The Case for Consistency
We wonder why different people have vastly differing experiences at new restaurants.
The restaurant business can, in some ways, be compared with the film industry. The hours you spend either viewing or dining can be blissful or infuriatingly slow, genre or cuisine is often a matter of personal preference, and at times, the hype over certain films and restaurants in inexplicable. Similarly, failure rates in the restaurant industry may not be the mythical 9 out of 10, but they are high enough. The difference is that, unlike films, restaurants involve more personal interaction with the customer, and while filmmakers often shrug off flops, failure for restaurant owners can be a death knell of sorts.
Conversely, visiting a new restaurant can be equally painful for customers—within the last year there have been several instances of restaurants that have struggled to consistently deliver. For example, Pali Village Café in Bandra managed to generate tremendous hype when a tabloid spotted Bollywood celebs dining at the restaurant during its first few days of operation. Plus, it received mostly positive reviews for its food and decor. Yet, the restaurant couldn’t cope with the onslaught of customers and, as a result, several people had terrible experiences. “.. The service was so far beyond every other ‘bad’ experience I have had in this city…this is the last place in town I would think of returning to,” commented one reader after reading this publication’s review. Mishali Sanghani, one of the owners of Pali Village Café, agrees that service was their biggest problem initially, and says, “We thought it would take three months to get full but people poured in from the first week itself. At that point, we had only 10 service staff and it was too much to handle.”
Another recent example is that of Italian restaurant Two One Two Bar and Grill, which opened in Worli last month. An MB reader commented, in response to our largely positive review: “45 minutes after ordering our food we were informed that one of our requests couldn’t be met as they were ‘out of ravioli’.” Arish Khajotia, one of the partners at the restaurant, said that they simply didn’t expect to become so popular so soon. “Two One Two opened on September 20 and from the 21st, we’ve been pretty much packed for dinner every night,” Khajotia says. “We actually tried initially to control the covers so that service matched the product, but in our specific case the number of customers was overwhelming. Within the next month our service should be at the level of our food.”
Even experienced entrepreneurs in the industry can’t seem to get it perfect. Rahul Akerkar’s Indigo Deli at Palladium mall left plenty of patrons unhappy in its opening weeks as the service was sub-par. Jaydeep Mukherjee, executive chef of the Indigo delicatessens and cafés, acknowledged the teething troubles, attributing it to the quality of wait staff in the market. “When hiring both kitchen and wait staff from other restaurants, it is hard to integrate them since often they haven’t been exposed to very professional styles.”
While that may explain poor service, how does one account for differing experiences with regard to the food? Describing her second meal at Koh by Ian Kittichai at the InterContinental Marine Drive, one customer who preferred to remain anonymous told us, “The ribs, which I couldn’t get enough of the first time, were flavourless and dry. The tuna ceviche… was doused with too much dressing and had too many onions and other garnishing so you couldn’t really taste the tuna.” Yet, the contemporary Thai restaurant that boasts a celebrity chef in Ian Kittichai received rave reviews initially. Romil Ratra, general manager of the InterContinental Marine Drive says that flawless food still needs to be delivered at a precise time. Which is why, often one stumble, whether it be incompetent waiters, slow service time or an unpleasant ambience, can wreck even the flavour of good food.
Then again, two sets of people having vastly different experiences at a new restaurant could also be attributed to personal tastes. For instance, Indigo Deli in Colaba had to tweak its menu to customer preferences. “We had to adapt to people’s tastes as well as, over time, educate consumers who wanted tastes simplified,” Mukherjee says. Similarly, Koh and Ziya, Vineet Bhatia’s high-end Indian restaurant at The Oberoi, were in the unusual position of introducing hitherto unknown flavours to an Indian audience. While Ratra says that it isn’t possible for everyone to appreciate Kittichai’s modern take on Thai food, he admits that “it is part of our training that wait staff know the food and communicate well to the customer so he knows what he is going to get”. At Ziya, Bhatia’s pre-plated Indian food (which has earned him Michelin stars in other parts of the world) at The Oberoi, feedback was similarly across the board. “When we introduced Ziya to our guests, there were mixed reactions, as we had a lot of loyal Kandahar fans,” says Matthew Cropp, executive chef of The Oberoi. “Also, the concept of pre-plated Indian food with significantly less oil and spices was something that took a little getting used to.”
It’s obvious that most people want to try out a new restaurant within the first few weeks of its opening. However, teething issues, by definition, come early on. Customers tend to forgive a restaurant for a bad meal if they already like the place. But a bad first meal doesn’t often lead to repeated visits. Hype around a new restaurant may actually be counter-productive by building up the experience to levels difficult to live up to. Again, the closest comparison can be the film industry, where movies have a similarly short window of opportunity; the difference is that restaurants need repeat customers in the long-run.
Mangal Dalal is a Mumbai-based freelance food writer, and one of the founders of Restaurant Week India.Tags: Indigo Deli, Jaydeep Mukherjee, KOH, KOH by Ian Kittichai, Matthew Cropp, Mishali Sanghani, Pali Village Cafe, Restaurants, Romil Ratra, Special Top Story, Two One Two Bar and Grill, Ziya