I know Kyrgyzstan doesn’t have a long history of service-oriented restaurants. But still – twenty-four years should be enough to figure out the basics. Which some restaurants have – Barashek, Sierra Cafe, Adriano Coffee, Park Cafe, Cyclone and others are shining examples in customer-oriented experience. But then there are some establishments with service so bad you wonder if the waiters are trying to drive customers away. So dear other half of Kyrgyz restaurants – here’s some simple advice: don’t run your restaurant to make money; run it to make return customers. If you really want a successful business, then you need to create a positive image associated with your brand name and a loyal clientele. And you create a loyal clientele by giving them a positive experience.
What do I mean?
First, Customers come first. We’re the reason you have a restaurant, right? We shouldn’t have to wander around looking for the waitstaff, or walk into the kitchen just to get our bill. Make use feel like you actually care about our presence.
Second, Be upfront about any changes. Don’t have something that someone ordered? Tell them upfront instead of bringing something they didn’t order, and assuming that they should pay for it/telling them “this is how we do it here”/informing them that their knowledge of this food is wrong. Assume responsibility for mistakes; the customer is not wrong because you are out of lemons/grapes/whatever or your espresso machine is broken. Furthermore, if a price has changed from what is on the menu, tell them before they finalize their order.
Third, Don’t argue with your customers when they have a valid point. What’s a valid point? If you didn’t bring something as it is described on the menu, they have a valid point. If there is a visible price discrepancy between the menu and the bill, they have a valid point. If there bill has more items than they ordered, they have a valid point. If the bill has items that they ordered, but that never came to the table, they have a valid point. And even if you think they are wrong – is it so impossible to be both polite and firm? (As a former 7th grade teacher managing classes of 56 students I’d say, no, it is not impossible to be both polite and firm)
And Fourth, Don’t treat your customers like walking ATMs. They come to your establishment to eat and enjoy themselves, not to have you constantly picking at their pockets. Don’t push. Don’t add random fees. Don’t try to slip a few more items onto their bill. Don’t charge for service if it’s not provided. Listen to them. Try to resolve conflicts or improve your service instead of pushing them out the door the minute they’ve finished.
Why the focus today? Because we went to Buddha Bar this afternoon as a friend was leaving for Turkey for the summer and… despite their attempted cosmopolitan airs and prices that would make you think it’s a restaurant with international standards, service is worse (far worse…) than that at a crowded столовая.
We’ve been there before (it’s inexplicably popular in Bishkek – perhaps because it’s one of the only establishments with outdoor patio seating on Axunbaeva and it externally looks nice). But be ye not fooled. I’ve been to other restaurants that violate one or two of the rules above, but Buddha Bar is the only one to level them across the board. If they don’t have what you ordered they’ll bring something else, and viciously argue with you that you are wrong and it is exactly what you ordered (they once brought me miso when I ordered a 300 som bowl of tom yum…I’ve been to both Thailand and Japan – I know what tom yum is, and I can actually tell the difference between a coconut and soybean paste). But they told me that I was wrong, that I obviously had no idea what tom yum was. And then they brought it back in the kitchen and…came out with the exact same bowl of soup. Having worked in a restaurant…I was a little wary of that. I’ve also ordered something, had them bring it out differently than described on the menu (missing a few parts), waited half an hour for them to fix it, and then got charged for that item twice – a charge they refused to retract. There are also price discrepancies between the menu and the bill every time. When we brought up the discrepancies today the waitress curtly told us that the prices we saw were on the old menu, and the new menu had different prices. We (i.e. a local who was with us) then asked why they were still giving out the old menus if they wouldn’t abide by those prices. No answer, but she refused to align the prices on our bill and, instead of offering us an apology, snatched the menus out of our hands and stalked away. Did I mention that they include a 15% service charge? Service too takes forever and dishes don’t always come in a logical order.
So – rant over – what is this place? What makes you think that this is a successful, long-term business model? If you don’t make people feel welcomed and well-served at your establishment, how do you expect to convince people to come? We’re not just there to shed our pockets.
Unfortunately (update) this isn’t just restaurants. Yesterday evening we went back to our old gym, K2, which was once upon a time good. Now, all the second-hand Chinese-brand exercise equipment they have is falling apart (and not being replaced or repaired), and most of the former foreign clientele have gone. Not surprising since yesterday evening the king-of-the-couch trainer on duty had 80’s thrash metal on full volume. When I first asked him if it wasn’t a bit loud, he basically just shook me off. When E went up to ask him to turn it down five minutes later he told him, “We have a policy. Sometimes the music and AC can be problems. If you don’t like it, you can leave.” There were five people working out in the gym – besides us one plump Russian girl of maybe 19, a middle aged Russian guy, and a beefy younger Russian chumming it out with the trainer. And yet when we reported the issue to the front desk, the girl on duty told us that the trainers had said (apparently there have been past complaints) that they turn the music up because the clients like it. Which clients? The one guy chummy with the trainer?
I think one of the underlying issues behind bad service is the remaining holdover of Soviet system mentality – where customers did not necessarily come first, where services were more streamlined or mechanized, where salaries and positions were not dependent on individual contribution to establishment image of profit. In a decent number of establishments there still seems to be an utter lack of focus on marketing, specifically attracting sales and creating repeat customers. This isn’t the soviet union anymore with one state institution to serve all. If people don’t feel comfortable or well-served they won’t return as long as they have other choices. Probably slowly, slowly these attitudes will change as the Kyrgyz market grows and competition becomes stiffer.