Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Sweet Violet braves the public spaces…

Hubby and I like to eat Sunday breakfast out. One of our favourite places is Beanz, a little coffee shop just down the road from us in the Table View Mall. The breakfasts are generous, well priced, well-prepared and the service is usually quite good. A couple of weeks ago we had breakfast there and, with our bill, there was a little gift: a keychain doohickey that beeps and flashes a light when you whistle. I eagerly seized on it because, as Thandiswe well knows, I am always misplacing my keys…particularly in my handbag.

Within 24 hours, I put the gadget to use and it worked like a charm. But when Hubby and I went out and he was the driver, we discovered a peculiarity of the thing…it beeps constantly around him! It became so annoying that I moved it to the secondary part of the key ring where it could be detached and stowed either in my bag or in the car’s cubby while he was driving.

Today it was my turn to drive for the first time in nearly a week, as Hubby is back at work. Without thinking, I put the key in the ignition, started the car and drove away…with the beeper still on the key ring. I went to a couple of places, including the mall, and the only time the thing beeped was when I opened my purse and whistled into it. It beeped and flashed and I quickly located my keys so I could make the journey home. Not once did it beep out of turn, despite its nearly non-stop racket when Hubby is around. I’d love to know what that is all about…a machine’s natural affinity for an engineer, perhaps?

Despite his unfortunate experiences with the key beeper, Hubby likes gadgets. But he’s difficult to buy for, as he either has all the gadgets he likes or the gadget he wants is out of my price range. He also likes watches, but those are totally out of the question: he has Patek Phillipe taste and I have a Timex budget. So I determined to find him a gadget he would like in a price I could pony up and found just the thing at our local computer store…a laptop lapdesk, complete with fan, adjustable tray, and carry handle. Hubby likes to use his laptop on the bed, but always ends up in some kind of distorted position that ultimately puts a strain on his neck and shoulders. I figured this thing would do the trick. It was about ten days before Christmas and I suspected the store’s stock would deplete quickly, so I grabbed one.

Well, mostly I was right. He opened the package and when he saw the picture on the box, his eyes lit up. “Cool!” he said, and pulled the box open. Unfortunately, the unit was broken…the first thing that came out of the box was an irregularly-shaped shard of plastic with fracture marks on the edges. When he got it out of the box, the unit was in two pieces, the top broken away from the bottom. We set it aside to return on the weekend.

Unlike in America, the day after Christmas is a holiday…Boxing Day. When we went out that morning to get a couple of McDonald’s Egg McMuffins and found the McD’s closed, we just went home and stayed there, figuring bigger fish, like the malls, would be closed as well. To allow the after-Christmas shoppers to have their wild way with the mall on Saturday, we waited until Sunday to return the broken lapdesk. Imagine our surprise when the salesman told us they had a 7-day return policy and the store had made no exceptions for Christmas shoppers! I don’t know if the scowl on my face made a difference, but the salesman took my receipt and the broken merchandise back to speak to the manager. He returned with both good and bad news: the manager was making an exception to the 7-day rule, but they were out of stock. Another salesman, the one who had assisted me when I purchased the item, took the initiative to get on the computer and check stock throughout their network of store s…the computer network linking the stores was down. So, he then picked up the phone and called the store in the biggest mall in our area, Canal Walk, and confirmed they had four units in stock and we could go there to make our exchange. I was impressed both the store’s manager, Lance, and the salesman who put such effort into making sure we got what we paid for with minimum of fuss. The next time I need something computerish, Incredible Connection at Bayside will be my first stop.

But, yesterday, we had to go to Canal Walk to make our exchange and, since it was Sunday, we decided to have breakfast there. South Africa has a chain of family restaurants called Spur, pretty much a steak and burgers place, with a rather eclectic Native American theme. They also serve breakfast, and our breakfast experiences at the various Spurs we’ve sampled have been fine. Not spectacular, mind you, but unworthy of any negative remark. We expected, of course, nothing less.

*Sigh.* When will I learn to trust my gut?

The greeter turned us over to a young woman who couldn’t find the menus. It was 10:30 am, they had been open for an hour and a half, and the hostess couldn’t find the breakfast menus…a red flag I should have heeded.

Someone else found the menus, handed them off to here, and we found ourselves escorted to a spacious booth and left with our breakfast menus. The restaurant was nearly empty. In fact, in the non-smoking section where we were seated, there were only two other occupied tables, one of which was nearly done with their meal. There were more employees than patrons. So why were we ignored for fifteen minutes? Waitron after waitron walked past our table, oblivious to our closed menus. These were not busy servers with their hands full, these were servers sauntering empty-handed past us without a flicker of recognition of the universal signal that the patrons are ready to order: the menus are closed and pushed to the edge of the table.

Finally, I got up and went to the front of the restaurant where half a dozen employees milled about, joking and laughing. “Can I get someone to take our order?” I asked sharply.

A young man in a red shirt followed me and took our order. Because neither of us like our eggs frazzled to a crisp around the edges, we ordered our eggs scrambled. Hubby ordered a medium-rare steak and pork sausage with his eggs. The drinks arrived promptly, served by the waitron who should have taken our order…no excuse for his failure to take our order was proffered. The restaurant began to fill up and we waited for our food while other people, who came in later than us, got served and we still waited.

Finally our server came with our plates, only to put in front of us the strangest excuse for scrambled eggs I have ever seen in my life: They look like they had been partly poached and then chopped up with a knife and fork! At the look of incredulity on both our faces, the waitron offered that they had been prepared in a microwave, but he could take them back for proper scrambled eggs, if we would like. I was speechless…Hubby sent them back. Within minutes our table was visited by a section manager, a pleasant young man named Tiaan who apologized for the problem and assured us that the proper eggs were being prepared.

All around us, people were receiving plates of food while we waited…and waited…and waited. Hubby checked his watch and looked up at me, “Shall we leave?” he asked. “And go someplace else?”

We were there forty minutes by the time our plates finally returned. The waitron placed them in front of us and I was utterly shocked! The eggs…duly scrambled…were brown and glistening with grease. Overcooked yellow-brown crumbles are scattered around the plate, leading my eye to the withered mushrooms, shrivelled grilled tomato slice, and warmed-over French fries. Hubby’s plate fares no better: his mushrooms and tomato match my own, his sausages are dry and shrunken, his medium rare steak dry and well done. Even the toast is amazingly below par: more warm bread than toast.

By this time we were starving and ate enough to assuage our hunger: Hubby is diabetic and it was well past time for him to eat. I held the larger bits of egg in my fork to allow the grease to drip off them and ate the edible part of the bacon, leaving everything else on the plate. Hubby pretty much followed suit, his steak too chewy to finish, his mushrooms rubbery and overdone. Obviously, the kitchen had taken so long to prepare the eggs that the rest of our meal had gone cold and, rather than replace the food, it was microwaved to death and then brought to us at the table.

Not one to mince words, when the waitron came back to check on us and asked how the meal was, I told the truth: “I’ve been eating in Spur restaurants for more than five years,” I told him. “And, hands down, this is the worst meal I have ever had at a Spur.” I then proceeded to show him what was wrong with the food, after which he left and returned with the section manager, who received the same demonstration of inferior product. When my husband forked up a piece of steak and showed him a cross-section, grey all the way through, the man had the good grace to look chagrined: he knew the order had been for medium-rare.

Unlike another restaurant in which we had dismal service, however, Spur knows how to deal with an unhappy customer. The section manager acknowledged that the food was substandard, validating our disappointment. He asked what he could do to make it better and we gave him some advice regarding service: no ignoring a table that has not yet ordered; no idle waitrons sailing past occupied but unattended tables; plates returned to the kitchen go to the head of the prep line, customers are kept informed when there is a delay; waitrons check the plates before delivering to the table so the patron isn’t the one who discovers the kitchen’s errors. Service, we told him, is what you have to sell…it is what will set you apart from the competition, particularly in a tough economy when your competitors are sharpening up their own game plans. Eating out is a luxury, particularly for families with kids, and if the restaurant next door is serving similar food at a similar price, you’d better have something extra up your sleeve, like prompt, cheerful service, to get that increasingly rare bit of disposable income.

A sharp fellow, Tiaan nodded his acknowledgement and asked again if there was anything further he could do for us. Hubby asked for the bill and Tiaan took away our half-finished plates…the food really was so bad that we barely ate. When the bill came, however, it was evident that Tiaan wished to retain us as customers: we were not charged for the awful food…only the drinks were on the bill.

This is as it should be: The management acknowledged the service was poor…since when should a customer have to come up to the front desk and ask for someone to take their order?...and validated our experience. The food really was poor, and management acknowledged that as well. No defensiveness or attempts to lay blame on the customer, just an honest acknowledgement of the truth. They apologized and allowed us to give some suggestions for improvement. And, rather than offer us vouchers for a percentage off another meal, they simply did the right thing: the food was terrible and they didn’t charge us for it.

Spur is one of those places where you go when you want burgers or ribs or an assembly-line steak. We’ve eaten there often over the past five years and will continue to do so. But we’ll probably stick to lunch and dinner there…it’s beginning to look like Beanz is the only place in Cape Town capable of preparing eggs properly.

The holidays pretty much over, it seems the normal quotient of idiocy is reasserting itself in the shops. I went to the food section at Woolies the other day…our single premium food chain in South Africa…and found myself blocked in an aisle by a six-year old who was guarding the two hand baskets of food at her feet. She stood in the aisle, the baskets on either side of her creating a barricade that extended full across half the aisle. People with trolleys (shopping carts) had to stop and let oncoming traffic by before they could proceed. I couldn’t figure out why that child was there and where her mother was and why the management hadn’t moved her. Don’t people in this country know about kidnappers?

As I wended my way through the aisles, picking up this little goodie and that, I saw a woman, hands full of packets, striding rapidly in my direction. I turned a corner just in time to see her approach that child and drop the armload of groceries in the baskets, then turn around and head back into the aisles! WTH? Has no one told her about wheeled trolleys she can take into the aisles with her? When it comes to aisles being blocked, I definitely prefer the rolling barricade of a temporarily abandoned trolley that I can push away from a display I want to browse over a pair of unmoving baskets and their six-year-old sentinel.

She was ahead of me in the queue, baskets overflowing and straining the muscles in her arms and shoulders as she hefted them to move them along. There were plenty of trolleys…it wasn’t a matter of having no choice…but I still wonder at the choice to strain her back and shoulders with the overloaded baskets, to block aisles to other patrons must go single file around her hoard, and leave a tiny little girl alone in a busy store, vulnerable to the predators we all know are out there.

So, it is now New Year’s Eve and Sally’s having a braai (BBQ) and we are invited. We’ll fete the new year with braai and bubbly and the next time you hear from me, it will be 2009!

Happy New Year to you all!

1 comment:

  1. Entertaining as usual - high's, low's and a good ending ;b

    I must say that as a South African who has grown up with the Spur franchise, we learned early on in our epicurean education that to err at any restaurant - Spur included is to order anything other than what they specialise in.

    I'm so often amused at friends who will order a burger at a Nouvelle Cuisine styled restaurant, or a plate of scrambled eggs at a Steakhouse.

    Times were that the Spur didn't even serve eggs - let alone scrambled!

    It's also our experience that when the restaurant is at it's emptiest is when the service is the most poor - and here Spur is greatly at fault. The number of times we've sent in our comment forms after our meals - and the only complaint is that of the 4 people waiting to eat in a 300 seater restaurant, which is empty.

    But as you say, Spur managers know what to do to keep the customers coming back, and for the most part they do seem to listen and implement the customers suggestions.

    For me, it's a Goodie Burger with salads - almost no going wrong there!

    Happy New Year!



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