yet, a great server and front-of-house staff can elevate a dining experience from good to exceptional, often without the diner even noticing. Luckily, Austin has plenty of establishments that appreciate the people who master the dining room and ensure that customers feel at home. 

Jodie Fredley, Uchi/Uchiko

Jodie Fredley had plans to eventually teach high school English when she started working in a restaurant to help pay for college. After two semesters as a server, though, she realized that her calling might actually be in hospitality and she quit school. The gamble paid off, and in 2006, after a successful run in a handful of restaurants, Fredley landed in the Uchi family and has been an integral part of it ever since. Now, in addition to service, Fredley often trains new team members—coaching them on ways to keep their eyes and ears open in the new environment, and how being a great listener is at the heart of excellent service. “I like the opportunity to interact with so many different people—including my coworkers and the guests,” says Fredley. “I know that it’s not heart surgery, but I think it’s our best opportunity to have an impact on people in their everyday lives.” 

Tyrone Soares, Bufalina and Fabi + Rosi

Tyrone Soares is a familiar face to many Austin diners: He’s been serving in some of the area’s best restaurants for over 20 years. He started his career at Granite Café in the late ’90s, moved to work with Chef Will Packwood’s group at Emilia, 7 and Cibo, and then went on to work at Mulberry. Currently, he can be found helping diners choose from the best of both the food and wine menus at Bufalina and Fabi + Rosi. Soares was drawn to the service industry because each day offered new opportunities. “You can have a rough night of service, but the next day you get to start fresh and do your best,” he says. “It’s not like you go home and you have to worry about what’s sitting on your desk or what’s in your files. Another shift, another show.”

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Irma Sandoval, Garcia’s Mexican Food Restaurant

Irma Sandoval is so dedicated to her customers that for 14 years she has driven from San Marcos to Buda to work at Garcia’s Mexican Food Restaurant. “People ask me why I don’t work at one of the San Marcos locations, but the customers in Buda are like my family,” she says. “I love working here because the customers are so loyal.” Sandoval is the embodiment of the customer-first mindset of Antonia Garcia, the matriarch of this 26-year-old restaurant group—one elderly customer in San Marcos was even met at his car by servers and walked to his table where breakfast and a newspaper awaited. Garcia regularly evangelizes that without loyal customers, their seven restaurants wouldn’t be successful. And Sandoval always reminds new employees to treat all of their guests with kindness. “Whether they give you a big tip or no tip,” she says. “Everyone deserves friendly, smiling service.”

Skip Walker, Hoover’s Cooking

In 1999, Skip Walker had been a teacher for 13 years when he felt the pull to do something different. Chef Hoover Alexander, a family friend and fellow member of Greater Mount Zion Baptist Church, offered Walker a job at Hoover’s Cooking, and he’s been there ever since. Walker fell in love with the customer-service aspect of the job, and worked his way up through the restaurant to become the front-of-house and catering manager. “Every day is different,” he says. “I meet some new people, there will be a new challenge…and I really like that.” Now he has a slew of loyal customers, including former University of Texas Football Coach Mack Brown and his wife Sally. “Don’t ask me to cook,” says Walker. “I can’t prepare the potato salad for you, but I can make sure that we take good care of you.” That commitment to customer service has established Hoover’s Cooking as a community mainstay—a place where regulars come every week, sometimes every day. “This is a community restaurant,” says Walker. “We’re watching our customers’ kids grow up, we’re part of the neighborhood and that is the best part of this job.”

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Clinton Tedin, Server, Dai Due

Clinton Tedin has dedicated 31 years to a hospitality career in Austin—working first as a bartender and now as a server. He says he’s drawn to the social interaction with customers and the constant challenge to learn new things. “I advise new servers to always be learning,” says Tedin. “It’s important because if you aren’t learning new things, then it’s just a job that you’re showing up for and slinging plates.” Tedin has developed a number of rituals over the years—including arriving extra early to his shift to make sure he has everything he needs. “Chefs have their mise en place in the kitchen, with all their ingredients and tools prepared,” he says. “And I have mine for the floor. If you aren’t prepared, it can ruin your whole shift.” During his career, Tedin has seen some of the formalities of service change, but the core value of taking care of the customer remains the same. “It can be hard to quantify the difference between good service and bad service, but it’s like pornography—you know it when you see it.”