Even though Triniti isn't planned to open until December, general manager, Fred Zennati is already an experienced gatekeeper. Hiring staff, making decisions about the future of the restaurant, talking to Eater about working the front of the house are all in a day's work for the industry veteran (he's held positions at Vic & Anthony's, Strip House, and many more).
Zennati tells Eater what his philosophies are on preventing staff turnover, how he's dealt with celebrity guests at his previous positions, and why he thinks every table in Triniti will be a good one.
Tell us a little bit about your history as it relates to front of house service.
I started out in the business as a server [at the University Club in the Galleria], moved up to the maître d', service director. Then after, went to work for a restaurant out of New York. And then went for family-owned restaurant and managed the front of the house. Then, worked for Landry's Group at Willie G's, then opened Vic & Anthony's and worked at Pesce. So, I have the experience from family-owned to corporate entities. It helps you see every aspect of the business.
Have you ever dealt with celebrities?
Absolutely. I mean everywhere, but mostly Vic & Anthony's steakhouse. It's a mecca for celebrities. Football players, baseball players, basketball players, artists, musicians. The same thing at the Strip House. We were just close to the Four Seasons, so you have all the people, and then I had a good relationship with the concierge. They would call me directly and say, "hey, I have Dave Matthews coming in, or xyz," you know. It's pretty neat.
Were you ever star struck or can you play it cool?
No, I think it's better to keep it [cool], because it's their time to dine. I tell my staff they're like any other table and I think it works. It's better that way, because people have more respect.
Any crazy requests (not just from celebrities) you've had to deal with?
There's a lot of dietary needs and usually you have to honor those because, I mean I had people that don't want spices on their steak (no salt, no pepper), so you have to make sure there's good communication between server and chefs so things get executed the right way. You can do anything if you really want to. Eater: Nothing really off the wall? Fred: I mean, you have people that have strange requests or try to change the menu, but if it's possible, I think it's fine.
What at Triniti are you most excited about (especially front of house)?
Just everything. You walk in and there's a whole package as far as the architecture, the lighting, the art. There's a lot of invitation just from the aspects of the design. And then the food, the drinks, everything I think will fall in place. The food is a seasonal menu and it's a chef-driven restaurant with Ryan [Hildebrand, the chef/owner] of course. Triniti is savory, sweet and spirits. It's unique to Houston and I like that. I think Houston is missing that element compared to other big, cosmopolitan towns. We're looking at Houston exposure, but we're looking for national exposure as well.
Sounds like it's going to be upscale.
Upscale but not stuffy. There's no tablecloth so there's no that intimidation factor. Dress code is very casual. It's approachable and not stuffy. The wines are drinkable and the menu is approachable.
Is it going to be the kind of place where you expect someone to slip you some cash and ask for the best seat in the house?
No, I think every seat is good. The highlights will probably be the chef's table, the patio, the community table in the dining room. It creates a restaurant that is, like I said, approachable. Service too. Service will not be stuffy.
What are some key things you look for when hiring front of house staff?
That's a good question because I'm in that point right now where I need to find a team. I'm looking for personalities. This business is a lot of it because we are on stage. The other thing is the experience is very important with what we're trying to achieve here. I think during the process of interviews, you identify the right characters and you go from there. My theory is that people can be trainable to follow your culture. I'm looking for a core of employees that are happy where they are and have a family sense and are dedicated to the restaurant and dedicated to the guests.
How do you prevent turnover, which can be a huge problem for restaurants?
It starts in the hiring process. It's critical that you share expectations from management point of view to service point of view. When people buy in with the culture and with the expectation you minimize the turnover, and that creates consistency and a family kind of atmosphere. And the respect. That's very important. If you want to be treated well, then you have to treat them well.