Morning Story: Service need not come at a price

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Until the weekend I'd intended today's column to be a curmudgeonly piece about shonky customer service in this province.

But after a mixture of yesterday's sunshine and some favourable run-ins with three fine Hastings gentlemen, I changed my mind. Sort of.

The initial spark came on August 22.

We were hoping to send off a long-time colleague in style at one of the Bay's most acclaimed restaurants.

The male maitre'd seated us and, preparing to hand out menus, proceeded to lick his thumb before handing each one out.

It was one of those "no way" moments.

I would have dismissed it as inattention, if staff then hadn't proceeded to forget drinks orders (more than twice), rudely interrupted a conversation when asking for orders and spent so long getting desserts to the table we contemplated leaving.

At home later that night I stewed on it. A scathing restaurant review began to form; a biting missive on how, once again, Hawke's Bay's fantastic food was still leagues ahead of its service.

I wouldn't have been so annoyed if it hadn't been one of Hastings' signature restaurants.

But time went by and I forgot the idea. Forgot that is, until I landed in last weekend in Auckland.

Every food joint I had the pleasure of eating in was simply superb. And just to clarify, each experience was notable not so much for the food, which of course we can easily match here in the Bay, but attitude.

Auckland hospitality folk are instilled with a passion to serve. With a queue of four people I asked a bartender at Britomart's Everybody's bistro to mix me a Tequila Thyme cocktail. His face lit up. He shook, he crushed, he peeled and he pared. It was flat-out delicious.

In total I visited about 12 different bars and restaurants. Without exception I left feeling welcome, even grateful, for the experience.

My zest to pen something unfavourable about the Hastings establishment was rekindled after interfacing with such stellar staff. Those who were actively seeking to please not just with the plated product.

There are, of course, those who will make a liar of me. Two places I've eaten at recently, Ten Twenty Four on Pakowhai Rd and Tennyson Street's Mister D. These were both exceptional - but they were also exceptions.

So, reinvigorated with a sense of helplessness after returning from Auckland, the column was back on the menu. Until Saturday.

With only the one Nina Simone album in my collection, and a hankering for her voice, I placed two of my daughters in the car and drove into Hastings.

Almost there, the guy who cleans windscreens on the corner of Nelson and Heretaunga Streets approached my car. He wore a black cap and a T-shirt sporting the Tino Rangatiratanga flag.

I searched the dash but couldn't spot any loose coins: 'Sorry I have no change to give you."

"That's okay boss I'll clean it anyway." He did so, then played a little air guitar on his windscreen cleaner.

Later we parked and entered the Music Box Record Exchange on Heretaunga St - my favourite Hastings store bar none. Not only is owner John Nichols a font of musical knowledge, but he's also passionate about service. His manner is so pleasing I visit when I'm not intending to buy anything. I'm drawn to mooch through the vinyl even though I have nothing to play vinyl on.

In this case, I handed over a meagre $10 for a second hand CD, Nina Simone's Ultimate Selection Vol 1. We pushed play in the car stereo and my girls sang along happily.

For our final stop we popped into Taste Cornucopia cafe on the other end of Heretaunga St. Chef James Beck took a load off, sat down and chatted easily with my daughters. Cooks that "break the fourth wall" and cross the barrier between kitchen and dining rooms always get my vote. It was a service we received above the price of our fruit juice and scones.

These three completely unrelated gentlemen offered a glimmer of hope at the weekend. I decided not to name the offending restaurant, and sheathed my pen. Maybe the tide's turning.

Funny though isn't it. Sometimes you part with serious money expecting serious service, and you get none. At other times you pay little, even nothing, and get everything.

Mark Story is assistant editor at Hawke's Bay Today

- Hawkes Bay Today

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