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 #10 – How Many Grains of Rice?

Now we are all obsessed with value for money, some more than others I suppose, but this often goes to the extent of asking how many prawns, pieces of sweet and sour pork there are, how many spare ribs is in one portion. I often get asked a lot how many spare ribs there are in one portion or how many prawns there are in a king prawn fried rice or king prawn chow mein.

My answer for spare ribs is normally “it depends on how many we can fit into the one box but normally four or five”. For king prawns it’s about eight in a regular dish and ten in a large or something along those lines.

For items that include things like prawn or squid people will normally ask how many prawns there are, which is a reasonable question to ask.

Just before the Christmas holidays a new  customer came in and after much deliberation asked for a large duck fried rice, and he asked me how was the duck served (as in was it one whole piece sliced and placed on top, sliced and then fried with the rice, or shredded like crispy aromatic duck and then mixed in).

He then asked me specifically how many slices of duck there are in a duck fried rice.

“erm… I’ve never personally counted but I can guarantee you that it is definitely duck in the duck fried rice.”

This seems like a bizarre question to ask, but I assume that when customers order anything they assume that some takeaways cheat their way by perhaps cutting the slices too thinly and passing them off as “more slices of duck” or cutting them too thick so there’s less but the slices are “meatier” so to speak.

That said one of our regular customers did complain that the duck in our duck chow mein is practically non-existent or too thin.

By far possibly the oddest customer question on how many slices of meat in a dish.


Customer Encounters #5 – My Flat has Burnt Down

In the times I have served in the takeaway I have only ever come across two people who have asked for food but have no money on them. The first time we turned them down outright and they left. The second time however was a slightly interesting story.

This person who came in was a woman who I had served previously and I remembered her last time being really quite rude. She wore a grey tracksuit with pink trimming, had a voice that croaked from too many cigarettes, a complexion that was red and quite unhealthy, and a miasma of alcohol.

She came in one evening and said that her flat had burnt down and that she had nothing on her except the clothes she was wearing, she’s lost her money, her ID her home and she absolutely nothing on her. All she wanted was a bag of chips because she was hungry.

Your first inclination is to be really reluctant to help people because you don’t know them well enough to know if they’re telling the truth or not. It’s something you get taught from an early age: “never give money to random people because they’re going to spend it on drugs.”

A bag of chips at the time was £1.20 and not a heart breaking amount, but I did have questions over how genuine her claim was that this person’s flat had burnt down (if my house burnt down I would call the fire brigade and buying a takeaway would be the least of my worries).

She looked quite distressed and about to cry (but with a voice that was coated in nicotine it was hard to tell if there were genuine tears). I found it quite unusual for a person whose flat burnt down to just run away from the flat without a fireman/woman comforting her surely?

She said she lived just around the corner yet I did not recall hearing any sirens since the shop opening. Plus there aren’t any flats around the corner, the nearest flat is within clear shot of the shop window and that didn’t seem to be burning down. Added to this she didn’t smell of smoke.

This was all going all going on in my head and she was causing something of a scene and there were people waiting for their food to be served, and just to get her out of the shop we eventually just gave her the chips.

I asked one of the regular customers if he knows if there was a fire nearby. He said: “oh that woman is always causing trouble, she hangs around bus stops asking people for cigarettes and things.”

I then went on to ask a few customers if they heard about a fire nearby. No one did.

Since then said customer hasn’t come back to the shop since but I do wonder what has happened to her.

Customer Encounters #4 – Not enough money 2.0

Common sense normally dictates to you that if you don’t have enough money to buy something, you don’t buy it.

I once sold food to a chav girl who was about my age or older at the time (I was about 16 and was growing into the job). I remember her ordering a rice dish and then calling me out twice to add more things to her order. The last thing she ordered was a pancake roll and she was about 10p short, and like every good shopgirl I pointed out that I was 10p short, to which this person went: “so wha? It’s only 10p innit?”

Now I know it seems irrational to kick up a fuss over 10p so I was told to just let her off (she was giving us money and if that means that she can’t get a bus home then that’s her problem).

Although I was 16 at the time, you can’t help but think “if I let you get away with not paying the full amount now then you’re going to do it again the next time you come here.”

Had this happened in a bigger shop (let’s say McDonalds for instance) then she wouldn’t get away with it and she would pay the full amount and not give any of her attitude to the staff there. But because we’re a small business (and don’t have a team of security to escort troublemakers out) that somehow means that she can get away with not paying up the full amount or even get away with not treating us with the same respect as you probably would with someone from a bigger food outlet.

Customer Encounters #3 – Not enough money

A few nights ago a teenage girl of about 15 years old came in with her friend and asked for a chicken chow mein with duck and sauce on top. Not an unusual request but one I knew that dad would take issue with serving in a regular container and would have to serve it in a large.

I then explained the situation to said customer who took issue with it and gave me a dirty look and so settled for having just a simple duck chow mein. She just about had the right money and asked if she could have sauce with it.

That would be an extra 50p.

She threw me another dirty look and just left. She didn’t even lok to see if there was a cheaper alternative.

Sometimes in life you can’t always get or buy what you want and you just have to live within your means. Not everyone can afford to eat duck all the time.

Safety in Numbers

Customer: Hi can I order a takeaway please?

Me: Yes what would you like?

C: Right, well I’d like a number 35… a number 60… a number 27… a 53… a 46… and a number 3 please.


One of the pet peeves I used to have when doing phone orders is when people order by numbers. Like most Chinese takeaway menus (or indeed most menus for any food outlet) everything tends to be numbered, I have no idea why, maybe it’s just easier for some people to remember in some shops.

I remember being quite irritated the first time I encountered a customer that thought it was easier to order by numbers over the phone: it’s a peak time on a Friday night, there are four or five other orders ahead of you that need to be ready as well, I’m really pressed for time here, would it kill you to at least read out the names of the order?

When I did phone orders from about 17 years onwards when I was looking for a number on the menu I used to keep hem hanging there for a little while longer by making it sound like I was having trouble finding the number… I don’t do it anymore of course.

I still get annoyed by it but you just have to grin an bear it; it’s not the customer’s fault that they don’t know I don’t do numbers (which is ironic for a Chinese person), similarly I don’t know if ordering by numbers is easier for them because maybe someone else wrote down a list of numbers on a piece of paper and didn’t think to include what the actual order was, maybe it’s just faster for them to write it down and they must think that it’s easier for me to write it down as a number.

To throw a question out there, does anone working in a Chinese takeaway prefer it when people order by numbers or do they prefer it when the name of the dish is read out loud?

Customer encounters #2 – Drunk customers

It’s Friday night, it’s the weekend, everyone’s out getting liquored up and what better cure for an inebriated state than a takeaway?

Last night a woman came in clearly quite drunk and was also a bit shaky. I think she may have possibly taken something else other than alcohol (I wouldn’t know).

Dealing with a drunk person probably has to be a shop worker’s worst nightmare: you don’t know the person across the counter, what they’ll do, if they’ll lash out at you, if they’ll throw up or even if they need help getting back home.

This particular woman was on her own and had her head down a lot of the time. She said “I think I’m gonna throw up” (“don’t you dare!” I internally monologue to myself). We tried to reason with this person that she should go home and asked if she needed a cab or an ambulance.

“No! I’m alright! I just want some plain chow mein! I’ve got the money and all!”

It’s frightening when they leave because you don’t know if the minute they’ll get attacked the minute they leave, and it’s difficult when they argue with you that they don’t want police help.

Fortunately mum recognised this person and knew that she lives quite close by. Just hope she’s ok.