I have received quite a few emails recently from readers who feel that the standards in many local eating establishments are declining. Service, cleanliness, and food quality are all areas of concern for many. I mentioned this to several people over the holidays and just about everyone exploded with their various negative comments and anecdotes. On a personal note I feel that the once famous Irish welcome is a thing of the past other than in exceptional cases, and it makes me feel very uneasy for our tourism future. This is also true in many shops where you feel like you would need permission to ask a question. Before I put pen to paper I thought about possible reasons for this situation, and it may be that staff are being treated poorly, or perhaps they are under personal hardships, or lack good management, but whatever the reason, it is still no excuse.
So what kind of comments am I hearing? The following extract is typical and the places referred to are well known city centre establishments.
“The first happened in ‘XYZ’ during Christmas week. I went there with my daughter for lunch, she ordered a salad and I ordered coffee and a toasted chicken salad sandwich with brown bread.
“My daughter got her salad reasonably quickly but I waited and waited for my sandwich. I finished my coffee and then a sandwich arrived untoasted. I said that I had ordered a toasted sandwich but that due to time pressure (going back to work ) I would take this one. The waitress was apologetic. I took a bite and the waitress arrived back, took the plate from in front of me saying the order had got mixed up and returned in a minute with another plate containing a toasted sandwich which definitely was not my order, being a white bread, chicken, bacon and egg sandwich. The waitress didn't wait to see if that was correct and I waited, expecting the plate to be taken away again, but after a few minutes decided I had better eat this sandwich or I would have no lunch.
“Yes, it was busy, but really this was Fawlty Towers stuff. We ate, paid, and left, but I won't be back.
“Yesterday I went into another restaurant and I again ordered a toasted chicken sandwich and coffee. It came untoasted. I explained that I had ordered it toasted, but that again I would take it as I was pushed for time. The waitress came back later to say the sandwich person had mixed up the order and apologised.
“In both cases no offer was made to give a voucher for a free coffee, or anything to make up for the mistakes.”
I know I will be criticised for not including the names, but as I was not there it would not be fair. I do however feel that this type of service (or lack of it ) is widespread and getting worse. Is it that the owners are not on the floor, meeting and greeting and ensuring that customers are looked after? Maybe we have the wrong model for paying staff? In the USA it is normal for the waiting staff to get zero or a tiny hourly wage so they earn their money by tips. This can be a great way of making sure the customers are looked after as the waiter/waitress will make damn sure your total experience is good or there will be no tip.
Meanness is a word that comes to mind regarding how many customers are treated, why do we not have free refills of coffee, or a complimentary sweet/biscotti with our coffee, or a free liqueur after a dinner? When have you ever been offered some new item in a café/restaurant for free as a way of the owners testing the market?
Waiting and even more waiting is another common complaint. I have had several situations related to me where people actually left and will never come back because nobody bothered to take an order or even acknowledge them, and not because they were too busy. They were just either lazy or not doing their job of constantly watching for customers in need of attention. I can only assume if the owner was on the floor this would not happen (I hope ).
I have been accused during the past while of being too forgiving of many establishments, so perhaps it is time to be a bit more hard-hitting.
Sure, there are places doing a great job and the challenge for these places is to keep it up all the time. Opening a restaurant is not just about good or great food, it is about ambience, lighting, comfortable chairs and tables, making your customers feel special, providing excellent service all the time. It is about mega long hours, it is about paying a seemingly endless list of bills, it is about never ending cleanliness and visits from the health inspector, it is not easy, but if you do all these things well, success follows. More than anything it u is about consistency, and when something goes wrong it is about making a gesture to the guest(s ) which will show that you acknowledge the foul up and want them to return.
A complaining customer can be a great chance to create a customer for life; it may be the only chance you get during a day’s business to have a real one to one with someone. Most customers come and go, but in the case of a complaint you have a chance to really talk and do whatever it takes to show you want them to return.
On a positive note, there is an increasing choice so vote with you feet.