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Disservice December 20, 2007

Posted by fungus in Uncategorized.
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I’m in Bombay these days. It is so nice to be back in Bombay – more than eleven months after I left. For the record, I’m here on work. Off the record, however, I’m just soaking it all back in. I’m put up with friends. So you can guess exactly how much work I’m getting done.

We go out a fair bit. In the sense it rains in Cherrapunji a fair bit. The other day Ravi suggested we try this Indian restaurant that everyone was talking about. Ravi is about as “in” as you can get so his recommendation counts for something with us, country bumpkins. Plus, I was tired of my daily diet of pizzas so I readily agreed. “Caravan Serai” is on Waterfield Road, Bandra, right above Red Box Cafe. It is beautifully done up and its patron-list boasts the Who’s-Who of Bombay.

We were lucky with our timing because we found seating as soon as we walked in. Our server turned out to be a weird mixture of indifference, baritone and laryngitis and the impression I got was that he enjoyed making us strain to hear him. We decided to skip the starters and proceed directly to the main course. Ravi ordered buttermilk to go with the food. Sidin ordered one too but when it was pointed out to him that he had a bad throat he asked the server to get him one at room temperature. The server shook his head. It took us a minute to understand that he meant that buttermilk could not be served “hot”. Cancel our order, we said. He pottered off only to come back with two buttermilks: both cold.

When we told him we had ordered only one he begged to differ. We asked him to take it back at which point he shrugged his shoulders and just stood there. It cheeses me off no end when a service establishment does not heed the customer. We weren’t about to make a scene, however, so we took the buttermilk. If that had been it, however, I wouldn’t be writing about it.

Our food arrived in a while. The meat was soft but drowned in seasoning. Not great, but edible. The breads were nice and soft. But it was the Dal that took the cake. Without going too much into the recipe let me just say that a nice Dal Bukhara uses a fair amount of tomato gravy. However, when tomato is all you can taste, Houston, we have a problem. We had already been rather accommodating on the buttermilk issue. The meat had further brought out our stoic side. The Dal, then, was the last straw. We called back the server and told him that the Dal was, well, tomato puree and little else. He shuffled off and returned with his manager.

We repeated our complaint.

But, sir, our Dal Bukhara is world-famous.

So is Dharavi, monsieur. But you wouldn’t want to live there, would you?

It took him forever to understand that this group was not going to put up with their Dal Bukhara.

I’ll have it made again, sir.

Yeah, right.

The next instalment, when it arrived, tasted exactly the same – hot tomato puree. It was at that point that we decided to retaliate.

There are several issues at stake here. There is, of course, the issue of a bad product in a restaurant. No one should have to put up with that. Especially when the restaurant operates on a plank of “good food”. There is the issue of a restaurant with potential being let down by apathetic staff. Servers, and managers, who drag their feet will drag any restaurant down with them, no matter how world-class the food and ambience. There is the issue of empowerment. The more the authority to make decisions at a lower level within the hierarchy the more responsive the service and this translates, directly, to customer satisfaction. The server should have been authorised to take back a below-par dish without consulting his superior. But what irks us the most is the fact that customer feedback, which is the driving principle of Kaizen (continuous improvement) within the service industry, is met with defensiveness and diffidence. If we had come in asking for their world-famous Dal we’d only have gotten what we deserved with that swill. However, when we asked for just the Dal – no titles attached – we expected a level of quality that, if not present, we had every right to reject. I haven’t even started my restaurant but I already know not to act in this disastrous manner.

Fortunately, there is a fair bit that the customer can do. We could have made a scene within the restaurant. We could have fought tooth-and-nail to have the offending items struck from the bill. We could have whispered to other patrons that they were being short-changed. But we didn’t do any of that. What we did was to pay exactly the bill amount – no tip. I have actually heard of someone who deducted the standard tip amount from the bill. Her explanation was that a Zero bill amount doesn’t punish bad service. It is like saying that while you will be rewarded for good behaviour there is no punishment for bad behaviour. I completely endorse her view. I guess I just don’t have the cojones to do what she did. Luckily, we had the exact change needed to make the amount. I just hope it was a statement that they didn’t miss.

My writing this blog entry is part of that retaliation too. There is no excuse for apathy at a restaurant. None, whatsoever. A product that is not up to expectations may yet go unnoticed. It is a documented fact that service complaints far outweigh food complaints across all types of eating establishments. Also, service dissatisfaction is more likely to make customers vow to never return than complaints with the food. It isn’t very difficult to understand these concepts. But, at the very least, you need staff and management who care about the restaurant and, consequently, the customer. Without that the road ahead is a dark, downward spiral.

Ruchika, Sidin and I headed to the nearest coffee shop to help get rid of the bad taste of tomato-Dal from our mouths. Ravi came to get rid of the vile taste of the complimentary Paan at “Caravan Serrai” which he had picked up to get rid of the taste of the tomato-Dal. Poor fellow! We tried to not ruin the night any more for him by pointing out that going there had been his idea in the first place. Oh, I just pointed it out, didn’t I? Oops. Sorry, Ravi.

And…..back! December 19, 2007

Posted by fungus in Uncategorized.
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More than a year. That’s how long it has been since I last wrote. It isn’t like the blog was very popular but the few who did log on have felt cheated. And, rightly so. My apologies. Let me quickly run you through what I’ve been up to since you last heard from me.

After I signed off I served out the period of my notice rather uneventfully. It also left me free enough to make sure two of my friends got married. To each other, no less. I came back to Delhi in January and my mother, who had been so stellar in her support, previously, was worried sick.

“Don’t tell me you plan to sit at home now.”

“My son. Unemployed.”

She was aghast. I was quite happy to sit at home in the beginning. But three weeks is all I could tolerate. And, pretty soon, I was doing the one thing I never thought I’d do again – making my resume. A week later I was mathematics faculty at an institute that prepares people for the CAT. Ironic, considering my entire preparation comprised two simulation tests. I signed up for the weekends, originally, but as the CAT approached, and my interest in teaching grew, my hours shot up like mad and the time and opportunity to fully pursue the restaurant dream became hard to come by.

I did, however, manage to get some experience and a lot of learning under my belt; thanks, mainly, to some amazing people and a fortuitous series of events.

It happened like this. Near the end of January I was showing one of my ex-corporate friends around my favourite part of town – Connaught Place. And, as I rounded yet another corner I brushed past a tall chap who said, “Hi, Rajjat.” Instinctively I replied, “Hi, Gaurav.”

Truth be told, I was surprised that he remembered me. What was more surprising was that I remembered him. I suck at remembering names, you see, and to do so for someone I hadn’t seen in eight years wasn’t something I trusted myself to do.

I asked him what he was doing.

“Not much. Dad bought me some share in a restaurant so that’s where I spend my time.”

Funny how my Dad never seems to do stuff like buying me part, or all, of a restaurant, all things considered.

I made some remark to that effect; we exchanged numbers and set off on our respective ways, not expecting to hear from each other ever again.

He called back the next day.

“Rajjat, would you want to come down to the restaurant some time and have a look around? Make some suggestions, maybe?”

I said I’d like that and went the next day.

It was a pretty affair with good food but a huge location disadvantage. Gaurav was hoping for ideas and suggested I make the trip to the restaurant a regular affair. I told him I’d love to. It would be a huge learning opportunity for me. But, I warned him, I’d like to keep a large chunk of my time free since I was planning to intern at a restaurant or two.

“Which ones?”

I told him.

“Oh, they’re Dolly Aunty’s places.”

Err, who’s Dolly Aunty?

“My partner in this restaurant.”

Hmmm. You wouldn’t consider getting me an appointment, would you?

“Of course.” Beep beep beep beep. “Hullo, Dolly Aunty? Gaurav. I have a friend who’d like to meet you. Tomorrow?” I nod. “Tomorrow sounds great.”

As we drove over the next day Gaurav asked how I was going to put a spin on my internship so that Aunty saw some value in the arrangement for herself. I wasn’t sure.

Dolly Aunty turned out to be a very sweet lady, almost Buddha-esque in her demeanour. When Gaurav suggested that I consult for their restaurant she was all for it. It took her a while, naturally, to digest how I came to give up a plush corporate job to start my own restaurant. It’s a hard life, she cautioned.

And then she quizzed me.

Do you cook?

What cuisine?

How do you make Crème Brule?

It was only when she was satisfied about my intentions that I brought up the main agenda.

Aunty, all things aside, do you think I could intern at your restaurant?

“Which one?”

I named one.

“Why don’t you intern at all of them one-by-one?”

Much gushing.

When do I start?

“Come tomorrow.”

This was turning out better than I hoped for. I went the next day.

There’s three of them: Aunty, Aunty’s husband, Charan and Manav, celebrity chef extraordinaire. It took a while for Aunty to justify my presence there but once I’d made some recommendations for marketing and service I was very welcome. I spent a lot of time in the kitchen – mainly watching but, when the camera crews came along, I cooked up quite a storm.

Work at the restaurants was fun and, as the incremental learning tapered off I decided to move on. Concentrated on my teaching, added some presentations and Q&A to my repertoire and made the most of days off.

All this while the restaurant was at the back of my mind. The fact that I had no one to unload my concerns and worries on worried me more than the worries themselves. I found a lot of solace discussing my concerns with Nikesh, a batch-mate from campus and a friend from Bombay. Nikesh operates his family business in a related field and he is everything I am not – reserved, grounded, pragmatic and sincere. Everything I was looking for a in a partner, basically and we had mutually agreed on the partnership way before either of us spoke about it.

Nikesh has been stellar. He has had me whipped for a long time now, thinking and re-thinking concepts, pricing staff requirements and the like. We drew up a mental business plan. Just in time, too, because the very next week we got called to conduct a workshop on Business Plans at IIT Delhi. I remember that, at the end of a four-hour workshop, Nikesh had spoken for barely 10 minutes. When I apologised for my boorishness he assured me that it had been exactly to his liking. I said it then and I’ll say it now: Dude, you and I are going to get along just fine.

The CAT came and went. While not difficult, the paper was a tad unexpected and therein lies its beauty. My students’ exams go on till mid-January after which the teaching comes to an end. Mostly. Nikesh and I are busy looking at potential locations for our restaurant and we hope to be up and running by May 2008. If my luck holds we shouldn’t have too much of a problem.

What luck, you ask? Well, I consider myself extremely lucky for having run into Gaurav, Dolly Aunty and Nikesh – all chances that were too slim to factor into any plans I may have had when I came back to Delhi. (Confession: I didn’t have any plans at all). I was very lucky to have had a very rewarding stint at Dolly Aunty’s restaurants. I was also lucky to find a very rewarding part-time vocation teaching – something I enjoy more and more as time passes. I have been very lucky to make all sorts of new friends this past year and to have renewed several old acquaintances. And, most of all, I consider myself very lucky for the unflinching support I have received from family, friends and strangers alike.

Well, that’s it for the update. Look forward to fresh posts soon.