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 #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”.

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.

Food Picture Envy

When you go into a fried chicken shop or a fish and chip shop you never ask the person behind the counter “what does your fried chicken look like?” or “what do your fish and chips look like?”. People will go into a chicken shop or a chippie and order things without kicking a fuss, because whether you are in Sheffield or Shenfield, Newport in Wales or Newport in Essex fish and chips or fried chicken will look pretty much the same irrespective of where you are in the country. 

This is only just slightly more complicated in a Chinese takeaway.

Now I know it seems unfair to compare a chippie or chicken shop with a takeaway because they serve different types of food (no kidding Sherlock), and it’s also the fact that the choice is greater in a Chinese takeaway compared to chippie, a chicken shop or a pie and mash shop (the hint is even in the title).

Ordering from a fish and chip shop is hardly a stretch of anyone’s imagination because because 99 per cent of the time fish and/or chips is normally what people what people buy from a fish and chip shop, and they will more-or-less look identical.

For a Chinese takeaway it’s a different story, and because of the variety on offer from one takeaway to the next, some will serve theirs differently. The best example being that a plain chow mein in one place will include beansprouts and onions while another won’t. In some places if you order a chicken curry you will get rice with it and in others you have to order a rice dish separately.

The problem this does cause however is discrepancies with pictures; in fried chicken shops there are stock images of what fried chicken and chips will look like. With a Chinese takeaway however stock images can sometimes cause problems.

I never rely on pictures as a hard and fast guide of what my meal will look like, I tend to have very low expectations of food, which means that when it comes out of the kitchen I’m less likely to be disappointed. Plus I pretty much eat anything.

I remember the day when Wetherspoons changed their menu and removed the pictures and my friend went into a fit of “Nooo! Why?! Now I don’t know what the food looks like!”

When you walk into our takeaway lining the walls are some faded stock images of the kind of food we serve.

A year ago we finally got round to changing our menu. Our original menu was simply a piece of coloured A4 photocopied and  folded in thirds;  this was cheaper for us because we have a photocopier at home. Now we have a glossier coloured menu and it comes with stock images of things that I’m pretty sure we don’t serve.

There is a close-up image of what looks like won ton noodles with pak choi (we have that but not with pak choi). Similarly there is something that looks a bit like a chicken curry, but there was also a dish that had baby corn and other exotic things which we clearly did not have on the menu.

We did have a customer at one point who spent a lot of time looking at the pictures instead of reading what was on offer. She kept staring at these pictures and then occasionally pointing and asking “is that picture that one?” This one went on for quite a while until I actually went “ok, let’s make this easier basically if you see a picture of a meal chances are we don’t have it.”

In hindsight it was a stupid thing to say, but she was spending so much time basing her decisions on pictures I didn’t know the source of I felt compelled to clear the air and be honest and say “I don’t know where these pictures come from! They just came with the menu!”

Customer Encounters #14 – The night I became a victim

Assault/Common assault – An unlawful infliction of force/violence, or a hostile act – for example, a threatening gesture – which causes another person to fear that immediate violence will occur.

When you’re working in a takeaway it is quite common to hear stories of assaults, violence, anti-social behaviour and so on being inflicted on businesses either nearby or who are similar to you. Indeed I heard of stories of altercations taking place at my takeaway, but I was never a victim of them until one evening a few weeks ago.

It is very common to get the odd juvenile trying to act like a smart arse and cause a nuisance, but you never quite imagine it to end up in that individual actually assaulting you.

How it all happened was a guy of about 15 years old came in, navy blue hoody with the strings on the hood pulled down so that you couldn’t see the colour of his hair let alone see any distinguishing features.

He said he was hungry and had no money and if I could give him a saveloy with that smug “aren’t I cool” smirk. Immediately I was having flashbacks of the time a guy came in asking for a chicken tikka masala or a korma and I wondered if it was the same guy but I can’t confidently say it was. But my professionalism prevailed and I chose to ignore him and assumed he would leave.

He had his clan of friends with him watching, about two, maybe three waiting outside. He hung around for about a minute and I told my parents that he was just messing around, just ignore him. He began to head towards the door but instead of going out he grabbed two chairs (which were joined together) and threw it towards the counter my first reaction was to cry out “oh my God!” and I screamed. I don’t know if he was intending to throw it over the counter, but the only damage caused was that he chipped a bit of the chair, which collided with the counter.

Dad told mum to call the police but she was slightly hesitant because whenever the police were called they would never turn up and she knew in this case they wouldn’t. I mean lets face it, nothing was severely damaged and no one was injured, we wouldn’t have been a priority case.

Dad was getting agitated and progressively angrier and was demanding to call the police. He then took out his anger on me and said that if I stayed at the counter and watched them instead of ignoring them then this would not have happened. He then said that I should have seen it coming and then made an irrelevant comment about me playing Tetris on my phone and somehow linking it to what had just happened.

The police said they would come in 15 minutes but they never did. Before closing time the owner of the grocers around the corner said the same group had been throwing fruit and vegetables at the counter. He said that this was the fourth time this happened in a month and he called the police several times and no one helped him.

My dad assumed the attack must have been racially motivated given that the guy who owned the grocery shop around the corner was also Asian and similar attacks like this happened in the past. Also the fish and chip shop were right next door to us and there didn’t appear to be an attack on them, and I have trouble imagining that the same group would incite a similar act against a fish and chip shop or even a pie and mash shop.

I wouldn’t go as far as suggesting the attack was racially motivated, there was nothing that they said that suggested it was, but that is a possibility. I spoke to my friend about it afterwards and he suggested that they assumed I must have just been some immigrant who couldn’t speak English and thought I was an easy target.

I know I sound silly suggesting that what just happened was in any way serious, much worse things happened during the summer riots in 2011. As I said before no one was physically hurt, the only thing that was damaged was my pride and confidence really. But it all happened so quickly and I was quite shaken after that and I had to act normal as though nothing had happened, a customer came in and I couldn’t even hold a pen properly and I was even struggling to open up plastic bags, I had never been assaulted before so the was quite shaken that it happened so quickly.

My dad was angry at me and mum and I felt like I was being made to feel that it was my fault this happened, and I went to escape to the bathroom upstairs and actually burst out crying feeling vulnerable, weak and angry that I couldn’t even stop a 15 year-old from hurling a chair.