Customer Encounters #20 – Pick’n’Mix Takeaways

One of my favourite romantic comedies is When Harry Met Sally. I remember laughing at this particular scene (unfortunately it’s not that orgasm scene), and then I realised that it’s not funny because I’m actually the person with the notepad taking the order, and that Sally would be every restaurateur’s customer nightmare.

Now I don’t mind picky eaters on the best of days, other times I do get really annoyed. Anyone who has been a waiter or waitress will know this feeling only too well, and the minute someone starts rattling off a very specific order, with very specific instructions on where to put things in a box or on a plate, the first thing you want to say is “I hate you.”

Occasionally we will get the odd customer that comes in and ask for a special fried rice without shrimp or without egg and it could be because they’re allergic, that’s perfectly fine. It could be things like taking out the beansprouts and onions from the chow mein because they don’t like eating their vegetables, that’s also fine as well. Instead of sweet and sour sauce they may want curry sauce with their chicken balls, no problem at all.

Then there are items where certain ingredients are just non-negotiable because they’ve already been prepared beforehand or it just wouldn’t work as a dish if you took one thing out.. A popular request I get is for sweet and sour chicken balls but without the batter, egg fried rice but half cooked so that the rice is a bit crunchy, pancake rolls without the pork but replaced with shrimp.

Where it gets really complicated is when some people take the pick’n’mix thing a bit too far and start treating it like a buffet but without the food cart, reciting a long-winded order and forcing me into a corner to play a helter-skelter-esque game of “guess what I want to eat and how I would like it cooked”.

It’s not that we don’t want to give the customer what they want but more out of the fear of the potential repercussions of how that customer will react when the final product isn’t exactly what they envisaged. This is why all restaurants have something called a menu,

Asking a restaurant to concoct a dish especially for you is the same as going to McDonalds, asking the person behind the counter to rip the batter off the chicken nuggets, put it into a Big Mac, take out the pickle and ketchup, putting fries in it on top of the nuggets, then taking the sauce from a fillet-o-fish and putting it on the side, and not on the burger.

It is also on par of going into Zizzi’s and asking them to create a dish especially for you because you decided you didn’t like what you had last time. In fact it’s also probably the same as going into Zizzi’s, deciding that you don’t really like Italian food and asking them to cook you a Chinese meal instead.

Ok maybe I’m exaggerating you get the idea.

I had something of a nightmare encounter with one customer, David, who decided that nothing on the menu was good enough so asked us to create a spicy prawn dish especially for him.

David said the last time he came here he ordered deep fried king prawn with chilli salt and pepper (king prawns deep fried in a light batter, with red and green chillies and pepper, and it is effectively a dry dish). He said he didn’t like it because of the batter and asked if we could take the batter off. Unfortunately the batter was non-negotiable because it’s actually difficult to cook without the batter and partly because dad gets very annoyed about having people tell him how to cook their meal.

David even argued that his local chippie take off the batter from his fish and chips for him so couldn’t understand why we couldn’t do the same for him. I’m just wondering if he does the same whenever he’s in a fried chicken shop.

We eventually settled on squid with spring onion and ginger, and he seemed happy enough and went home without a complaint, even sampling the dish in front of us and saying it tasted good.

So it came as a surprise when he turned up the following day telling us that he didn’t like the squid dish he had yesterday. He basically decided he didn’t like any of the alternatives I suggested on the menu and asked if he could have a prawn dish with just onions and chilli i.e. an item that doesn’t exist on the menu that we basically had to make up.

A customer who comes in asking for a vague to specific combination of ingredients are very difficult to deal with because you don’t know if the customer is going to come back and complain about the dish because we didn’t cook it right, and no one likes seeing unhappy customers.

At the end of the day we can only prepare meals within the confines of something we distribute called a menu, and 99% of the people who come in work within that confine quite happily.

So David, I have a suggestion for you: why don’t you cook your own meal? This would effectively eradicate the problem of me having to guess how you want your meal and where you can at least have all the creative control in the world of what your dream dish should look like. As much as we’d like to be your personal chefs do acknowledge that we are also serving other people as well and that you waste my time trying to figure out what you want when I could be helping the other customers who are standing behind you in the queue.

Customer Encounters #19 – Texting, texting, texting

Now we all know that it’s rude to text at the table during mealtimes, we also know that it is equally rude to be be on the phone with someone at the counter whilst the person serving you waits to serve you. Logic also dictates that it is also just as rude to be texting at the counter whilst someone serves you.

Who remembers Keith? No? Keith is one of those customers I wrote about in a previous entry, the one that carries the arrogance reeking of “I’m the most important customer in the room”. 

Very recently he has taken to playing the role of the silent customer; he comes in and begins texting on his phone. I come out and say hello, and without looking up he nods acknowledging my assistance. A normal person in this situation would put their phone away and begin their order. But not Keith, oh no, Keith as it happens is way too good to do what normal people do, so instead he carries on texting, leaving me hanging.

After about a minute I volunteer a suggestion. “Do you want king prawn fried rice?”

He shakes his head.

“Well help me out mate, I know Asians are meant to be clever but it doesn’t mean I can read your mind.”

It turns out that he wants a large special fried rice, and the only reason I know this is that my mum had to shout out the order from outside.

I then told him how much his order cost, he nodded again, and then left without paying. Apparently Keith assumes that he is too good to pay for things straight away, so he returns to his car and then pay 20 minutes later still on his phone. On one occasion he was waiting in his car and didn’t come in for quite a while, so we had to switch the lights off to get his attention.

As I said, nothing is too good for Keith.

Customer Encounters #18 – Does that come with free prawn crackers take two

If I learnt anything about life it is to lower my expectations, the logic being that when something good happens – say a 10% discount on my next purchase, a free bag of Haribo sours or even a free bag of prawn crackers – then I appreciate it a lot more than I would’ve done had I gone in with really high expectations.

Or to put it in another way, I never expect shops to give me freebies when I go in. When I do get them then it’s a pleasant surprise, and that’s often the best kind of customer. The worst kind of customer you can get in a Chinese takeaway of course are the people who always expect free things.

It’s sometimes quite amusing to see grown-ups act like children when they don’t get free prawn crackers, and on some occasions they do throw tantrums in the shop, which at first can be awkward to watch, but you have to admit is also quite funny.

The other night someone came in, male, old, very skinny, and a tattoo on his neck that was partly obscured by his shoulder-length sandy blond hair. He looked like a new customer.

He ordered three dishes amounting to about £10 and looked startled when I came out without a bag of prawn crackers.

“Where’s my prawn crackers?” He asks, “why don’t I get free prawn crackers? Everyone else around here does it!”

I was half expecting him to behave like the kid and/or the mum in the Vicks advert at one point.

He then grabs his belongings like an angry child storming off to his bedroom in a “no Xbox until you’ve done your homework” kind of way, and takes the time to shout across the counter “well I ain’t coming back here ever again!”

Me hardly ever being the one to answer back to customers simply replied: “Fine”.

This Is Not A Bus Stop

Teenagers are very confused people, so confused in fact that they often mistake our takeaway for a bus stop. At times I feel quite sorry for them because it normally takes them up to 15 minutes to realise that that room with the chairs they’re been waiting in all this time isn’t actually a bus shelter and that a bus hasn’t stopped outside once to take them home.

Like most places my takeaway quite conveniently has a bus stop outside, something of a lifesaver during my schooldays when I had to take the bus to work after school. However there is case of it being a bad thing in that people begin to treat the waiting area in the takeaway as an unofficial bus shelter, and the people who quite often abuse this “privilege” are large groups of teenagers.

They’ll come in here, check themselves out in the mirror making sure that the fake tan is in tact and that they remembered to put enough hairspray in that valley of dead ends caused by more than regular use of a hair straightener, are their trousers low enough. They’ll come and grab a menu and say “oh I haven’t decided what I want yet” and sit down and “read” the menu whilst their cohort of friends (I believe nowadays you’re meant to call it a “mandem”, the word in itself makes me laugh because I immediately think of tandem, and if you don’t know what that is).

(Seriously, I wanted an excuse to just put that video in a post).

Teenagers are funny creatures, we were all teenagers once of course, but as you get older you look at them making fools of themselves, thinking that they own the world and that they’ve somehow outsmarted you. It’s like how I sometimes laugh at “gap yah” kids despite the fact that at one time I went on a similar gap yah-esque type trip and was probably a bit like them.

But anyway back to the takeaway.

At this point I’m sneering at contempt at these teenagers thinking they’re clever and that I don’t know. I got out and ask them “are you going to order anything?”, at which point they go “I haven’t decided what I want yet” pffft.

Of course I know you’re not going to order anything. I’ve seen teenagers like you around. You always come in here at 10pm at night with that swagger of a rebel, grab a menu and gaze mindlessly at the contents pretending to decide what you want, oblivious to the fact that I’ve seen many people like you, I know that all you’re doing is waiting for a bus.

You look a bit lost love, you’re not going to get home waiting in here. If you go out and turn left around the corner, there’s the bus stop, can’t miss it because there is a big shelter and a sign that says “bus stop”. That will get you home, sitting here pretending to order something is not going to get you home, you might even miss the last bus if you hang around long enough.

Now under exceptional circumstances i.e. if it’s raining heavily, then that’s a fair enough reason to double up as a makeshift bus shelter. But what often really irks me is the amount of disrespect that they often show to the owners of the shop and the property.

They just sit there, sometimes they scare other customers from coming in or they make customers feel uncomfortable because there are so many of them, they block the door, they litter the area, they move the chairs around, they argue, they don’t close the door when they leave and then they continue to hang around outside the shop for a considerable amount of time and don’t leave for another 10 minutes.

Customer Encounters #17 – Almost Accepting Stolen Goods

My nine to five job is a journalist, and what journalism can sometimes do to you is foster a sense of paranoia about someone’s behaviour, or sometimes you can be led into overthinking something. Once a pair of boys, both about 11 years-old, came in and asked me “do you need help delivering menus through letter boxes?” I said no for the following reasons:

One, it was around nine o’clock at night and surely most boys at 11 would prefer to go home and watch some TV (or maybe I’m just being old fashioned). Two, it was possible that with all those menus that I could’ve given to them they were probably just going to litter the streets with them. And three they probably wanted to make a prank call because they weren’t actually asking for that many (they were asking for 10 menus and clearly they have not explored the local area enough to know that 10 menus is not enough to cater for the number of houses within walking distance).

How is this relevant? Well the other night someone came in. He had something about him that looked familiar but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. I assumed maybe he just wanted a can of coke or diet or 7up, or maybe he just wanted change for a £20 counterfeit note and didn’t actually want to order any food.

He got out his phone (a Samsung S3) and said he needed some help. He said his phone is in Chinese and he wants to change the language settings back into English.

Your first inclination is of course to ask: “ok, well how did you get it into Chinese?”

He simply replied “I don’t know, I just bought it, it just came like this.”

Wait-what? You just bought your phone and it came up in Chinese? Ok then…

“Where did you buy it from? I’m sure the phone shop could help you.”

“Er… ok let me just show you what it looks like…oh it’s ran out of battery…ok I’m going to go and charge it and come back… actually, can I leave my phone here?”

Erm, excuse me? No you can’t leave your phone here, we’re a takeaway not a mobile phone depot.

My mum came out politely said we couldn’t help him and he left and said he would come back.

So a guy comes in with a Samsung S3 with a low battery, he won’t disclose where he bought the phone and it just suddenly decided to set itself into Chinese. The guy then asks if he can leave the phone with you and he will come back with a phone charger. Suspicious? Very.

What if the phone had one of those ingenious apps that takes a picture of anyone who tries to unlock it and send it to the police?

Your first inclination is to think that the phone is clearly stolen. After he left my mum said that she recognised him. Last year one of our customers was arrested and jailed for bribery, it was quite a big local story and was even covered by BBC London. I remember the last time I served him, he swaggered up to the takeaway in the middle of the night with his Ferrari. The fact that he even owned a Ferrari made you raise your eyebrows a little, they’re not exactly a regular sighting, in Kensington and Chelsea yes but not East London of all places.

The guy who just came into the shop? He was the brother of that person who was jailed. Of course it would be silly to paint everyone under the same brush and automatically assume that by virtue of being related to someone who was jailed. Maybe he was after all completely innocent and did just buy the phone off someone and it did automatically set itself to Chinese.

Did he come back with a phone charger? Of course he didn’t.

Customer Encounters #16 – Counterfeits

Now this week you may have heard of the brilliant news that Sir Winston Churchill will replace Emily Fry as the new face of the back of the £5 note (personally I’m surprised that they didn’t ride the Thatcher wave but then again that would be pretty controversial).

Whilst being the face of the £5 carries some cultural significance the main reason why it’s done is so that the Bank of England can update some of the security features of the £5. As they are more widely circulated compared to other notes they have their fair share of battering and bruising. I’ve even received notes that have actually been sellotaped together and some people have even asked to swap notes because the one I’ve just given them was too worn out.

I received my first counterfeit when I was about 15 years old, it was quite late in the evening and the customer in question came in and asked for a can of coke. A perfectly innocent request. He then pulled out a £20. I understand that under some circumstances that can be normal when someone doesn’t have any loose change to hand, but where that happens you have to be cautious, and as I understood at the time this person was coming into the shop for the first time.

I took the note and instantly knew something was wrong, it didn’t feel like a note. I went inside to tell my mum and said that it was a fake, checked it under the light and returned it to the customer and said we couldn’t accept the note because it was fake.

There are two ways in which people can react to this: one is where you will go “really? Oh my goodness I can’t believe I was fooled, it had to be the guys from McDonalds”. The second is where you start to get angry, insist that the note is real and go “I just got it from the cash point just now, why would I lie?” If your reaction comes under the latter, the inclination for me would be to think that someone is intentionally using a counterfeit note to sneakily nab some real money off us.

In this instance the man opted for the latter. What I would’ve done differently was to check the note in front of him as opposed to taking it inside and then coming out with the same note to avoid any suspicions that I may have swapped notes (which I haven’t and never will do).

The previous night (I wasn’t there at the time), a pregnant woman came in and ordered a bag of chips, she paid for it with a £20 and in this case the note was real, and £18.70 or something around that value was paid back as change by my mum. Later that evening however a man came in and brandished a £10 going “my wife just came in and ordered a bag of chips, you gave her a fake £10 note.”

He demanded a refund for the chips (but from my dad’s account actually specifically demanded for the return of the £20 that his wife used to buy the bag of chips), he then accused my mum of being a liar, said that the shop was conning them out of money, demanded to see our CCTV footage and even threatened to call the police. He then left and said that he will bring the bag of chips back for a refund. He never came back.

Customer Encounters #15 – Usual?

It’s nice when you frequent a place so often that the person behind the counter knows what you’re going to order before you even say it, and it does make you feel a bit special

I used to work for in Westminster and every week I would go into the Starbucks near the station and order a caramel macchiato. One day I went in, quickly popped into the loos, came out and decided to order something different until the guy behind the counter pulled out a cup and said “I just prepared your usual” (”ooooh the Starbucks guy fancies you!” Squealed my friend).

Like every takeaway we have our regulars, and I’d say about 80% of the time they will order the same thing over and over again. 

Rob always orders a king prawn chow mein, chicken with cashew nuts and egg fried rice. Judy always has a king prawn curry with egg fried rice. Lucy always wants the special chow mein without beansprouts, green beans and pork and so on and so forth.

The funny thing is that the “usual” orders I normally forget are from the people who expect you to remember what their usual is, and when I don’t remember it makes me feel awful, but at the same time you cannot help but feel somewhat irritated that they somehow feel special. “How dare you forget my usual? Don’t you know who I am?” their expression will read once they register the blank look on my face.

It even happens over the phone, some people even get offended that I sometimes can’t remember their usual based on the sound of their voice.

The only reason why I forget someone’s usual is because I see God knows how many faces at any one time in the takeaway that I often forget. The main reason really is the fact that I don’t work at the takeaway every day, only the weekends, and whenever a customer asks me for a usual it normally is because the days they normally come in are the days when I’m not actually there on shift.

Last night we had a guy who came in, don’t know what his  name is, but let’s just call him Ian for now. Ian had a worn out tracksuit with a baseball cap sporting a logo of some form, grey stubble and looked quite tired.

I served Ian before probably a month or so ago, and that was the first time I served him. He just simply said “usual”. I just looked at him blankly and said “sorry?”

“You don’t know what I want do you?”

He then realised he was confusing me for my mum who normally knows what Ian’s regular is. He then asked for my mum to serve him instead because she knows what he wants. I’m kinda stuck here because mum has her hands tied preparing the order of another customer, so I can’t exactly pull her away from the kitchen.

But he was so adamant that my mum serve him that he wouldn’t even tell me what his regular was – which was spare ribs with sauce, two pancake rolls and king prawn on skewers, the latter item is something we don’t have on the menu.

Another customer, also carried about him this air of self importance and “don’t you know who I am?”-ness. We’ll call him Keith. The first time I served Keith he did the same thing and assumed I knew what he was going to order the minute he walked into the door and spent a lot of time giving me a weird look when I didn’t know what his usual was. After a few minutes he eventually told me he wanted a spicy king prawn fried rice.

“That’s £5.50.” I said.

He tossed a £5 note onto the table.

I asked where the 50p was and he gave me a strange look and simply said he always paid £5 for his order. I went back in feeling slightly confused and discovered that my mum offered it to him for £5. She would just give him fewer prawns.