After a recent trip away to London and more recently to Melbourne, I was bewildered by the huge difference in standards and approach to restaurant customer service in these cities when compared to Hong Kong. Considering the national past-time in HK is eating there are certainly some quirks so unique to HK when it comes to dining experiences.
Hong Kong’s restaurants, from the “cha chang tangs” (local cafe dining) through to michelin star restaurants (and these stars are given out quite liberally!) are if nothing else, efficient. I am sure the KPI for a HK waiter is not the knowledge on the food, nor proper dining service, but on how quickly he/she can turn a table over!
Perhaps due to the expensive real estate your table represents, the need to turn over customers is certainly more important than the customer dining experience. More often than not, especially in these tea shops, you might actually get your food order before you have actually finished ordering! Indeed I was at a noodle establishment the other day and I noticed a patron has just uttered the words “soy milk drink” and the staff across the restaurant has already poured out the drink and served it to the guy before he has finished placing the rest of his order! Talking about efficiency!
Also, how many times have you had your dishes cleared whilst you are taking the last bites? Either the restaurant is running short on dishes and need your plates or they just want to move you along…
Actually us patrons do not help either. We flock to the places in droves just because OpenRice or HK Magazine tells you is great, and would stand in a queue for an hour or more just to sample the supposingly earth shatteringly good prawn wonton – so no wonder the restaurant staff would want to clear you out when you are (almost) done to get the next patron in.
The other very efficient part of a dining experience is the bill paying. Once your bill arrives, the staff would stand next to you and wait for you to cough up.. No time to review the bill, or for you to work out splitting the bill (that’s almost worth another story just on how people do this..!). By having the staff stand there looking impatient, it is by far the most confrontational and efficient method to solicit your money in the quickest way possible. You might casually bypass the added charge they put on the bill for peanuts or pickled cucumber that you thought were provided for free. Oh, and then comes the change. When the staff comes back with the change, he/she will stand there again with the change, waiting for you (or to embarrass you) to leave a tip for them. By using the universal trick of giving you around $20+ in coin change (when they could have given you notes) you are suckered into leaving the loose change for tips. (watch out newly arrived expats as you are their ideal target!)
So with all the efficiency, it is quite amazing then when you do need the attention of a staff, it is most likely there would be no one around to help. There must be some restaurant “black hole” that waiters go into whenever you do need service! You can be waving your hands like a madman but everyone will have their head down (presumably collecting dishes or waiting for people to pay their bills) and not helping you. Most people resorted to just putting their hand up like back in school days and just wait till someone would acknowledge them.
I presume also for the sake of efficiency, many staff are just not trained on the menu so there is no point asking them what is in a particular dish either. We listened the other day at the pained conversation between a french guy and the waiter as he wanted to know what the soup base was in a dish – it was almost comical if not a tad sad and embarrassing to listen a showcase of the Hong Kong restaurant service.
When in Melbourne or London, one thing that struck me was the level of knowledge and engagement restaurant staff would have on the menu, the restaurant and indeed the whole dining experience. It doesn’t matter if the restaurant is just the local brunch cafe or a high end dining establishment. It is almost as if all the staff are part owners of the place – there is a lot of pride in where they work and in return the patrons are treated to a memorable dining experience. Jason Atherton’s London restaurant is one such highlight (Pollen Street Social) – I hope for his sake that his flagship new restaurant due to open this month in PMQ in HK will live up to his high standards with the local staff.
I will be standing in the queue when it opens…