Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Spitroast Chicken And Other Stories

I’ve noticed a rather disturbing trend in low-end restaurants lately. It hit me when I had the pleasure of visiting a Harvester at the weekend.

Yes, I know what you’re thinking – what did you expect Lennie? A man of your undoubted gastronomic exuberance? A truffle-sniffing bon viveur of your gourmet proportions? You wouldn’t feel satisfied in a Harvester, Lennie! They’re for people from the Midlands who just like eating – they really don’t care what it is they’re cramming into their faces, as long as there are chips, peas and half a grilled tomato with it. And the unlimited salad cart, with its rustic cartwheels and bacon bits and freshly defrosted rolls...

Anyway, I won’t bore you with the reason I was forced to go there. My frail dining companion (a 95-year-old woman with an extensive knowledge of war-time rationing) and I were barely able to get in the door because of the chaos that had built up around the bar. Was this a queue for the restaurant, or had a coach trip of sex offenders stopped off on their way back from a prison away day? I will never know, because we were soon whisked off to our table and handed a menu the size of a wheelie bin.

I say we were whisked off to our table. In fact, the manager was far too busy for such trivialities. He simply took us half way and pointed. I peered across the rolling acres of carpet and screaming children, and could dimly make out our seats on the far horizon, and the distant prospect of more tattoos beyond. We walked the last mile, navigating the minefield of toddlers’ toys and customers on salad runs, and sat down to enjoy our meal.

We scarcely had time to peruse the menu and its all-day ‘early bird’ specialities, when a waitress asked if we were ready to order. She barely waited for the answer before rushing off somewhere to spray a table with anti-bacterial liquid. She was back a nanosecond later.

Still shaky with a dreadful hangover, I ordered a pint of diet coke. She handed me a small glass with knuckles of ice and told me to get it myself. Apparently it was a free refill. Anything to save on wages and other pesky variable costs...

And that’s my point - there must have been no more than four waiting staff for a zillion diners. The place was packed and they didn’t have time to fill up the sauce bottles on the salad bar, or get out of the way of customers. Once they were stacked up with plates, they moved as fast as they could through the narrow aisles, regardless of who was in the way.

There was also no time for diplomatic niceties or customer chit-chat. It was all business, and we were just ham-faced beagles on the conveyor belt of modern commerce (or at least that’s what my elderly companion reminded me of). When I asked for English mustard for my steak, the waitress pointed at the yellow squeezy bottle of American-style vomit next to me.

“No, English mustard,” I told her.

“It is!” she tried to convince me.

But like I said she didn’t have time for conversation. She grabbed a yellow jar from the next table, which wasn’t proper English mustard either, and then ran off to snatch more plates.

I won’t mention the cooking, or why anyone with any sense of taste or even the merest inkling of culinary knowledge would chuck what seemed like half a bottle of triple sec into a peppercorn sauce, or how it’s possible to procure rump steak with sinews running though it as thick as deep-sea cables, or why if you’re going to put bangers and mash on a revamped menu you might as well serve decent sausages.

I won’t mention any of this, because if you're paying just £4.99 for a main meal and unlimited salad you can hardly complain about the cooking can you? Besides, it’s the service I’m talking about. Now, I’m not saying I could do any better, far from it, and four waitresses serving a zillion diners is a feat in itself. It’s the owners and their streamlined budgets and key performance indicators I can’t stomach.

I know they’re all up against it, and the restaurant business is tough, harder than ever even, and five million pubs are going bust every day. But four waiting staff, and apparently just two some weekday lunchtimes? Even if they’re now going down the abominable route of getting customers to fill their own soft drinks, it’s nowhere near enough. And it’s a trend you’re starting to see everywhere in these high volume eateries, and big business in general. As long as the food gets to the table and the bill is paid, the rest doesn’t seem to matter.

Forget the punters. The bowling alley, shopping mall, going large, American lite consumers. They’re just going somewhere to fill themselves up for the price it would cost to cook it themselves. If they knew how to.

No, it’s the waitresses I feel sorry for. When you’re working on minimum wage rates or lower, you rely on tips just to get by. And with this dreadful cost-cutting conveyor belt at places like Harvester, they’re probably lucky to get any tips at all.

I know restaurant groups have to survive and pay their fat cat shareholders and private equity owners a decent return, but I really hope this sort of human cattle catering system doesn’t catch on further. Unlimited refills and cattle prods are a horrid glimpse of the future, especially across acres of toy-strewn carpet.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This reminds me of the uproar that accompanied the sale of Cadbury to Kraft. The Chairman was interviewed on radio 4 and when challenged about organising the sale of a venerable British institution to 'the yanks', he replied that he was employed to deliver best shareholder value - nothing else mattered.

People who care need to go somewhere that cares. I personally only ever eat out in places where the food is ethically sourced and the staff are treated well, because then I know I'll have a good experience. But as long as people are prepared to be treated like crap and eat crap, shareholders will invest in companies that supply just that.