Guest Post by Catherine Woodiwiss, Trestles CoFounder
After 10 years in the restaurant business, Heidi Minora — General Manager at Commissary DC — is laser-focused on one thing: providing great customer experiences to her diners. The DC foodie has worked her way up from server to manager through stints in various locations in the EatwellDC restaurant family, including Commissary’s neighbor on P Street, Logan Tavern. Now Heidi is positioning casual dining spot Commissary to reach new markets through crafting excellent dining experiences and building lasting relationships with customers.
“With Commissary and Eatwell DC in general, we’re about the customer’s experience, first and foremost,” says Heidi.
“A lot of restaurants will say, ‘Whatever, this is a restaurant,’ and each table is essentially a part of the landscape. I think treating guests that way is a real fallacy with a lot of restauranteurs,” she says.
“As a restaurant manager, you get a little desensitized to your surroundings. In terms of what the guest sees, it’s like going to your house — if somebody else comes in they’re going to be like, ‘What’s that smell?’ and if you’ve been there all day you’re going to be like, ‘What smell?’” she laughs.
Heidi’s accustomed to long hours at the Commissary, a neighborhood fixture built to serve the many lifestyles of a diverse Logan Circle.
“We’re open long hours. We serve 3 meals a day. We’re a happy hour place, a dessert place, a pre-theater place,” says Heidi.
“The one-timer isn’t what we’re about. As a neighborhood restaurant, the people that really matter to us are the people who live around here, upstairs, down the street.”
Commissary quickly became a neighborhood staple since opening. It already follows excellent customer service practices — responding to every online/social review, sporting festive holiday decorations, hosting casual Oscar-watching parties. But when Heidi came on in as GM in 2013, “the restaurant was undergoing a number of changes to make the restaurant better. We had a lot of green staff, and to be honest, a lot of business was falling off, and we didn’t know where it was going,” she says.
“We’d see tons of people walk up to our menu outside and then walk away. Why did they walk away? Why didn’t they go the extra mile?”
“As restaurant managers and owners you just don’t have time to sit down with some regulars and say, ‘Tell me everything you like and don’t like about my restaurant, no pressure, and also I’ll be here serving you your drink tomorrow. They’ll just be like, ‘I want my drink, it’s fine, everything’s fine.,’” she laughs.
As restaurant managers and owners you just don’t have time to sit down with some regulars and say, ‘Tell me everything you like and don’t like about my restaurant, no pressure, and also I’ll be here serving you your drink tomorrow.
So when Trestles reached out to Heidi with an offer to gather customer insights — which, turned into a blueprint that would offer concrete strategies for refining and turbocharging Commissary’s neighborhood offerings — Heidi jumped at the chance.
“It was something we’d never done before. For us as a new management team, to have Trestles come in and give some blueprints as to what we needed to work on and where we needed to focus our time was helpful, and very interesting,” says Heidi.
“Having fresh eyes is really important.”
As a creative firm grounded in design thinking principles, Trestles prioritizes customer experience and service ethnography — collecting insights to let the service environment (physical, ambient, relational/staffing), and its users, ‘speak for themselves.’ Trestles uses these insights as a primary shaper of business decisions, growth potential, and long term strategy. We call it gathering data beyond the bottom line.
Having fresh eyes is really important.
Over the course of 6 weeks with Commissary, Trestles used various forms of intensive ethnographic research (contextual interviews, fly on the wall observations, and staff shadowing, to name a few) to help Commissary management diagnose pain points and identify pivots to grow into the future.
“Trestles brought up a lot of good points about our décor — is the doorway itself discouraging people from coming in, is it looking dark inside, is it looking like a convenience store outside?” says Heidi.
“Then from there, they talked to guests and worked here physically in the restaurant. They didn’t just look at what the guest was doing but also how long does it take to get to the bathroom from the door, how accessible is it, things you wouldn’t think would affect the customer experience.”
“It was a good thing for us to engage with Trestles, but also, for our guests to see that we really care.”
Trestles believes that thoughtful, small changes can be all that’s needed for big impact. Sure enough, Heidi credits some of Trestles’ design suggestions with sprucing up Commissary’s experience delivery.
“We had our awning redone to actually say ‘restaurant’ on there,” Heidi says.
“We realized it said coffee, bar, but not actually restaurant! We upped our bathroom game a little bit, better soap in there. For efficiency’s sake, we started doing rolls on our table, not just paper napkins. During a brunch in here, it’s mania. So these helped to make things as efficient as possible.”
And true to The Commissary values, Heidi emphasizes the deeper relational ties that grew from work with Trestles.
“The regulars really appreciated having their moment to sit down and really talk to someone, and get the impression that their feedback really mattered — that it wasn’t going on deaf ears.
“And the staffers loved it. They thought it was cool. They also, um, they had no problem telling the truth about things they didn’t like,” laughs Heidi.
But most of all, “we really felt that we were important to Trestles and we weren’t just one of many clients they’re into. No, they were here every day. They were like our spies on the ground!”
Since then, management has changed again, and Heidi credits Trestles with helping to refine and hone vision.
“With change comes a lot of work and extra work, and you have to be ready for that,” she says.
“When I came aboard I was ready to make some large scale changes, and using Trestles’ groundwork for us in terms of what not to touch and what we should probably rethink is really helpful.
“Change can’t happen overnight but we do have a lot of big picture things we hope to tackle.”
“So I said, ‘Who’s on board with bringing in a company that just wants to better the user experience?’
“And the people who were on board are still here.”