The Taste With Vir: Be a guest, not just a customer when seeking great hospitality at a restaurant
In this week’s column, Vir Sanghvi explores how being a guest and not merely a customer at a restaurant can make a huge difference to the hospitality and warmth one expects.Updated: Jun 05, 2019 12:22 IST
When you go to a restaurant do you see yourself as a guest or as a customer?
I know. It sounds like a silly distinction. But actually, it is not. In many ways it is the key to how you view the experience.
When you buy something, you are a customer. You demand service. You expect value for money. You complain and ask for a refund or an exchange when the product does not live up to your expectations. The whole thing --- from beginning to end --- is a purely commercial transaction.
When you are a guest --- at a party or somebody’s house, for example, or even when someone else is the host at a restaurant --- you regard yourself as a recipient of hospitality, lower your sense of entitlement and do not necessarily treat the whole thing as a purely commercial transaction.
Hoteliers and restaurateurs will tell you that the reason they refer to people who come to their establishments as guests is because they want us to enjoy their hospitality, not merely demand service.
We don’t always agree with them. And often restaurants short-change us on the experience with bad food, terrible service and a negative attitude. But even so, I genuinely believe that if you go to a restaurant thinking you are a guest, you will have a better time.
For a start, there’s the whole attitude thing. When you are a guest, you are more relaxed, less entitled, more forgiving and willing to give yourself up to the experience. You won’t notice everything that goes wrong. You don’t treat the people serving you with disdain or impatience and so you will be nicer to everyone.
Usually, if you are nice, the people at the restaurant will also be nice. And the experience will be much more pleasant.
I often think that the difference between people who go to restaurants in India and those who go out to eat in Western countries is that Indians regard themselves as customers. Rarely are we gracious or even humble. In the West, more people tend to behave like guests. So they are politer to the staff and treat them like equals.
Indians are --- all too often --- rude to service staff or take them for granted. We rarely say please. We don’t often say thank you. We don’t hesitate to complain. And often we seem eager to find fault.
It could be that because many of us grew up with servants, we find it difficult to treat the people who serve us as equals. We instinctively assume that a master-servant relationship is the way to behave in a restaurant. (Not that you should treat even your domestic staff that way.)
To be fair, the whole customer-or-guest dynamic is not restricted to India. In European countries, people who go to restaurants regard themselves as guests (when was the last time you saw a Frenchman being impatient with a waiter or a Londoner being rude to the staff?), Americans can often be off-hand and unpleasant with service staff.
Nowadays, US restaurateurs have the power to tell people who are over-demanding or unpleasant to get lost but many restaurateurs still complain about how badly diners behave.
It is not just rudeness. Often it is a misunderstanding of how a restaurant works. A menu is not a random collection of dishes. It is a list of items that have been worked on, tweaked, tested and retested and then deemed worthy of the guest.
The French get this. No Frenchman goes into a good restaurant and demands that dishes be changed to suit his preferences.
Indians don’t get it. All too often we want dishes changed to suit our palates (or our lack of taste). In the 1980s, for instance, the House of Ming, once India’s best Chinese restaurant, lost its edge after the service staff promised fatcat customers that they would get the kitchen to change dishes to suit them. Guests would say things like “put more sauce in this” or “is mein thoda garlic daalo” and the manager would force angry chefs to rework their recipes. (Things are back to normal at the House of Ming now, by the way, so don’t worry!)
In America, picky diners can destroy dishes with their demands. My favourite story about customisation concerns a Los Angeles restaurant called Campanile and dates back to the 1990s.
One of Campanile’s nicer dishes was a chicken sandwich made with bacon and aioli (a sort of garlic mayonnaise). One day, a guest asked for it without the bacon or the aioli. They served it but of course the sandwich was unbalanced. The guest returned it saying, “This is the worst sandwich I have had.”
The owner made a rule. He instructed waiters to tell guests that unless the sandwich had the right balance, it would not taste good. On one occasion a waiter explained to a diner who wanted to tweak the sandwich that it would be better if he ordered something else. The customer lost his temper and used profanities.
Later, the customer wrote to the restaurant and complained saying “the Burger King across from my office treats the customer with more consideration than Campanile. It is unbelievably arrogant for a chef to dictate the manner in which a customer’s food is prepared.”
The owner of Campanile wrote back to him explaining why Campanile did not serve the sandwich without mayonnaise. “The sandwich served dry is a lousy sandwich”, he wrote. “That obviously was not communicated to you and for that, I apologise.”
Fair enough. But then, he added. “Having said that I must mention that when there is a problem at a restaurant, the use of loud, obscene and abusive language is not usually the best way to get it resolved. Our staff can and does make mistakes. But they do not deserve to be treated in the demeaning manner that you displayed. Should you ever return here we will do everything to make your dining experience enjoyable. We also expect you to behave like an adult. Until then you should continue to dine at the Burger King across your office.”
Would any Indian restaurateur have the guts to send that kind of response to an abusive customer?
My guess is, no.
We are so used to act as though the customer is always right that all too often we let people treat restaurant staff badly and force chefs to bend to the whims of the customer.
Every single time I have seen a customer behaving badly at a restaurant, the manager has usually sidled up, bowed and scraped, grovelled a little and tried to pacify the guest. It doesn’t matter what the provocation is --- or whether the customer was entirely in the wrong. We are just trained to believe that hospitality means that customers are always right.
Frankly, that’s crazy. In the US, the New York restaurateur Danny Meyer is often regarded as the king of the hospitality world because service at his restaurants is always so warm and friendly. I recently read an interview with Meyer where he was asked what his top priority was. He didn’t say ‘the food’. He didn’t say “the guest”. He said “my team”. A good restaurateur knows that unless the people who work in his establishment are treated well and with dignity, they will never have the capability to offer hospitality that comes from the heart to any guest.
It is upto restaurateurs to change. But as people who go to restaurants, we should also make a conscious effort to change our attitudes. Here is a small checklist.
✅ When you go to a restaurant try and behave like a guest not a customer.
✅ Always say please. Always say thank you.
✅ Talk to the staff like you are a guest at their homes, not like you are the master and they exist to serve you.
✅ If a staff member is wearing a name badge, call him or her by name. They are people too.
✅ Respect the chef. He knows more about food than you do. Don’t ask the kitchen to change dishes around.
✅ If the food takes a long time coming, don’t shout at the server. It is not his or her fault. He/she can only pick up dishes once the kitchen has made them. The chances are that if your food takes too long to come, it is a kitchen issue not a service problem.
✅ Nobody consciously runs a bad restaurant. They are trying their best. If their best is not good enough for you, then fine – don’t go back. But never ever be rude or offensive.
✅ Remember that people who abuse servers are the lowest form of human life. They are basically cowards who abuse people who they know cannot abuse them back. Do not be that person.
Do all this and I guarantee your restaurant experience will improve 100 per cent.
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