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ART DIRECTION CHRIS FOO. PHOTOGRAPHY KEVIN YANG

Rogue Ones

In a digital age where nasty, unreasonable diners can spell trouble, restaurant owners tell Rachel Loi how they cope.
Nov 12, 2016 5:50 AM

You're having a perfectly lovely dinner at a restaurant - your lobster is succulent, the service staff attentive and your dining partner engaging. But a raised voice from a few tables away jolts you out of your reverie. You turn, as anyone would, to the source and see a fellow diner shouting at the manager and appearing on the verge of fisticuffs - over a dearth of baby chairs. At this point, the age-old saying, "The customer is always right" becomes the subject of a whole new debate.

The above is a true story and reflects what restaurants have to deal with every day. The customer from hell is a creature that continues to grow, especially in the Internet age where shaming eateries has become a competitive sport, even as the latter try to defuse the situation as diplomatically as possible.

YOU CAN'T MAKE THIS STUFF UP "A company booked us for an event on a Friday night, but called up last minute to say that response was so low, could we waive the minimum spend," recalls one battle-weary restaurant owner. "I was still new and naive at the time, so I said I would drop the minimum spend but open up to other guests. But suddenly they turned up with the full number of people that they originally booked for, and demanded I still drop the minimum spend.

"They also used the restaurant like their own, making speeches and passing out pamphlets in front of the other customers. It ended quite ugly, with my staff verbally abused and my partners having to come down to rectify the situation."

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Shares another long-suffering restaurant manager, "We usually open at 6.30pm for dinner, but one day we saw a lady waiting alone outside at 5.45pm. It was really hot outside, so we offered to let her come in and sit first. We continued to polish cutlery and whatever we do when we're not open yet. But later she wrote a negative review on HungryGoWhere, saying that even after she was seated, staff were still coming in with earphones plugged in, we didn't know the menu yet, and were still updating the blackboard. Phew."

SENSE OF ENTITLEMENT Blame it on rising affluence which is creating a sense of entitlement in diners, says Restaurant Association of Singapore's Executive Director Lim Rui Shan. "When there is a gap between customers' expectations and service level, customers might appear to be more demanding," says Ms Lim.

That doesn't mean restaurants should be bending over backwards to please every unreasonable request. Han Li Guang of neo-Sin restaurant Labyrinth has encountered his fair share of miserly diners trying to get bang for their buck by twisting his menu prices, or drunk patrons who push the boundaries of good behaviour. He's proud to say however, that he has yet to lose his cool and kick anyone out. Not yet, anyway.

"A lady once told me that though our food is good, she won't come back because we have no tablecloth," he says with a laugh. "We accept that difficult customers are part and parcel of the business, especially in a fine dining environment."

The relationship between restaurant and customer should be one of give-and-take, as well as mutual respect. However, as Ivan Brehm of the one-Michelin-starred restaurant The Kitchen at Bacchanalia muses: "Some guests unfortunately associate money and the willingness to pay with always being right. Sadly, it reveals a greater issue of courtesy, entitlement and simple lack of humanity. People forget they are dealing with people who are just doing their job."

CHANGING THE MINDSET ilLido Group Restaurateur-Chef Beppe de Vito suggests it begins with debunking the stereotype that working in the service industry is unglamorous and lowly. "It's an occupation that requires knowledge, EQ and stamina, and we have to start recognising service staff as professionals in order to elevate the dining culture. It's not a problem unique to Singapore, it's a pattern across the globe," he says.

Chinese restaurant Blue Lotus's Ricky Ng has a different view, and believes the onus is on him and his staff to adopt a pre-emptive approach so customers won't have reason to be unhappy in the first place. "We are always mindful and read customers' body language. If you adopt the position of behaving and thinking as the customer, then you can be one step ahead," says the former Tung Lok COO.

NO-SHOWS As Peruvian chef Daniel Chavez points out, restaurants may get reviewed, but bad customer behaviour never sees the light of day. "There are people who book big tables in restaurants and never have the courtesy to cancel on time. In most cases they are even unreachable. This damages the income of restaurants but I never see this published anywhere," he says.

"We lose about 20 per cent of our business to no shows every day, consistently," says one restaurateur. "I used to be very upset but I got used to it. If someone makes a 12-pax reservation for 9pm, we can't fill that table if they don't show. Luckily we're a 100-seater, but what if you're a small restaurant?"

KEEP QUIET OR FIGHT BACK? "When clients start to be rude, raise their voices unnecessarily, refuse to accept various alternatives or solutions offered to them, or are plain dishonest, that's when we will draw the line, and protect ourselves and our staff," says Edina Hong of the Emmanuel Stroobant Group. "Nowadays, with TripAdvisor and all, it's easy for people to be 'keyboard warriors', but at the same time, it lets us track customers' dining records as well, to counter-check their feedback."

Or, restaurants could just master the art of a snappy comeback, like when a customer berated a bistro owner that "I don't care if you go bust". Without batting an eyelid, the owner smiled, "You may not care but I do. I have 10 mouths to feed and each of them has a family to care for. If we close down, that's 10 families who may go hungry."

Food for thought?