OPINION: The customer is always right, right?

Dine-ins have resumed. And while we have been fiercely battling the COVID-19 pandemic and getting as many Singaporeans vaccinated as possible, we’ve also had to deal with the new norm of smaller-sized group gatherings and adhering to regulations that change ever so often.

woman picking hors d'oeuvre from platter

Our economy has been dealt a huge blow, with many big-name retail players closing down or pivoting their business online in recent times. Yes, retail brands can do away with the brick-and-mortar because with the proliferation of online stores like Amazon, Lazada, Taobao and Shopee, people are getting more used to buying things online.

But what happens when the ambience, service, and décor of a restaurant constitute a major part of the entire dining experience? Isn’t that what a customer is ultimately paying for? Not just the food?

While it’s true that F&B players have to adjust to ‘the new norm’ of making their food delivery-friendly, there are just some dishes that are better enjoyed a la minute.

buffet line for customers

Let’s face it right? Some dining experiences cannot be replicated outside the establishment. Isn’t that the reason why we might choose to celebrate a birthday or an anniversary at a fine-dining restaurant? Or why the impeccable service standards at the largest hotpot chain in the world has made its owners one of the richest Singaporeans to date?

So while F&B owners have to struggle with wrestling selfish landlords, innovating their food and drink offerings, juggling the P&L, and navigating business uncertainties while keeping the staff morale high, F&B staff have had to also grapple with pay cuts and job insecurity, while at the same time trying to stay abreast with the latest Government regulations, making sure that social distancing measures are adhered to, arranging and then keeping and then arranging (again) tables and chairs, taking customers’ temperatures and ensuring TraceTogether check-ins, managing food delivery orders and third party riders, and now, another added task of ensuring that the customer’s vaccination status is legitimate.

Customer Always Right 2
Credit – Hungry Nerds Catering Co.

Do bear in mind that with all the above, front-of-house staff are still expected to deliver service with a smile, and abide by the golden rule that customers are always right. But is that really true?

What should F&B staff do when errant customers try to weasel their way into a Michelin-starred restaurant before their two-week vaccination period requirement is met? What happens when customers choose to intermingle with their friends who are ‘coincidentally’ also dining at the same cafe a few tables away?

This is the reality of what happens—errant customers will perhaps get a warning from the enforcement officers if it’s their first time. But the F&B establishment? Not so lucky. They might be administered a warning, a fine, or in worst-case scenarios, have their SFA licence suspended or revoked.

It’s quite a simple mathematical sum.

Risk losing one customer (or at max, a table of five) whose bill will probably not add up to more than $200 in a mid-tier restaurant, or risk having their SFA licence suspended for 2 weeks amounting to more than ten thousand dollars in losses. I think the answer speaks for itself.

Hors d'oeuvre for customers
Credit – Hungry Nerds Catering Co.

Just slightly more than a month back, I received a corporate catering request for a company luncheon. The prospective client mentioned specifically that their big bosses were going to be around, so we would have to provide floor staff to serve the food and clear the crockery and cutlery.

My team at Hungry Nerds Catering Co. would have easily been able to provide all that was requested by this particular client. With the budget that she was willing to pay, I was even prepared to throw in a few extras to sweeten the deal.

That is until we heard the number of attendees that we had to prepare food for.

It was for an internal company event with 90 attendees all in a single seating—in a room size that wouldn’t have allowed for the required 1m social distancing, and with no pre-event testing (PET) for the staff as well. When I informed her of the attendance restrictions based on Government guidelines for ‘events’, she casually brushed it off and told me ‘not to worry’ because there won’t be any external guests, and that all attendees were company employees. Hence, according to her, this was not to be regarded as an ‘event’ per se. She also assured me that the company’s main door is locked with a passcode, hence reducing the risk of enforcement officers just barging in.

Aside from the fact that there could be a whistleblower armed with a smartphone in their midst, the fact of the matter remains that these measures are in place for a reason. The threat of a COVID-19 infection/cluster is real, especially since no PET was being administered.

Customer Always Right 3
Credit – Hungry Nerds Catering Co.

We probably might not realise the gravity of a simple lapse in judgment, but one wrong decision could put our whole country in CB, Phase 2 (HA), Phase 3 (HA), etc. So as you can probably guess, we turned down the job.

It wasn’t worth risking our SFA licence and the safety of my staff.

Before we go waxing lyrical and adding a #saveFNBsg to every Instagram food post, perhaps we can all take a moment to appreciate the difficulties experienced by all front-of-house service staff in juggling customer service while doing their best to adhere to the various Government regulations.

I’m sure we have all experienced a lousy day at work. Perhaps we can all try to be more considerate and forbearing so we can avoid being the reason why F&B staff have a bad day.

*All images used were taken pre-COVID-19.

Darren Wee is an F&B owner and also a Radio DJ with Power 98FM (Sundays, 6am to 9am)
He laughs at his own jokes from time-to-time and can pronounce “llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch”

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