What is it that makes you want to return to a specific restaurant over and over again? Even when there are other restaurants that serves the same type of menu? Of course, the food has to be good, but recipes can be duplicated. For Terra Gaucha, they were the only Brazilian steakhouse, or churrascarias, in town. Then in a short amount of time, two national chain competitors popped up nearby at the St Johns Town Center with the opening of Fogo de Chao and Texas de Brazil. Three restaurants serving the same type of food at about the same price in the same part of town. What’s makes Terra Gaucha stand out from the rest?
The answer is simple: superb service delivered consistently. I think Terra Gaucha’s food quality is universally known in Jax. They are top notch and present beautiful meat cooked perfectly every night. What keeps me coming back to Terra Gaucha for special occasions or to bring friends or family from out of town or just because its Friday is their impeccable service. I was invited to hang out with the servers for a bit and learn more about what makes their service stand out and truly make a diner’s night memorable so they come back again and again.
Of course, to experience the service one must sample the service, so I had dinner there as well, you know, for journalistic integrity. Our servers for the evening were Morgan and Mirza. During our dinner, I asked them questions about how they do what they do so well.
Upon seating, servers have three minutes to have water on the table and acknowledge the diners. This is their first chance to make a great first impression. One thing that annoys me the most with some restaurants is being forgotten about after being seated. That’s not happening here. We’re seated, servers appear out of nowhere like some kind of ninja, sling water, present the menu, explain the concept, and we’re off to the races.
As we dine, the service is non-stop. The side dishes are replaced almost as I’m taking the last piece of something. For instance, the wonderful Brazilian cheese bread (Pao de Queijo) was replaced with a piping hot fresh basket right as I was taking out the last one from the previous basket. Water was refilled before they were half empty (or half full for you optimists out there). New plates were brought out as soon as I took the last bite from my current plate. Morgan was right there to make sure everything was going well and if there was any particular cut of meat I wanted. The servers were attentive without being clingy; a delicate balance that Terra Gaucha seems to have mastered.
After dinner, I took a tour with Mirza and he helped me understand how the servers are able to operate like a well oiled machine. We walked to a corner of the dining room so I can get a good view of everything. Mirza pointed and explained what was happening. He was quick to give a shout out to the bussers, the unsung heroes of Terra Gaucha. Table turnover is vital to a restaurant’s success. The more parties they’re able to seat at a table per night, the more money that table generates. As I stood next to Mirza and scanned the dining room from a different perspective, I noticed the bussers clear the table almost immediately after a party left. A new party is seated and the dance begins again. I also noticed that all the servers were moving. No one was standing still. I asked Mirza how they were able to anticipate a diner’s needs so quickly. He said all the servers have to be observant. As they move around the room, checking on tables, the servers use a series of hand signals to convey what’s needed at the table. Mirza didn’t give away all their trade secrets, but he did let me in on a few:
- A balled up fist – table needs more cheese bread
- Flattened hand palm up – table needs more clean plates
- Wave hand in front of face (like pulling down a mask) – table is ready for dessert, start clearing off the table
A server would point to a table, indicate a hand signal, and another server would bring whatever it was they needed. Each section has a designated number of servers, runners, and a busser. They pace around their section, throwing hand signals at each other, making sure the table is never empty of sides, drinks, or clean plates. Everyone knows their role and each plays it to perfection.
And because of that, they’re rewarded with great tips, but more importantly, repeat business. So in an industry where profit margins are tight and outside competitors are serving a comparable menu, it’s the employees on the front lines, spending numerous hours on their feet to make sure we have a good time, that can’t be duplicated. And it’s those employees that serve as a restaurant’s competitive edge over the others. Terra Gaucha trains their people well, sets the goals, and allows their people to perform.
Terra Gaucha Brazilian Steakhouse
4483 Southside Blvd
Jacksonville, FL 32216