Conceived on a Harpoon Beer coaster to provide the pinnacle of customer service, Whetstone Station Restaurant and Brewery in Brattleboro, Vermont, offers just that from the minute customers enter. David Hiler and his partners Tim and Amy Brady all had long histories in the hospitality field (mainly running inns from the West Coast to the East Coast), before finally digging in their heels and opening Whetstone Station, which is all about the beer, the food and making sure the customer is happy.
The ideal location
Whetstone Station is perched over the Connecticut River squarely on the Vermont side of the Vermont/New Hampshire border, overlooking Mt. Wantastiquet in New Hampshire. A restaurant with a locale such as this gives you an advantage as an owner, but people will stop coming if the service isn’t there. At Whetstone Station that is not an issue.
The concept for Whetstone Station evolved over time. During many trips out of town for hospitality conferences, both David and Tim found themselves lamenting as they visited other brewpubs that Brattleboro really didn’t offer anything similar. They often thought of their current location (formerly known as the Riverside Cafe) as a perfect place to breathe life into this concept, so when the Riverview closed and the building became available they were finally able to see their many talks over various microbrews in different parts of the country come true. But it became more than that — they built a restaurant where customer service, great food and good times live.
David, Tim and Amy redesigned the entire interior of the restaurant to get the atmosphere they were looking for, which also meant reducing seating. But when customers walk through the door, they instantly feel a part of something special. The industrial-themed brewpub and restaurant features a high-ceilinged dining room and outdoor dining on two decks. “The Whetstone Station is dedicated to providing patrons an outstanding dining experience like no other,” says Hiler.
Great food, great beer…great service
What really sets Whetstone Station apart? A wonderful selection of craft brews, one of the most welcoming and accommodating staff in the area, and, of course, the food — grilled sirloin tips, fish tacos, Tim’s Awesome Burger (with peanut butter), and a variety of locally sourced menu items. With the country’s attention slowly drifting toward genetically modified food, Whetstone Station strives to use locally grown food whenever possible — another plus. In addition, the restaurant’s top chef recently took home the gold in a food competition in Vermont’s largest city, Burlington.
The team at Whetstone Station is dedicated to making sure that every facet of your visit to their establishment is a positive one. How do they do this? Perhaps one of the simplest service policies on the planet — YES! That’s it, the word yes and, of course, everything that comes with it.
One of the first keys to providing great customer service involves training your employees to truly believe that the customer always comes first. In the restaurant business this is not always an easy feat. So, staff training and meetings include teaching everyone how to deal with both happy and unhappy customers. And this is evident upon visiting the restaurant.
If the internal customers aren’t happy (the waitstaff, bartenders, hosts/hostesses, chefs), then the external customers who come in looking for a great meal accompanied by top-notch service will certainly feel that. So morale among the restaurant’s employees is another top priority. When you dine at Whetstone Station, you’ll have the opportunity to fill out a customer comment card. These cards are reviewed daily and positive comments are read out loud during shift meetings prior to the restaurant opening. Negative comments are viewed as a chance to improve and not berate so the mood among the staff stays upbeat, which translates to the customers and their experience.
“We’re just pleased to have a strong, happy staff that cares as much about the restaurant and making customers happy as we do,” says Hiler.
In today’s world, however, a customer can have 10 good experiences in a row followed by one bad one that keeps them from returning. So Whetstone Station has created things such as loyalty clubs to keep customers coming back. Since the restaurant is as much about a good craft beer as it is a great burger, it developed the Mug Club, which is a lighthearted way to keep folks loyal. With its ever changing beer menu, it is entirely possible for them to have more than 100 different crafts brews during a one-year time period. The Mug Club requires customers to try 99 different beers during the course of the year to earn their mug. Once the mug is earned it is displayed for the world to see and the customer can call it off the wall on every visit. And if you are able to complete the challenge, you also receive discounts on future food purchases, dinner for free on the anniversary date of your mug club entry, unlimited soda and more. The club is a fun way to draw the customer in, keep them happy and keep them coming back.
With everyone’s reliance on smart phones these days, the owners of Whetstone Station have found a way to capitalize on that market as well. When customers make a reservation, they receive a text message confirming it. Walk in on a busy night and the wait is 30 minutes? No problem. Take a walk through downtown Brattleboro and receive a text message when your table is ready — just don’t stray too far away.
Using the technology to survey customers has also been beneficial for Whetstone Station. Approximately one hour after customers have dined they receive a text asking about their experience while it is still fresh in their minds, which serves the restaurant well. Every experience might not always be the best, and the worst customer is one who stews on a bad experience and never tells you. And if you don’t know, you can’t fix the problem.
Many owners open their restaurants with the notion of being the host with the most. But anyone who has ever worked in a restaurant knows there’s very little of that — you’re actually more of a firefighter constantly making sure your staff shows up, your cooks show up, the restaurant is presentable, the floor is clean, the glassware is sparkling, the cutlery is aligned properly…. And at the end of the night you’re given 10 hours before you have to do it all over again. Owning a restaurant is really a love of the game, because it involves long hours where a million different things can go wrong on any given day. So while an educational background in hospitality helps, practical application is key, and David, Tim and Amy all have that on-the-job experience.
Having a successful business anywhere, in any field, requires an understanding of the customer — knowing and truly understanding their wants and needs and then delivering on all fronts. With restaurants there are literally hundreds of things that can go wrong during the course of an evening, and as a purveyor in the food industry you must constantly “keep calm and carry on.” But you’ve got to get the bus boy to understand that too because customers can sense when something is wrong, and that can affect their experience when they’re out for a fun evening. This is the very essence of what drives the Whetstone Station team. The customer is always right, the customer is always first and the customer is always greeted with a smile.
How long does it take to develop such a strong presence as one of the best restaurants in town? In this instance, it only takes nine months! The three owners have backgrounds in the hospitality field, so they’ve seen how not to do it and how to do it right. The three of them along with “the Best Damn Brew Crew, PERIOD,” have been able to capture the artsy community of Brattleboro and the attention of the surrounding area and give people the best experience they can when they walk through the door.
— Peter Case is a contributing writer based in Brattleboro, Vt.