Catering to the Uncommitted Diner

Here’s an idea for restaurants. It’s hard for us walk-in customers to get a good sense of what the restaurant’s food is like and whether it’s worth staying. Silly, really, because the people best positioned to help on this are sitting all around us actually eating the stuff: the other customers.

So why not encourage the prospective customers to wander around looking at people’s food and asking them whether they’re happy or not?
‘Excuse me, that looks nice, what is it? Any good?’
‘Yeah, it’s not bad, but I wish I’d ordered the fish. I heard some guy over there say it’s excellent.’
That kind of thing. Arm the prospective customers with a fork too and they can go around the restaurant not just requesting information but also soupçons from diners.

Of course, customers may not be happy to be interrupted by complete strangers prodding at their food and questioning them about it mid-mouthful, but if the maitre d’ had made it clear when they arrived that this might happen they can’t really complain. Well, maybe they can; there’s no guarantee the customer will say nice things about the food.
‘This steak tastes like a car drove over it. Don’t eat here. Get out while you can. There’s a McDonalds across the piazza.’

I can see all sorts of beneficial side-effects from this: complete strangers chatting with each other, whole colonies of inter-table conversations breaking out. People would come from miles around just for the ambiance. Chaos for the waiters, of course, but at least prospective customers get a chance to figure out whether it’s worth taking a table.

While I’m at it, here’s another solution to a similar restaurant problem: the ‘I’ll Have What She’s Having’ issue. You’re looking at the menu, you’re looking at the dish the diner at the next table is eating, and you can’t find it to order. You don’t feel comfortable asking the diner what it is they’re eating, but you also don’t want to confess that to the waiter.

Restaurateurs: Why not put little signs on the tables when your waiter serves the dishes? The signs could be as unobtrusive as all the other junk you put on people’s tables. It could say something like ‘I’m having the red duck curry. It’s on page two.’ You could even leave a place where the diner could give it points out of 10 (that might keep prospective diners wandering in off the street from prodding your food, as well as help prevent the person at the next table lean too far out of her chair trying to guess what you ordered.)

How about it?

Technology And The Decline Of Service

As the world develops, and technology gets better, will we forget the essence of relations between two people: how to serve?

I live in Indonesia right now, which is probably the service capital of the world. Not necessarily in terms of expertise, and certainly not in terms of quality of goods (despite having some of the best carvers in the world, don’t count on it extending to a sofa, table or cabinet you have made for you). But Indonesians working in hotels, restaurants and shops are among some of the most attentive, helpful and flexible I’ve ever come across. They’re polite, helpful, genuinely friendly and show extraordinary flexibility, given the poor training and wages they usually receive. A five-star hotel in Indonesia has probably the best level of service in the world.

But all this will eventually change, just as it has changed in the West. In communist and former communist countries the quality of service was undermined by poor training, poor wages and low motivation. But this is true of any bureaucratic set up — and it’s true in Indonesia, proving that while quality of service can be tied to the emphasis, or lack of it, on hospitality to strangers in a culture, it’s not the only factor. An Indonesian bureaucrat can be as awful as a North Korean or Russian.

As technology forces more self-service upon us, so too will these bastions of good service pass. From supermarkets to gas stations, from airports to help-lines, the notion of one human serving another is gradually disappearing. Some will think this is a good thing, mistaking service for subservience. A waiter is only subservient if the customer makes him so. There is dignity in service and only a boorish and overly demanding customer undermines that dignity. I worked in a bookshop for three years and loved every minute of it, making customers happy by matching them with the tomes they sought, the only blotches being rude customers who didn’t understand that we loved (and read) books as much as they.

So as technology replaces humans in these interactions, what happens to us? We end up stuck on the end of automated telephone lines, sending emails into a customer service abyss, increasingly alienated from corporations that spend all their money on saying how personalised their services are (one bank keeps talking about how it understands local customs, but when I complained they had failed to complete a telegraphic transfer to a bank in another country, they asked me for the bank’s telephone number. How much understanding of local conditions does that reveal?)

Finally, I fear that the decline of service will make us as humans increasingly remote from one another. Some things are indeed best automated, but humans are hard-wired to communicate with other humans. It’s what keeps us sane. But as service becomes self-service, I fear we will just become more selfish, like those people who overfill their plates at all-you-can-eat buffets. Serving — and being served — are what keep us civilised.

News: Copy the customer, get a bigger tip

  A report in Nature confirms what we all knew: the waitress (or waiter, presumably) who imitates the customers gets a bigger tip. Huh?
Turns out, according to some Dutch psychologist Rick van Baaren of the University of Nijmegen, that “Mimicry creates bonds between people – it induces a sense of ‘we-ness.  You know that what you’re doing is ok, and you become more generous.” Van Baaren’s team studied staff in an American-style restaurant in southern Holland: In half of the tests, they primed a waitress to repeat customers’ orders back to them. In the other half, she said something else positive, such as “Coming right up!”
When copycatting, the waitresses’ average tip almost doubled, to nearly 3 guilders (US$1.20).