TREASURE CHEST

LIFE IN THESE UNITED STATES

Posted on: March 24, 2012

EATING OUT

FAISAL JEDDY

Faisal Jeddy.
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This post may come as a mundane topic for some of you, but one that I am sure many of you can associate with.

I have been thinking about this conundrum for a while as to why the various Pakistani restaurants in the Bay Area provide such lousy service to their customers. Its not that the food is bad or the chairs are broken. For me, the idea to dine-out at a restaurant is not just to eat food without having to cook it, but essentially to have a ‘good time’. I define ‘good time’ as where the décor is nice, service is attentive, food is tasty, where there is minimal hassle for seating and serving, and when you leave the place you’d want to come back again for all the right reasons.

I look back at our dine-out experience yesterday at Shalimar in Fremont as a case in study, however the experiences are pretty consistent all across the spectrum, with minor improvements here and there. Knowing fully well that on a weekend, the line of customers extend well outside the restaurant, we did a totally un-desi thing and went for dinner at the ungodly time of 5:50 pm. Since the restaurant opens at 5:30 pm, so getting a table for seven was not a problem. There was no line for ordering food either.

Ordering at this restaurant is more like the first part of negotiation and thereafter ensues a battle of wits where your aim is to, somehow, successfully eat what you came there to eat. Odds are stacked against you, mind you.

They seldom have all the items on the menu available. When you give the order, chances are you will be served all those things in different time zones. Which is not unreasonable because different foods take different times to prepare (or defrost, depending on how cynic you are). Especially with BBQ items you’d rather eat them fresh out of the tandoor. But the way our desi restaurants manage this process is bordering on the game of Jeopardy. It’s a hit-or-miss thing. If there is any tracking as to the items ordered, delivered and remain-to-be-delivered, they managed to hide it really well. It kind of spins the whole thing on its head when the later half of your order is forgotten or is delivered when you have already finished the first part, wiped your hands and are ready to give up and move out.

Before delivering the items on your table, the waiter will stop and ask from at least 3-4 tables around you if they have ordered that particular dish. Thankfully, in our case no other customers opted to claim the tikkas as his, and the poor waiter finally stumbled upon our table to deliver the fare. After half the order is delivered and you start eating, the real “fun” starts. You have to then keep all your antennas up to catch the eye of the lone waiter. You will have to frequently nag him to bring you the remainder of the order. One of your arms (hopefully the one you are not using to eat) will practically be raised up all the time. You have to request him repeatedly to get you fresh naan. While one eye is on your plate to enjoy the delicious tikka, the other eye has to be on your surroundings to make sure your remaining order is not delivered to your neighbors. After requesting the waiter for the umpteenth time, I finally went back to the order-counter to remind the dude about our order and they then proceeded to create a ruckus in the kitchen. Finally the remainder of the order miraculously showed up just when we had almost finished the earlier round.

On my way back from the place, I started thinking about the state-of-affairs of our desi restaurants, and came up with some flimsy excuses on why they are managed so poorly. It seems to me, that these restaurants are originally started to cater to the desi taxi drivers. No effort is made to pamper the clientele instead it is deemed that all these second-class citizens don’t have any family at home to cook them food, so the restaurant is actually doing them a big favor by providing them a warm meal. Since the food is tasty, so the clientele picks up and the place becomes crowded. Prices on the menu suggest that there is at least 100% margin on each item, which is pretty normal for any decent restaurant here. As a result the owner(s) are able to expand the one shop into multiple locations, with better décor than the original crappy hole-in-the-wall place, but the original mannerism miraculously remain. The customer is still treated like a second-class citizen. It seems these restaurants feel that the customer is not doing them any favor by patronizing the place rather it is the restaurant-owner who is doing them a big favor by providing them with halaal meal. And since the food is actually tasty, so the customers should not expect anything else.

Contrast such experiences, with even regular run-of-the-mill sit-down restaurants in US, like Chilli’s or AppleBee’s or even IHOP. The average bill of $10/person (including gratuity) suggests that the desi restaurants should have some standards of service. While the food is excellent right now, there are a few things that we expect in a good dine-out experience.

1. They should set up a counter at the door, where all arriving “guests” are asked to “Wait to be seated” instead of asking the guests to be hawks when they enter the restaurant trying to grab a table themselves.

2. If they are able to take reservations on the phone, that will be an icing on the cake.

3. The décor should afford some privacy to the dining area, instead of resembling an army mess where all efforts are made to squeeze maximum tables in the available space, which the building code will allow. They should realize that decorating restaurants is actually an art and it entails more than just putting a bunch of tables and chairs in the available space.

4. Once you are seated, the designated waiter for your table should take the order in a courteous manner, instead of you standing in a line for 35 minutes just to give the order.

5. Food should arrive in a reasonable time, which should not be more than 15-20 minutes (Kabab N’ Curry used to be the poster child for how not to run a restaurant with its 45 minute wait).

6. The food should be delivered according to the order.

7. The waiter should check on you to see if you need anything else.

8. And once you are finished eating, the bill should be promptly presented and the card or the change returned once the transaction is complete.

Or may be all these things are deemed too “foreign” for our desi restaurant owners, and will somehow make us forget that we are in a desi restaurant. Irony. They open restaurants in one of the most advanced countries in the world, and still manage to import the poorest customer-handling concepts that would probably shame even “Miyan ji da Khokha”. It seems to me that the desi restaurant-owners here just want to keep maximum profit margins, and hence do not wish to either design the restaurant in a dignified manner or hire more wait staff to cater to the “guests”. And since we want to eat halaal and desi, we’d go back to them again and again, even though the whole experience of eating there is nothing to write home about.
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Post-script.

Here is how the conversation went when we were ordering the food. It also provides some valuable insight into how the restaurants are run.

We were in a mood for tikkas and are partial to the breast piece, even though they charge 50 cents more for breast piece compared to thighs. As soon as we ordered five breast piece, the order-taker (molvi sahib) immediately shook his head.

“Milla julla ho ga!” he told us.

“What do you mean – milla julla?” I asked

“Kuch breast hooN gay, kuch leg – aaj rush ziyada ho ga iss liyay”, he clarified.

“Ok, let me get this straight. We can’t eat what we actually want?” I asked incredulously.

The logic of the question apparently sunk into his head. He checked back from the kitchen and got the assurance the they will, in fact, be willing to make five breast piece of tikkas for this one customer, namely me!

Having gone from the pesky issue of breast piece, we moved to other minor issues.

“One Aaloo ka paratha”, I asked him

“Woh tau nahi hai”, was the quick response. Well, no problem. Atleast they told it upfront, instead of springing the surprise after 25 minutes of wait.

“One plate Sindhi Biryani”, I said, reading from the menu.

“Who bhi aaj nahi hai”, he replied back.

“Oh well, lets just have naan then”, I said, while concluding the order.

Molvi saheb promptly noted our table number on the order form, which ultimately proved to be quite useless.

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1 Response to "LIFE IN THESE UNITED STATES"

They must have copied the rules of Governance from the Govt of Pakistan Service Manual.
Attitude and inefficiency are the Pakistani traits. A nice homely and native touch without which you can not feel at home.

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