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.

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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!”