Forget f-bombs in the kitchen, it's bad behaviour from diners that rankles restaurant staff. Photo: Jennifer Soo
Be it prattish patrons or snooty staff, there's no excuse for bad restaurant etiquette - it's a two-way street that can sometimes lead to dreadful dining experiences.
It was a busy Wednesday night at a popular Indian restaurant, when a male customer picked up his plate of freshly served lamb shank, stormed up to the waiter and yelled: "Taste it!" Head chef Gaurav Sakhuja looked up from his open kitchen as the red-faced patron pushed the plate into the waiter's face while spraying verbal abuse: "Taste it! Is it hot? Taste it!"
Sakhuja, owner of Bayleaf Brasserie in Crows Nest, had cooked nalli ka gosht for five years, and was certain the shanks were "spicy hot" as requested. "I put more chilli into it. I eat chilli, I know how hot it has to be." He placated the man in his late 40s with a new plate - with extra chilli sauce on the side - and a complimentary dessert - not because the customer is always right, but to promptly resolve a situation that had astounded and unnerved everyone in the room.
Rude customers can be the bane of restaurant owners' and workers' existence, lowering staff morale, causing profit losses and even triggering brutal fights. In April, a chef at Red Chilli in Lakemba plunged a long metal skewer into the hand of a man who had complained about slow service.
But while difficult customers are a perennial, the rapid growth in food blogs and review websites has placed restaurants under even greater pressure to deliver all patrons great food and flawless service, at a time when Australians are eating out more than ever before. Figures from Restaurant & Catering Australia show that the average person visits restaurants and cafes 2.8 times a week, up from 1.8 a decade ago.
A common complaint from the restaurant industry is that customers now have multiple online platforms to vent their spleen, while the chefs must still suffer disagreeable visitors in silence. "There should also be a place for restaurants to have a go at customers," says Rick Baccaglia, owner of Zenja Cafe in North Strathfield, who claims to have been unfairly attacked online by disgruntled customers. "A woman ordered a cup of tap water and we served it in a classic Coke glass. She complained [on a website] that her water came in a McDonald's freebie soccer giveaway glass. It's a joke. They're so uninformed."
This article affords the food-service industry a rare chance to reveal why, sometimes, the customer is not always king, and there is no shortage of chefs willing to spill the beans.
Dublin-born kitchen whiz Colin Fassnidge has ejected customers for groping staff, resting their feet on tables and ripping tablecloth at his two-hatted Four in Hand restaurant in the back streets of Paddington. Bad behaviour is usually fuelled by alcohol, he observes. "You see the best and worst in people in restaurants."
His well-rehearsed floor manager, Oliver Tucker, has witnessed one diner poke fun of the size of an Asian waitress' eyes and a Don Juan unleash tales of sexual conquests. Diners at nearby tables often share his horror. A more common form of poor etiquette is when customers whistle, clap, click with their fingers or madly wave to grab his attention. "We are not dogs. Just look up and you'll catch the waiter's eye."
While the use of mobile phones at the table doesn't irk him, customers who consult Google when stumped by an obscure term on the menu can be frustrating. "Ask us. It's our job. We are more than happy to help," he says.
Rising allergy rates have also forced restaurants to adapt to a host of new dietary requirements. Food-induced anaphylaxis has doubled in the past decade, the Australasian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy reported in July, and 20 per cent of people have an allergic disease.
Food requests have been a bugbear for Matt Fitzgerald, head chef of Bondi's Eastern Hotel, home to Mexican joint El Topo. Fussy diners have conceded to him, after some curious prodding, that in order to avoid smelly breath, they don't want onion or garlic in their meals. "I have to explain, yes, onions and garlic are in the mole. But in 10 litres of mole, there are six onions, and you'll get 20 grams of mole on the plate. So the amount is minute," says Fitzgerald. "And, no, we can't take it out."
The deft handling of tricky requests can be a measure of a chef's ability to be flexible, but some requests simply destroy a dish. A woman at El Topo once ordered a scallop ceviche without the lime, chilli and coriander. "Without the integral components you've lost the heart and soul of it."
Noisy and unruly children are another issue, and can ruin the eatery's atmosphere. Sensing the annoyance of guests at children screaming and throwing cutlery on the floor, Gaurav Sakhuja offered to shift a family to a corner table at the back of the Bayleaf Brasserie. He was surprised by their refusal. "Customers should indicate whether they're bringing children while booking."
Online group-buying deals have been a boon, but also a major source of frustration. Sakhuja has dealt with bargain-hungry people armed with Cudo and Spreets vouchers trying to squeeze out extra value. Four people once turned up with one voucher which offered two courses for two people. "It says clearly on the voucher that additional people have to pay as per menu prices. They were so adamant."
But some customers have legitimate gripes when it comes to eating out. Earlier this year, Lorraine Elliott and four friends entered Mojo, Luke Mangan's warehouse-style wine bar on Danks Street, after waiting for four weeks since its opening. "I usually wait ... because they're still finding their feet," she explained on her blog, Not Quite Nigella. "Menus change, service becomes more assured and processes smooth out."
From the raw kingfish at the start to the soft Swiss meringue for dessert, Elliott thought that each dish delivered on taste and quality. But snooty attitudes and snarky comments from some of the wait staff almost ruined the mood of the night. Enter "Mojo" and "Mangan" in a search engine, and Elliott's review appears on the first page of results. Click and scroll down and comments from loyal readers emerge. "Oh dear. The food looks good but the service sounds appalling - no thanks," wrote a user named Cakelaw.
The blog Not Quite Nigella amasses 250,000 unique visitors each month, and Elliott knows her words wield considerable influence. "If I do receive bad service at a place, I mention it as it's important as the food," says Elliott. "If there was poor service, I'd be unlikely to return." And there has been "plenty" of it. She was made to pay for a chicken dish that had string in it, and forced to listen to a restaurant owner crack sexist jokes at her table.
Any signs of a dying service culture can be linked with the immense skills shortage in the hospitality sector, says John Hart, head of Australia's peak restaurant industry body. More than 36,000 people are required to fill gaping holes in the tourism sector, and the figure is expected to jump to 56,000 in two years.
The vast majority of the jobs fall into the food-service category. "Businesses are now opting for a different service delivery, one that is less labour intensive. I wouldn't say there is less staff training, but rather, less people in the training system," observes Hart.
Fassnidge says Australians view wait jobs as merely a stepping stone. "When I was in Michelin restaurants, waiters travelled from France and Italy to become commis waiters and chef de rangs. It was a career."
Sydney blogger Billy Law, the man behind the A Table for Two website, has noticed a decline in customer service over the years. "I've noticed a lack of friendliness. And at some places there's pressure to eat quickly, to get in and get out so they can feed more customers. If one person finishes a meal and the other person hasn't, the waiter will come and clear your table. That's a very negative sign."
At Fairfield RSL, chief executive Anthony Sobb has instructed staff to not retaliate against posters of negative comments on websites. "It's just too dangerous and it's a no-win situation. It's a bloggers opinion and that's their opinion. To enter any kind of spar with them is not healthy."
But no matter poor etiquette or negative customer comments; the restaurant industry still knows it cannot survive without their precious dollars. Providing a positive customer experience is still the cornerstone for successful food businesses.
Pip Whitting, sommelier at the Merivale group's Ivy bar, says when she see a table of rowdy diners on the brink of drunkenness she has a plan that will keep staff, fellow diners and clients happy.
"It's easier to have a friendly chit chat. I will constantly top up their water to slow them down. Put more bread on the table. The cellar is also downstairs, so if they're ordering another bottle, I'll tell them it will take some time to grab it from the cellar. We're not going to let them get to a bad state."
Going beyond customer expectations can also bring unexpected dividends. Tawnya Bahr, a food-industry consultant, celebrated her mother-in-law's birthday at Muse restaurant in the Hunter Valley in April last year. At the end of lunch, she noticed her trouser leg had been frayed by a rogue nail that poked out of her wooden chair.
"The manager was horrified and straight away she asked me for my bank details and how much they were worth. She promptly sent me more than $100 for new pants. I'll continue to go back," says Bahr, who continues to rave about the service to this day.
This story originally appeared in The (Sydney) Magazine, October 2013 issue.
Correction: An earlier version said the Not Quite Nigella blog received 50,000 unique visitors each month. This was incorrect. It is 250,000.