Friday, 8 August 2014

Do restaurants get a raw deal from the media?

This recent article in The Guardian got me thinking about the media's apparent obsession with the restaurant business and how journalists often seem to write about the subject with a slightly negative bias. I get that it's an industry which grabs the public's imagination. The miriad television shows based around it confirms that. What I don't get is where the suspicion and mistrust in much of commentary emanates from. It must come from somewhere, right? No smoke without fire and all that?

There are countless numbers of books written by "experts" who promise to lift the lid on what really goes on behind the scenes in restaurants. I've part- read most of them ( I only ever seem to get 20 or so pages in before giving up ). They generally trot out the same tired old nuggets of wisdom like "don't order fish in a restaurant on a Monday". Ground breaking stuff. The reality is that what happens behind the scenes in restaurants is not anything like as glamorous or shocking as the books or newspaper articles would have you believe.

When I publish my book entitled " What really goes on behind the scenes in restaurants", I don't expect it to make the best sellers list. Chapter one, "Dishwasher", will go into detail about how the dishwasher has broken down for third time in a month and the repair man is late, despite having promised to be there at 10am sharp. The chapter is balanced on a knife edge going into the final page as we find out whether or not it was repaired in time for lunch service. Things really start to hot up in chapter two when the new waiter doesn't turn in for his first shift. You get the picture. This is what really goes on behind the scenes in most restaurants.

So, back to my earlier question...where does the idea that restaurants are out to fleece their guests come from? I'm guessing that there are spurious tactics employed by some restaurant chains ( independents, in my experience, do not put anything like that amount of planning into menu psychology etc). It has all the hall marks of large scale strategic planning in board rooms by faceless people in suits. I'm further speculating that whistle blowers over the years have divulged these strategies to anyone who will listen and the whole thing has snowballed from there.

That is not to say that selling techniques do not exist in the restaurant industry, as they do in most industries. The difference is that journalists do not consider it newsworthy that a bicycle salesman has convinced someone to purchase a lock to go with their bike. If a waiter sells a side order with a main course however, it's deemed to be part of some Machiavellian scheme to shakedown diners.They seem to forget that it's a business. If I'm a restaurateur and I buy 20kg of fresh fish today and it doesn't sell tonight, then I'm going to put it on as a special tomorrow. I'm running a business. I'm not about to throw out an expensive commodity that will still be perfectly good to eat tomorrow. I genuinely don't understand why is that the genesis of so many newspaper articles and books.

So, before I get savaged by all the hacks out there lining up with examples of sharp practice in restaurants, let me add that I fully accept that there are exceptions to every rule. Some restaurants, especially in tourist destinations where they are not reliant on repeat business, go out of their way to rinse as much money as they can out of their customers. However, the overwhelming majority of restaurateurs, and I know many of them in this country, work extremely hard to survive and value every single guest who comes through their door. They wouldn't survive long if they engaged in some of the shenanigans suggested in the Guardian article and countless others filling column inches with increasing regularity.

Now I'm off to finish my book. If I manage to sell the film rights, I'm hoping Kevin Spacey will play the man who comes to change the filters in the kitchen extract.

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