Thursday, September 11, 2014

Kitchen confidential: The truth behind ‘bad service’



Singapore’s well-known for many things, and our national pastime of eating is one of them. Many cafes and restaurants have also sprouted up in the past few years. Many of my friends, too, have left their stable, comfortable paying jobs to pursue the simple dream of running a cafe, which requires admirable courage to begin with. To be honest, it is only when we finally open for business do we realise how this industry takes its toll on us: The long hours that are physically and mentally draining; the one million and one things that you have to learn to deal with, such as troubleshooting a blackout; dealing with “sky’s the limit” type of expectations from customers; and, of course, the constant issues related to the severe shortage of manpower.

It makes me wonder if us F&B owners are just whining about the situation or is there really a problem to begin with? And as customers, do we really see the underlying reasons related to “bad service”?


As restaurant owners, we aim to make every customer happy and leave smiling from ear to ear. There’s a saying in service textbooks that the customer is always right. But are they really? And on that note, let’s also ask: Do we, as customers, put ourselves in the shoes of the service staff? Do we lay expectations on a restaurant’s service team that we will never place upon ourselves? Do we treat service staff cordially? Or do we talk to them in a tone and manner that wouldn’t even closely reflect how we would treat a new subordinate in the office or someone that we’ve just met for the first time?

I’ve seen customers whistling and snapping their fingers in order to get the attention of the service staff. That’s just plain rude. I’ve also witnessed countless incidents where service staff take the flak for things that are not even their fault to begin with, or deal with customers who simply want to vent their frustrations on them over something that they have no control over.

I’ve learnt that it’s impossible to please everyone and even more impossible to expect a flawless day-to-day operational flow from my staff. Even I, as an owner, make mistakes as well. A month ago, I received a bad review on a reservation slip-up, for which I immediately made an apologetic service recovery offer. However, this was not accepted and we are still receiving snarky comments from this individual.

In the past, it used to be an employer’s market. However, times have changed. Ask any owner, head chef or restaurant manager today and they will share stories about employees talking back to them, complaining about the slightest things or bailing on their work shifts the moment things start to go south.

There are a myriad of contributing factors to this: It could a bruised ego on the part of the employee who got scolded, a staffer may also not be able to align themselves with the restaurant’s vision of providing excellent service. It could be that the nature of the F&B industry is one that is physically more demanding, which results in higher stress levels and cantankerous personalities.

With high rentals, increasing food costs and foreign worker levies as well as policies impacting the human resources budget, business owners are caught between a rock and a hard place. They struggle to fiercely market their product, only to be unable to handle the crowd when they come in. I was having kopi with some of my fellow cafe-owner friends and we all agreed that it is becoming increasingly difficult to find Singaporeans who are passionate about this industry. We also discussed how many who step in as service crew are actually in it for the long haul to gain the necessary experience for a managerial position. There are some things you can only learn through years of experience, just like how it takes years of practice to craft a beautiful plate of food. These are important years of committment and training that not many people can persevere through.

So we turn to foreign employees. But this is only a stop-gap measure. While there’s the language barrier and training to deal with, what’s harder to cope with are the unpredictable policies on foreign manpower that may be implemented any time. Just when we have nurtured a good working relationship with our employees, we have to start all over again when their pass renewal gets rejected.


How should we, as F&B owners, then encourage more Singaporeans to find a career in the F&B industry?

If the answer to this is to dangle carrots and have a better pay scheme to attract and retain good staff, then are we all prepared to pay higher prices for our food and drinks when dining out?

If the answer is “no”, then perhaps we should all be a little more tolerant of the restaurant staff, who are all working to make our dining experience a little more pleasant each time.

I’m sure we all remember that lousy day we occasionally have in the office? Let’s all strive not to be the reason for others’.

Darren Wee is a MediaCorp Radio 987FM radio DJ who hosts The Sunday Brunch from 11am to 1pm. He’s also the owner of Chillax Cafa and the newly opened Babette — Restaurant & Bar along Tyrwhitt Road. Follow him on Instagram @djtowkay.

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