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What lurks behind the seemingly harmless exterior?

by
01 October 2015, at 12:00am

THE MERCURY COLUMN in which a guest columnist takes the temperature of the profession – and the world around

IT may be that I’m getting old and curmudgeonly (at this early stage, my wife might interject and say that it’s rather more definite than that and maybe is inappropriate) but I’m getting a bit exercised by the need to leave a tip everywhere, even if the service is execrable.

Unlike the US, where no one gets paid properly and the custom of leaving a tip is mostly a cunning wheeze by employers to have customers subsidise their wage bill, the custom of leaving a gratuity should, in the UK, reflect the degree of satisfaction one has experienced from the level of service received.

Like so many things, we seem to have caught the tail-end of another US custom and find ourselves plagued by a wide variation in service levels and the ubiquitous reminder at the end of every bill that gratuities are at our discretion – and that is, in itself, something of an indiscretion too. See, I said I was becoming a curmudgeon!

I could go on for hours but I realise that you might gratefully go off for an early bath if I were to do so. Instead, let me try to put all this resentment in some form of context.

Having contracted to hire a selfcatering cottage for our annual holiday which is, for me, just a euphemism for going out to eat somewhere different every night for two weeks, I feel admirably qualified to comment on the level of service enjoyed by the nation as it goes about its gastrobusiness.

To be fair, we suffered no ill effects from what we consumed, other than a number of strangely unyielding pounds and a worrying spike in BMI. I like to measure our BMI collectively as that seems, without fail, to mitigate the disaster of just measuring my own.

It wasn’t the food itself that raised any eyebrows, although that varied enormously in quality and price, but rather it was the way in which it was delivered.

In theory, the component parts of cod and chips are hard to amend convincingly so it makes a useful comparator and I must confess to having consumed rather more than two versions of this great stalwart of the British menu during our vacances. You might be surprised how differently it was served and how much that affected both the enjoyment of the food and our willingness to repeat the exercise.

So what is it that makes a difference to our perception of the establishment serving the food? It wasn’t really the price because, as normal consumers – if such a description exists – we self-select the type and style of the places we choose to patronise in a seamless, unconscious process based on expectation.

I wouldn’t even try to persuade the Lady of the house to frequent a certain, basal level of culinary promise and I work hard to deter her from wandering cheerfully towards a Michelin star of any description for fear of its necrotic effect upon my wallet.

As a result, we invariably choose something in the middle of the broad swathe of choice of restaurants and Britain is hardly devoid of choice. In the end, it isn’t really the price or the standard of the product itself that governs our initial choice, and we’re relatively adventurous in our selection but, more frequently, it’s a strange mixture of promise and an intangible mélange of other factors – all based on expectation.

Is the standard of décor something we’d feel comfortable with? Is it clean? Most importantly, what will the toilets be like? From behind the scar tissue of previous mistakes, I have perfected the knack of selecting places to eat that should tick most, if not all, of these boxes.

So, now I have successfully found somewhere clean, tidy, suitably welcoming in terms of décor and visual appeal, somewhere that promises to meet our Pavlovian expectations and somewhere that serves the type of food we are looking for within a price bracket that we’re comfortable with. What can possibly go wrong?

Perhaps that’s the wrong question. Maybe the more telling question would be, “How many restaurants would you have returned to over those 14 nights?”

To be fair, that part of Britain has more choice of places to eat than Willy Wonka’s sweetshop but, when it comes to it, the market is well segmented providing a reasonable choice to meet everyone’s tastes and that suddenly limits the available choice quite dramatically.

In one particularly famous town in South Devon, we counted 17 restaurants but one of them was fully booked every night (closed on Sundays and Mondays) until 10th October. That, in itself, tells an interesting story. Of the other 16, all those we asked could fit us in without question at any stage throughout our stay.

The question that emerges is, “Why don’t people want to go back to so many places?” In my view, the answer is simple – the level of service varies wildly, staff training is almost invisible in many cases and when food is delivered in a surly fashion greeted by an offhand instruction to “Enjoy!”, both my feet and my wallet get involved in a mad dash for freedom.

Conversely, when service levels are high, customer satisfaction rapidly exceeds the quality of the product and, in the case of repeat business, we would be planning when to return long before getting back to our car.

It’s hardly rocket science is it? But, however simple it should be to get things right, so very many restaurants fail at the first hurdle.

Are there any parallels in our world of veterinary practice? You bet there are! If we have a healthy client list but regularly see sizeable spaces in the appointments book or have time for a cup of tea between consults, maybe the veterinary equivalent of “Enjoy!” may be alive and well somewhere in our practices, lurking behind a seemingly harmless exterior.

The challenge for the fully booked fish restaurant mentioned earlier is to remain fully booked this time next year and we all understand how hard it is to be consistently good but, however hard a challenge that might be, to assume complacently that all is well because people are not telling us otherwise soon becomes a far more terminal problem.

Now, if the producers would only get in touch, I have a collection of things I’d like to consign to Room 101.