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The most basic requirement of any restaurant is the service

Nobody believes that the best food is at expensive restaurants. 

Yes, there are many things that distinguish expensive restaurants in India from their cheaper counterparts: Fancy décor, more expensive crockery, heavy, ornate menus and lighting so dim that you can’t read these ornate menus. But it’s not necessarily the food.

 

Sometimes, when they want to indicate that they are crowded, buzzy places, these restaurants design their interiors to include hard surfaces that do not soak up sound (no soft furnishings, for instance) so that the noise levels are always high. This annoys people like me who want to hear what their lunch or dinner companions are saying (and can’t in these so-called ‘buzzy’ restaurants) but that’s okay: Many people who pay these prices don’t really believe in conversation anyway. When they are keeping quiet, they are actually just speaking their minds.

 

   I don’t mind that the food at cheaper places is often so much better. But what always surprises me is the level of service. At cheaper places, the waiters are underpaid and untrained. They make up for the lack of training with hard work and enthusiasm. At expensive places, where you should expect world class service given how high the prices are, you will frequently be disappointed.

 

   For a country with a tradition of hospitality, it is surprising how badly run our restaurants can be and how crappy the service often is.

 

   Let’s take some examples.

 

The Welcome

 

The hotel industry will tell you that the welcome is the key: Guests make up their minds about the hotel even before they get to their rooms. So, hotels train their reception staff accordingly. Sadly, they forget that the same principle also applies to restaurants: Guests want to be welcomed. And as for standalone restaurants, they rarely bother with welcomes anyhow.

 

   This is in sharp contrast to the West where men like Will Guidara and Danny Meyer write bestselling books about how they have worked to make guests welcome. In the UK, at any restaurant in the old Corbin and King empire, staff are judged by how welcome they make guests feel.

 

   In India, we don’t give a damn: Even at many top restaurants. The ‘greeter’ or the person who does the welcoming will usually be a young person who has just moved to Delhi or Mumbai and barely understands the job. They will not recognise regular guests, will struggle with the names on the reservations and will have no understanding of the finely choreographed ballet that running a packed restaurant must be. I usually feel sorry for these young people who have to fend off guests, answer the telephone to take bookings, check the reservation list and keep track of how many tables are empty/or are likely to soon be empty.

 

   Of course, they don’t always get it right. But managers always blame them; not recognising that if a guest’s first point of contact in a restaurant is the newest and worst paid member of the team, this reflects on the management not on the personnel.

 

Service Behaviour

 

At Per Se in New York, over a decade ago, they used to teach servers the concept of the Bubble. The Bubble is the personal space that each guest has at each table. Under no circumstances should the server lean into this personal space.

 

  "What’s worse is that even when this unwelcome attention is forced on you, it will still be impossible to find a server when you really need one."

   But, of course, in India, servers are not trained to do this. They lean right in front of you to adjust your table setting, often coming so close that you can smell their aftershave. It’s not their fault. They have just not been trained the right way.

 

   Most people go to restaurants to talk to their friends, family or business contacts. They do not go there to talk to the server. Yet there is no respect for this basic principle. Often, when you are in the middle of a very interesting conversation, a server will interrupt without warning.

 

   The reasons for the interruption will be trivial: “Do you like the food, sir?” Or “Another bottle of water?” It could easily have waited but nobody has taught the servers to look for the right opportunity to come up to the table.

 

   Servers have been also been inculcated with a clear-everything-all-the-time mentality. Assume you are drinking something (a whisky, a Coke, some wine) and keep a little bit in your glass to enjoy while you linger over your dinner. The chances are that an officious waiter will come and clear it without asking you.

 

   We are the only country in the world where this happens and it astonishes me that managers do not tell servers that their job is to make the meal pleasurable for guests, not to keep rushing up to their tables to interrupt conversations and confiscate their food and drink.

 

   It has now got to the stage where a server will start a conversation with you even when he can see that your mouth is full and you cannot easily reply. You get the distinct sense that he regards himself as a busy man who has only those two minutes to talk to you and doesn’t really care if you are eating something when he turns up.

 

   What’s worse is that even when this unwelcome attention is forced on you, it will still be impossible to find a server when you really need one. You will have to wave and shout before you attract a server’s attention.

 

Ordering the Food

 

At most good restaurants in the West, the staff meal or ‘the family meal’ is an important part of the day. Often a chef is designated only to cook for the staff and sometimes dishes that the staff have enjoyed make it onto the menus for guests. When new dishes are introduced, they are first tested on the staff. And even if they are not, every member of the serving staff will be made to try every new dish so he or she can explain to the guests.

 

   This never happens in India. At hotels, the staff eat with all the other employees in the cafeteria and rare is the standalone that makes servers eat the food so that they can explain each dish to the guest.

 

   So, your server is essentially a note-taker. He has very little to offer by way of advice. The only recommendations he makes are of dishes that the kitchen has told him to push. (“Keep recommending the broccoli. It is getting spoilt.”) Many servers refuse to write down the order. I always ask them to but they say things like “don’t worry sir…I will remember.” And, of course, they don’t remember. And the order is screwed up. In a good restaurant in the West, a server who refused to write down an order would be in deep trouble. Here, the chalta hai attitude that pervades the whole service experience mitigates against that.

 

Who’s Fault?

 

Almost none of this is the fault of the servers. They need to be trained, they need to be told what is acceptable and what is not. But restaurants don’t bother. The bosses are too busy choosing nice plates or telling the chef to put ‘truffle’ tacos or Japanese hand rolls on the menu. The most basic requirement of any restaurant — the service — is constantly ignored.

 

   And the guests suffer.

 

 

Posted On: 11 Jun 2024 02:36 PM
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