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.

Smoking Ban Woes

I can remember the first time I decided that cigarettes were evil; I was probably five or six years old at the time we were on one of our regular annual visits to Hong Kong where we would stay at my aunt’s flat and in the evenings we’d watch whatever Canto-drama was on.

In this particular episode there was a dead body with a woman crying over it. One of the baddies lit a cigarette, took a whiff, discarded it and drove off abandoning the crying woman and presumed dead man. Then the cigarette lit a trail leading to the dead body, which was then engulfed in flames causing the woman to jump back screaming in a fit of hysterics.

For a while I genuinely believed that if a cigarette made contact with the human body that they would actually be consumed by a tobacco infused inferno and eventually die. Painfully.

However as I grew older I came to realise that that theory was rubbish. But anyway I digress.

Admittedly I have no objections to people smoking, but you cannot deny that seeing people trying to order a Chinese takeaway, cigarette in hand whilst trying to conform to the smoking ban can be an amusing spectacle.

The smoking ban was introduced in 2007 roughly two years after I started working at the takeaway and I admit when I first started I took much glee in seeing customers trying to make an order whilst conforming to the ban.

Like most takeaway food outlets our shop counter is conveniently placed some distance from the door (about two-three metres). The amount of amusement I used to get seeing people wedged in between a doorway, left-hand with a cigarette on one side of the door with the other half indoors but never knowing if they should come in or not and shouting across to the other side of the room:

“Yeah I’d like a chicken chow mein, an egg fried rice, a curry sauce, a bag of chips and a bag of prawn crackers… I’ll pay you in a minute I’ve just lit me fag.”

In the period before and just after the smoking ban I used to be very anti-smoking *coughlungcancercough* and I used to be one of those annoying people who would cough very loudly every time someone smoked in front of me or if someone who was smoking walked past me.

This was a habit I had maintained for much of my early teenage years up until I was 18, where I spent a month in China surrounded by people who did smoke and people who smoked cigarettes with an unbelievable amount of nicotine and tobacco. As a result I became used to it but still maintain that it is a nasty habit.

It was also an annoying habit I employed when serving customers who smoked in front of me as I served them and sometimes if it was a particularly long order I would fake cough in between. Looking back it was incredibly childish but I was 16 at the time.

Nowadays people order first before popping out for a quick ciggie. Normally this would include a rice and/or noodle dish with a side order (most of the time it’s chips) a sauce and a bag of crackers if they fancy it. This would take about five minutes to get ready. By the time it comes out the poor person has barely had time to smoke half the cigarette and throws it away. Now that just seems a waste of money.

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.

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?