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Finding Your Niche at 1 Exchange Street

Niche Hospitality's team members ready the bar for evening service and review the evening's reservations on Reserve.

Don’t let icy service keep you away from 1 Exchange Street. Director Cassandra Carruth insists it’s by design. Wet ice, crushed ice, kold-draft ice, and custom cubes are all a part of drinking at Niche Hospitality Group’s variety of establishments, where bartenders know that the shape and size of superior ice makes an enormous impact on the cocktail in your glass.

At 3:00 p.m., the staff looks unrecognizable in their street clothes as they shuttle juice from the commissary, cut fruit, and tend to the aforementioned ice program, which is a staggering task unto itself. The team breezes through Reserve, Niche’s reservation and table management provider. Bartenders slip into their formal vests at 4:27 p.m., just moments before unlocking the doors for the public. Bar Manager, Silas Axtell, on the other hand, reportedly sports stately attire at all hours of the day. “This is how I actually dress,” he says of the restaurant’s gentlemanly uniform.

Axtell oversees the bar program at Niche’s three adjoining concepts at 1 Exchange Street, including The People’s Kitchen, The Citizen Wine Bar, and Still & Stir. Although the three spaces share a kitchen, they each possess markedly unique ambiances. Carruth handles the wine for all three locations, in addition to Bocado in Wellesley.

Together, Axtell and Carruth make sure vintages are up to date, servers are informed, and the staff is prepared with comparative tasting notes based on their extensive training. The duo also enjoys facilitating elaborate pranks on their respective teams, antics which would never be apparent to their fine dining customers during service, but nevertheless create a strong sense of camaraderie before and after hours. Don’t let Carruth’s sophisticated wine palate fool you, she has a terrific sense of humor and the light in her boldly resonates with the rest of the staff. Ask her about the time she filled an entire delivery van with packing peanuts and you’ll see what I mean.

If there’s one thing Niche knows, it’s how to make customers feel at ease. Whether you prefer the formal dining room of The People’s Kitchen, the enticing buzz of The Citizen, or the secret cocktail culture concealed behind bars at Still & Stir, the staff wants you to find your fit. Carruth makes use of Reserve to track customer preferences, including which of the varied ambiances a guest typically desires. She doesn’t mind catering to unique requests, recalling a guest who likes to drink his beer out of a champagne flute, and more seriously, her regulars who possess specific dietary needs and restrictions. All of that information gets stored in Reserve and reviewed before arrival, with each new reservation.

“If a server can form a relationship with a guest who’s a regular, and prepare a menu for them for a gluten allergy or something like that, it develops a trust with the guest that we’d like to utilize as much as possible,” Carruth concludes. Just don’t be surprised to find Axtell quietly tracking your penchant for kold-draft cubes on your next visit. Nothing is left to chance when it comes to Niche.

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Family Secrets: Preparing for Saturday Night Service at deadhorse hill

The dead horse hill staff sits down together every day at 4 o'clock to share a family meal.

It’s 3:36 and deadhorse hill’s Executive Chef Jared Forman is crouching down at the end of the bar, eyeing the alignment of each water glass for precision. “Can someone please straighten these out?” he asks, striding to the front of the dining room and pausing before a towering flower vase near the windows. “The water needs to be changed when you have a moment,” he tells the two hosts who are hard at work, reviewing the evening’s reservations on a tablet. He tugs at a napkin until it is square with the edge of the table before completing another lap of the floor to make sure everything is just right for service.

Loyda Guzman and Ronnie Jenkinz prepare the deadhorse hill dining room for Saturday night service.

Co-owner Sean Woods is doing his best to get menus printed on time. “We change the menus often. Like, every day,” Forman tells me. But, today, the restaurant’s printer is on the fritz and Woods is pressed for time. In 86 minutes, every seat in the house will be full, but he seems entirely unfazed. Years of bartending have granted him composure. Woods offers me a cup of coffee before darting off to a local office building where he has called in a favor to get the menus printed in time for family meal. I am here to observe how Worcester’s prize restaurateurs prepare for a busy night and it has turned out to be nothing short of a spectacle.

Woods and Forman have both worked in plenty of restaurants where the front of house staff would be expected to arrive at 4:45 for a 5 o’clock shift, leaving no opportunity to “get on the same page” with one another. The duo knew from the start that they wanted deadhorse hill to be more team oriented than any of the other spots where they had worked. As a result, the staff sits down together every day at 4 o’clock to share a meal and find out what’s in store. “We get the time to just breathe together. Everybody needs to have that moment of zen where we’re all doing exactly the same thing at the same time. Only then we can move into service,” Woods explains.

Forman sees the value of family meal as two-fold. First, it’s about creating unity. “We want to make sure that everyone has a chance to sit down and eat together so that they feel like part of a family. Food is obviously why we’re in this business. It brings us all together,” he says. Tonight, everyone helps themselves to heaping plates of biscuits and gravy. They sip soda water from plastic quart containers and pullout bound notebooks filled with detailed scribbles.

Second, Forman and Woods use this time to educate their team. “My job is to give the staff the most knowledge possible about what each product is, where it’s coming from, all of the ingredients, and how we prepare it. They need a quick and succinct way to explain it to the guests, which is what we call our dropline,” Forman says. He knows that It is impossible for customers to look at most of his dishes and simply identify what is in front of them. Droplines account for the short, spirited descriptions communicated by the staff throughout one’s meal. Everything that hits the table offers a surprise and Forman never wants dining to feel robotic for his guests.

Robots aside, technology has taken on a crucial role for improving guest services. The front of house staff uses Reserve, a table management and restaurant reservations platform, to predict how quickly tables will turn and to record customer preferences. “Everybody knows when Bert and Anna come in, they love to sit at 63,” Forman reminds his team during staff meal, encouraging them to diligently review guests’ histories within the system.

“Is it their first time? Their birthday or anniversary? Do they have allergies, likes, or dislikes?” Woods adds.

By 4:47, customers are already streaming through the door, infiltrating the bar in anticipation of their 5 p.m. tables. Manager, Julia Auger strategically doles out positions. The staff tuck their notebooks away and disperse. I take advantage of the brief interlude to ask Forman and Woods what sort of information they have stored in the Reserve system about me, but they make a joke of it, hesitating to reveal everything behind the curtain.

When I sit down for dinner at 5:17, the chef sends out fat Cape Neddick oysters with a pickled ginger and pink peppercorn mignonette, followed by a velvety blue crab bisque with lemongrass aromatics and French style butter toasted sourdough croutons. I still haven’t a clue what Reserve’s discerning algorithm has to say about me, but if this spread is any indication, it seems to be on the right track. I watch bar customers lift water glasses to their lips and place them down haphazardly, oblivious to the meticulous curation that has occurred in deadhorse hill’s dining room all afternoon. It is, in fact, a marvel how Forman and Woods have managed to make sophisticated dining feel so effortless. The invisible and tireless attention to detail in the front of the house will no longer be lost on me.