Thursday, 12 January 2012

The customer is always….. riiiiiight..

Living in a capitalist society, we are all, whether we like it or not, customers.
Unfortunately, it is also a fact that a significant proportion of customers are utter morons. I’ve worked in retail in the past and so had become acutely aware already that Joe or indeed Josephine Bloggs is quite often rude, obnoxious, ungrateful and downright stupid but had for some reason thought that he or she would show up less often in the restaurant industry. Food is a leveller, I thought; as much as we all think we need a DVD player as much as we want it, food is clearly more closely linked to survival. There is also, by it’s nature, a more personal service required in being fed, and so by association, one would imagine more gratitude would also be required. Not always so.

I’m an intelligent, capable and helpful young lady. I know that if I wanted to, I could easily slip back into an arguably more complex job that paid significantly more than my current salary. But I also know that, regardless of intellect, like any other person delivering a service I’m a human being and that it costs nothing to give such a person a simple smile, please and/or thank you. Sure, we’ve all been subject to appalling service, but I’m an eternal optimist so would rather be surprised by it than expect it.

One thing that rude or moronic customers seem to forget very easily is that restaurant staff know a lot more about the food they will be eating than they do. They will have sampled it, taken some of it home perhaps, or might even be sick to death at the sight of it. They will know what dishes are good or to be avoided, which dishes irritate the chef to make and what your food looks like before the plate is prettied up for service. So in this sense, we have an advantage and our opinion is worth listening to if asked for. It does work both ways, however. If you have a specific request then that should be listened to carefully, and, within reason, complied with.

And this is where my definition of ‘within reason’ comes in. I have a catalogue of my favourite ‘sorry say that again?’ food requests from customers, and these extend far beyond gluten free (totally understandable and all good eating establishments should happily oblige) and vegan (I can almost tolerate this if it is all-encompassing to include shoes but maintain that most vegans look like they desperately need force-feeding a sirloin).
Here are my top ten examples of how special customers can be:

10. Mixed-leaf salad.
This means a salad comprising of a mixture of types of salad leaves. It does not mean a mixture of my rocket salad, Caesar salad and spinach salad, and if you are not happy about that please do not eat it all, and ask for the bill, before saying so.

9. Chicken.
Where I work is sandwiched between a Nando’s and a Pizza Express. I have two customers that seem to have stopped coming in for their baguettes after getting into an argument with one of the Directors about chicken. Each time they came to the café they would ask for a chicken baguette. I would explain that that was not possible, but that I could happily serve them a ham, or a beef, or a crayfish baguette instead. Every time. When they commented to the Director that chicken was missing from the lunchtime menu, he accurately, although possibly not quite appropriately, pointed out that Nando’s was next door.

8. Steak.
I used to insist on my steak being cooked well done, because this is what my Mother always had and I knew no better. On my 19th birthday, however, I found myself in Florence having a meal in a lovely restaurant that served Florentine steak and I thought, ‘When in Florence..’ and ordered it. It was enormous, the biggest steak I had ever seen, and prohibitively expensive. And definitely not well done. I was scared but realised I had to eat it due to its cost. So I started around the outside, where it was rare. And it was delicious. Eventually I got to the middle, where the steak had briefly seen the pan, but no more, and it was so sublime that I was immediately converted. These days, I see checks come in for well done steak and I just feel like striding over to the table and trying to spread the word about the evils of steak abuse. And when I see checks come in for ‘well done but still quite pink’ or something similarly bizarre, I just want to go and give them a slap.

7. Eggs.
The café serves an all-day breakfast with eggs cooked how you like them. However, if you like your eggs ‘well done but still a bit runny’ then maybe you should just eat at home.

6. Coffee.
If you ask for ‘just a coffee’ and stick with this request even when asked for more detail, you will get an Americano. If what you meant was a flat white, or a ‘large cappuccino without too much froth’ – otherwise known as a latte to the rest of the world, by the way – then you should have asked for that instead.

5. Closing time.
The kitchen must, at some point in the evening, close. If you come into a restaurant 15 minutes after this time, you are not going to get food. The chef is probably as friendly as an angry bear poked with a stick mid-winter by this point and the only consumption he is thinking about involves himself and a cold beer. Making us feel like we defecated directly onto your desk and then shredded your favourite teddy bear when we turn you away is simply not going to help anyone, and won’t make us change our minds either. This point also applies to customers – particularly those who are clearly established couples - who insist on lingering over their empty coffee cups when they are the only non-employees in the restaurant and the staff are clearly getting nervous about catching the last bus. What they are benefitting by this point baffles me. The cosy ambience of the restaurant has long gone, a quickie in the toilets is out of the question as we’d all notice, and we won’t be giving you any of our end-of-day freebies. We won’t kick you out until we absolutely have to, but please don’t forget that we have homes to get to as well.

4. Before and After.
A good restaurant will not have an extensive, all-encompassing menu. Some of the best meals I’ve had have been in places where you get no choice whatsoever. The chef’s job should be to ensure that the menu reflects whatever food is in season, and this helps him to make a more efficient profit as well as having benefits such as minimising food miles. This may also mean that there will be some recycling of produce to make more than one dish. Simple examples include ham ends contributing towards a ham terrine, butternut squash appearing in quiches as well as salads and mushroom trimmings becoming soup. At one point we had both chicken liver pâté and chicken livers on toast as starters. A customer ordered ‘chicken liver and toast’ and wondered why his starter was taking longer than his friend’s crayfish cocktail. When chicken livers on toast arrived to his table, he was heard to exclaim ‘Oh, I thought I was having chicken liver pâté. There’s no way I can eat that. That’s disgusting.’ Whilst I appreciate that in-your-face unadulterated chicken livers are not to everyone’s taste, I’m not entirely convinced that this guy realised that, basically, if you chucked it in a blender and put it in a ramekin, it would become that pâté he was after.

3. Dirty tables.
Inevitably, there will come a point in the day when every eating establishment has a quieter moment. This will coincide with the fewest number of staff being at work. This, in turn, may mean that tables are not cleared and cleaned the moment they are vacated. For some reason, such tables have a magnetic pull on certain customers. I have watched 5 customers – the only ones in the restaurant – squeeze onto a table for four that had not yet been cleared. I have no idea why.

2. Two and a half.
Where I work has an unadvertised and unspoken happy hour for yummy mummies, it seems. Actually, it's more like a happy four hours, and most gaggles (I am applying this collective noun in the absence of anything more appropriate) stay for the whole thing once they've installed themselves. I know I will one day understand their position and will look back on this post and laugh, but for now I can’t help but bristle at the exhibitionism apparently involved in manoeuvring a pushchair worth more than my car, the seemingly competitive synchronised endurance breastfeeding and the obstinate refusal to leave a tip or indeed to pre-warn that the bill will need splitting down to the millilitre of peppermint tea and suddenly require immediate settlement the instant a manager is unavailable. I also bristle, for some reason, at people who insist on referring to their family as ‘two and a half’. Your child is not a half person, it is a whole person who needs to be brought up feeling valued as such. And your child will also need a space at the table, so please let us know when you book ahead that you and your four friends are bringing their brood as this helps us give you all enough space!

1. Technically speaking, this is an elaboration on point 6. However, I feel this particular regular customer deserves a point all of her own.

No further elaboration necessary.

Having said all of this, there are of course always two sides to every story. Mad as their requests are, some of the above customers were a pleasure to serve. There are also other customers who are genuinely lovely and make your day a little brighter, for whom you want to go that extra mile. The old gentleman who comes in at the same time almost every day for his glass of house red with his paper, the guys from the office next door who conduct all of their business over our lattes and steaks, the children you watch eyeing up the biscuits and guarding their favourite from a distance until their parents say they can have it. The grandson treating his grandmother to lunch and enjoying her company as she takes 45 minutes to finish her crayfish cocktail.

And restaurant staff aren’t perfect either. We can be lazy, rude, we can ignore you when you arrive, fail to notice you're having a problem with your meal, forget your side orders, the list goes on. But hopefully, as you can see, we've probably had a few irritating customers to deal with.

And as long as you're not one of them, we're likely to get along just fine.