With 85,000 hungry Rugby World Cup fans set to arrive in New Zealand in a few weeks, Dionne Christian looks at the level of hospitality and whether we are truly being served.
This is a true story. A family is gathered at an Auckland restaurant to celebrate a birthday. They've enjoyed a number of occasions here before, where the rich and flavoursome French food is impeccably cooked by the Gallic chef and served by a friendly waiter.
On arrival it becomes apparent things have changed. Gone is the charming waiter, replaced by a surly blonde, who's more interested in ducking out to watch the rugby at the neighbouring sports bar than dealing with customers.
A number of dishes on the menu tonight are, for no apparent reason, "off" and when, after an interminable wait, those ordered do arrive they bear little resemblance to what the diners have previously enjoyed here.
A mouth-watering potato gratin has been substituted for a pile of badly peeled potatoes topped with reduced-fat spread. Only one of the diners actually gets presented with said potato dish because the blonde is slurring her words and tottering.
Having taken advantage of the sports bar's hospitality, she staggers toward the table and topples slightly, so the potatoes roll off all the plates bar one. They land under the table of some neighbouring diners who, yet to order, promptly leave.
The restaurant has recently changed hands and, says the manager, things are still settling because the new chef isn't experienced with cooking French food. No mention is made of the inebriated waitress. The family agrees to pay half the bill and leaves. Not surprisingly, the restaurant shuts two weeks later. If it had not, it's highly likely word of mouth would have put it out of its misery.
It's well known that customer feedback, which can go global in a matter of seconds thanks to blogs and online review websites, can make or break an establishment. Often it's not so much the food but the service - the hospitality - or lack of it that causes the most comment. If the latter is good, it seems we can forgive a certain level of culinary confusion.
Service is a hot topic right now as New Zealand prepares to host the Rugby World Cup in a few weeks' time. A Herald-DigiPoll survey of 750 people found that 59.2 per cent rated visitors' experiences more important than an All Blacks win.
One of Auckland's top restaurateurs, Michael Dearth, last month warned that service in city dining spots needs to shape up ahead of the World Cup.
"Just because you've got a beautiful, million-dollar restaurant on the waterfront doesn't make it enough," he told the Herald. "You can have a beautiful marble bar and beautiful champagne and it can still be [awful]."
International guests have already shown they intend to make the most of our hospitality - the official French party has booked out the restaurant area of Kermadec on the Viaduct, leaving only the bar and brasserie for the public, while other eateries have warned those wanting a table during September and October to book early because they're filling up fast. ONE MAN will watch it all closely. At a public lecture in May, Professor Nigel Hemmington claimed some New Zealand restaurants had become "inhospitable". He said the industry been captured by big business ideals to such an extent it is losing sight of its core philosophies - generosity and hospitality - and becoming almost solely focused on profit.
Hemmington is the pro vice-chancellor international and dean of Auckland University of Technology's (AUT) Faculty of Applied Humanities - the faculty that runs the Hospitality and Tourism School. The school offers university qualifications in hospitality and tourism where the hands-on training involves spending time in its two restaurants and professional kitchens.
With a PhD in catering and hotel management, he's taught in hospitality schools across Britain and written and spoken extensively on subjects like consumer experiences, professional development and learning, and consumer behaviour in hospitality and tourism. He travels widely and eats out a lot, affording him plenty of time to observe how restaurants work.
He says New Zealand restaurateurs, maitre d's, waiters and barpeople need to move away from a sense of being in a service industry and see themselves as experience-creators. Socially-adept staff with a genuine regard for guests as individuals - and the capability to engage with them as such - are pivotal to the creation of those experiences.
That means diners should be able to expect a few basics: for restaurants to deliver on promises; for the establishment to be clean - at the very least; and to be served little (pleasant) surprises such as canapés, creative presentation styles, stories, or small acts of generosity. Chris Upton, the proprietor of the award-winning O'Connell Street Bistro, says generosity doesn't have to be confined to finances. It is equally about being generous with your time and, where appropriate, conversation.
Yes, a free coffee refill might be good but so, too, is explaining the menu in a knowledgeable and friendly - but not patronising - manner.
Marisa Bidois, the Restaurant Association of New Zealand's newly-appointed chief executive, says there are a number of ways to show guests you care. She recalls working as a maitre d' at waterfront restaurant Hammerheads and, on rainy nights, picking up an umbrella and walking guests to their cars so they didn't get drenched leaving the restaurant. "They were all thrilled and delighted. I knew they would remember this and tell their friends."
She learned the importance of customer care from a seasoned and a highly professional maitre d' who remembered the names of regular customers and noted down information about their interests, their children and their likes and dislikes so he could make conversation more readily.
"It's about being hospitable - and that is what hospitality should be about."
The hospitality sector, says Hemmington, is different to others in the service industry in that it's not a straightforward financial transaction. Rather, it's all about the experience. However, he says not all restaurant owners and staff see it that way, contributing to our service problems.
Michael Van de Elzen, chef and owner of Mt Eden's Molten and Liquid Molten restaurants as well as the star of TV One's The Food Truck agrees it's all about the experience. He says diners often expect a restaurant visit to transform their day.
"We get people coming in who have had a bad day or are in a bad mood and they expect us to turn them around so they leave well-fed, well-watered and in a good mood. Quite often we do achieve this but then there are times when we honestly could not have done a single thing any better and they are still not happy."
Central to the issue of good service is staff. Not just any old bods capable of taking an order and delivering food but socially adept folk with a genuine regard for guests as individuals and the capability to engage with them as such.
"It is more about being able to converse in an appropriate manner with guests, being socially adept and able to 'read' a situation and respond appropriately, and knowing the menu intimately and being able to comment intelligently on it," says Hemmington. "Waiters should see themselves as the customers' personal gastronomic consultants."
But in this discussion there's no escaping the matter of pay rates and the vexed issue of tipping.
Most Kiwis are still uncomfortable with being asked to tip a percentage of the bill or throw a $10 note in a tipping jar on the restaurant counter. Feeling pressure to fork out more on top of the cost of dinner can ruin a good evening.
One regular restaurant visitor recalls a recent experience at a suburban Auckland restaurant where the maitre d' asked her why, when she had clearly enjoyed her meal and night out, did she not tip? "I felt really pressured, it was horrible. We had had a good night and the maitre d' just ruined it by hassling us about not tipping. She made us feel like we were being cheap."
Indeed, Hemmington sees tipping as the antithesis of hospitable behaviour, a thinly veiled form of bribery which is mercenary and makes customers feel uncomfortable.
"It just serves to overtly remind guests that this is a financial transaction and nothing more. I think guests are pretty well able to see through pleasantries that are dispensed with the sole aim of getting a tip. And what happens when a guest doesn't tip? Are they chased out of the establishment and told never to return? Do they receive inferior service if they dare 'darken the door' again?"
Hospitality staff should be valued and paid for their skills as professionals and performers, he says, rather than left at the mercy of guests to ensure they earn a living wage through tips.
While industry insiders agree, they have a different take on the place and importance of tipping. "The skills of the wait staff are often under-rated," says Bidois. "It's a fine art and a true talent to be a good server and these people need to be valued. I don't think tipping should be compulsory but it shouldn't be considered offensive to leave a waiter a tip for superb service above and beyond what you might expect."
Upton and Van de Elzen say tips as a recognition of good service can provide a confidence boost for staff and spur them on to aim for higher standards. Restaurants generally make sure tips are divided among all staff, not just those immediately involved in waiting a particular table.
AUT's Professor Simon Milne, the director of the New Zealand Tourism Research Institute, cautions tipping as an incentive for good service is no guarantee you're going to get it. He's had bad service in the United States, which is supposed to be the home of exceptional service experiences.
"Often the problem is you have staff on a low base wage who are poorly trained and just expect now to get a tip because that's pretty much how it works over there.
"What good service comes down to, I think, is individual staff and their managers and often how well staff are trained."
For Hemmington, it is just as likely to be about restaurants over-promising on what they deliver. He suggests there is a place for what he terms a "mundane" experience.
"What's wrong with being honest about what you can do and then making sure you do that really well? There's a place for 'mundane hospitality' which allows us to recognise that not everything we eat and drink away from home has to be gold-plated and five-star quality. For example, for a coffee bar: serve great coffee, suitable accompaniments and food and do it with a smile, in pleasant surroundings.
"When I say experience, it doesn't have to be painted as a once-in-a-lifetime exceptional moment. Sometimes the hospitality experience needs to be functional and people don't want faffing around or the warm, cuddly stuff - sometimes they just want a familiar, reliable and fast hospitality experience."
Upton says whatever you decide to do, you should do it well and to the best of your ability to create a positive experience and a lasting positive memory. Part of that is aiming for consistency. "People like to know they can rely on their everyday or favourite haunts."
How do we compare when it comes to service?
Milne believes service has actually improved in New Zealand, which he credits to a growing awareness of the importance of tourism to our economy as a whole and also to the travel experiences of New Zealanders. But most would agree we still have a way to go.
"We get to see and reflect far more on what is good and bad service but when we talk about service and experiences, we need to know that expectations vary from place to place, individual to individual and, at times, culturally.
"The thing with service is that there is no end or final point where an operator can take a break and say, 'we've reached the pinnacle of service delivery and now it's time to stop'. You can never rest on your laurels."
The acid test may come when the estimated 85,000 RWC international visitors arrive and start posting comments online about the service they're receiving and whether they feel they're getting value - in every sense of the word - for money.