Sun, 28 May 2000

Today's menu: Bad food, bad service, bad deal

By Aida Greenbury

JAKARTA (JP): With his nose pointed up, his right hand supporting a tray full of perfectly arranged plates, the waiter elegantly approached our table. Without any mistake, he placed each plate of food on the table according to our order.

"Bon apetite!" I said. Finding myself only a few seconds later, hardly able to swallow the first spoonful of minestrone. One of my friends choked on her Caesar salad, while the other one looked puzzled as she stared at three prawn heads floating in her Tom Yam Gung.

My two friends and I were sitting in a newly opened upper- class cafe in an exclusive shopping mall in Jakarta. We were persuaded to try the place by their staff, who looked very attractive in their Balinese gold and green uniforms. Strategically positioned throughout the mall, equipped with fliers and menus, they were really difficult to miss. The cafe itself has a unique Californian interior design. Partially covered by a clear glass roof, surrounded by the trickling sound from the water fountain beside it. It's just a nice, comfortable place to be, until you try their food.

The waiter came to ask whether he could take the plates.

"I see that you didn't finish your food, ladies, was it too much?"

We had barely touched our meals.

"Well, basically the minestrone was too thick. It tasted like tomato puree straight from the can. The Caesar Salad smelled really fishy, because I think the anchovy was already outdated. And do you think you can ask the chef what has happened to the rest of these three prawns?"

The waiter took several minutes to chew over my list of complaints before he left.

He came back shortly.

"The chef said that this is how Caesar salad and minestrone are supposed to taste and also he was sure he put three whole prawns in the soup."

Great! Not only were we accused of being uneducated about food but also of stealing their prawns! The waiter walked away without even apologizing.

The owner of the place, a woman dressed in black sitting at the VIP table in the corner, was busy trying to impress her guests about her new cafe. Obviously the little incident at our table, as one of her first customers, did not concern her at all.

For about the past five years the upper-class cafe or restaurant business has been mushrooming in Jakarta. Tourism, globalization, an option of the MSG-infused food your servants prepare; you can name a thousand other reasons behind the development.

During the first year after opening, these places are just packed, mostly by trendsetters like teenage fame-chasers, old drunks who are looking for new places to hang out until they get kicked out again and by the real people who have been hunting for decent quality food in Jakarta. After that, nobody could tell the difference between these 12-month-old restaurants and empty transit lounges. It is generally due to the restaurant operators' lack of understanding about hospitality knowledge, so both the food and the service suffer inconsistencies.

How many of these restaurant owners actually understand the industry? I would say, less than half of them. The other half probably got the inspiration to open restaurants while enjoying a steaming croissant in a cafe on Champ Elysee. An excellent escape for the rich housewives who are bored with simply shopping and gossiping as their daily activities. I know some women who own zillion dollar's worth of cafes as their ego/image boosting pet projects. Adequate training for their staff is the very last thing they would think of.

There appears to be three important preparations before these restaurant operators set the grand opening date. First, the interior. Depending on their imagination or experience, their restaurants will be set up with the most unaccommodating fitouts and designs complemented with all useless unnecessary paraphernalia you can think of. Mexican style with an all-glass roof and windows without a competent air-conditioning system, for example. Just imagining it makes me swelter. Staff uniforms come as the second priority. They have to be both good-looking and as uncomfortable as possible.

The third, which should be the most important part, is the menu. They usually just copy it from the restaurants next door, which explains why most restaurants in Kemang serve nachos, and they taste exactly the same, too. Finally, add to the menu list a little French touch like frozen Quiche Lorraine and of course the obligatory Spaghetti Bolognaise, for the adventurous. Then, voila, they are ready to rock and roll!

The most prestigious public relations company will be hired to organize the D-day. The red carpet is unrolled at the entrance to welcome the VIPs, who must include actors and actresses from local sinetron TV series.

During the event, the restaurant owners will stand in the center of the room, looking very proud, while their staff are totally baffled by the situation, accepting food orders with names they have never heard in their lives.

Ever ordered an ice tea and it arrive piping hot with a couple of ice cube bobbing at the top? Or, have you ever ordered a dish, described to be "slightly spicy" on the menu, and after tasting it you have smoke coming out if your ears? Or, the most classic example, have you ever felt frustrated after trying for more than half an hour to get the attention of a waiter to no avail, while 15 of them are wondering around either chatting with their colleagues or simply picking their noses?

How could these restaurants' operators expect guests to show up at their doors to have meals, pay good money and receive nothing but disappointment?

Beats me!