Tuesday, 16 December 2008

A disappointing meal

I visited a local restaurant last week when my usual enthusiasm for cooking had gone AWOL. It first opened about four or five years ago and has changed hands at least three times since then. It has been a winebar, an Italian restaurant, a French restaurant but nothing has worked. The current owners bought the place about eighteen months ago and have struggled for about a year. It seems to be one of those unfortunate businesses that is incapable of making money. I have been trying to work out why.

The building itself is new, stylish and in a good location, right on the corner of a park with lots of passing traffic both vehicular and on foot. In the summer there are shows in the small open air theatre in the park which gets very busy at weekends. One drawback is that parking is restricted, although that shouldn't be much of a handicap in a heavily populated area. The restaurant itself is roughly circular and seats about forty people at tables with a bar area capable of seating a further eight or ten. Many smaller establishments around here have done a roaring trade for years, so size can't be the problem.

When FatBigot Towers was undergoing serious refurbishment last year I was left without a kitchen for a while and visited a number of local eateries. It was a fascinating experience to see how they operate and, in particular, to spot differences between the most and least successful. Those which are always packed to the gills have two things in common, reliable food and excellent service. There are some at which the food is nothing special but every customer is looked after efficiently without having their evening interrupted unnecessarily. By contrast, some serve excellent food yet are rarely full because the service lets them down. For me nothing spoils a meal out more than having to wait too long for food or drinks, having to make a huge effort to get a waiter's attention or being badgered every ten minutes by that most annoying question: "how is everything?"

There was a time when last week's restaurant of choice was reasonably busy. The new owners retained a waiter who was already employed there and his professionalism in his work kept the customers happy. Although employed as a waiter he was in reality the manager and kept the whole "front of house" operation moving very well. I learned later that the previous owners had made a loss for most of their time there but saw taking go up markedly when that man was engaged, so they ran profitably for six months then sold at the peak of the market. The new owners, a married couple, decided they could save on costs by running it themselves and the waiter moved on at the end of last year. Taking fell almost immediately so the chef was next on the chopping block and the wife took over in the kitchen, thereby requiring a waiter to be employed. No doubt they thought it would be better to save the relatively high cost of a chef and substitute with a boy, then a girl, then a different girl, then a boy, then another girl, all on the minimum wage.

I hadn't eaten there for several months and was saddened by what I encountered. The waitress took my order but forgot to bring my drink. The sirloin steak I ordered was not sirloin steak but a cheap cut (the type sold in supermarkets as "frying steak" usually meaning a thin cut of topside or silverside) which had been bashed to the edge of next Friday with a wooden tenderiser. Prompting from me finally resulted in a beverage appearing but my plate was not cleared away until at least ten minutes after I had finished. It was a very shabby performance all round and all of it caused by self-defeating attempts to cut cost. At 8.30pm, which should be peak time for a restaurant during the working week, only six customers were present. Poor food and poor service are combining to kill the dream the owners had on taking over such a short time ago.

Perhaps the place is just blighted, after all a quick succession of owners points to it making regular losses. More likely, it seems to me, it simply hasn't been run properly. The final sign that it is approaching death came in the form of a poster in the window which caught my eye on the way out. It advertised that the establishment has been nominated for an award. I had never heard of the particular award before, and am not prepared to give it credence by naming it here, so I looked it up. Anyone can nominate a business for the award but nomination costs money, rather more money than the cost of the trophy and certificate awarded to each winner. The organisation making the awards also sells business services and a cynic might think that those who buy most receive the highest level of award. It is just an advertising scam and a last desperate attempt by a failing restaurant to attract customers by telling a blatant lie - nothing about it could win a genuine award.

As a, now, former customer I could tell the owners what they have to do. They should increase the quality of ingredients not reduce them and employ an experienced and professional manager to ensure service is of a high standard. In the summer they should operate part of the restaurant as a snack bar selling sandwiches and take away drinks to users of the park. Easy for me to say, of course, because I won't have to fork out the extra costs and risk not recouping them through additional trade, but it is either that or continue in their present way losing cash until they have none left to lose. A recession is not the time to be uncompetitive.


Mark Wadsworth said...

Tee hee, there was a pub/nightclub in Leytonstone with a similar curse called 'Bugsy's'.

We regulars used to sit at the bar and tell the hopeful new landlord "You don't watch customers come and go. We regulars watch landlords come and go".

I felt a tad guilty when he went bankrupt and was taken over again a few weeks later. Ah well, such is life.

Years later, I spotted somebody in a T-shirt with the slogan "I survived Bugsy's" but that's a different story.

Mrs Smallprint said...

Too many people with no experience think they can run a restaurant, why?

The results are all too often a disaster. You're right about service, I can forgive minor problems with the food if the service is good and any complaints are well handled. Quite often though like many people we don't complain we just don't go back.

Mrs S.