By ROBERT JUMPER
One Feather Editor
I suppose restaurants are still reeling from the dramatic shift in regulation and the changes in the mindset of their clientele. At least, I hope that is the excuse for the generally poor condition of food quality and customer service in some local eateries.
There has been a noticeable shift in the amount of attention to detail in restaurants. COVID-19, for a good portion of 2020, caused even sit-down restaurants to create takeout or drive-through options. Some managed the transition well, while others managed to create long wait times and irate customers.
The inattentive management of some establishments made for some frustrating moments for both server and those being served. Simple things like not having any ketchup in a business whose main side item is fries is enough to make a restaurant visit a nerve-racking experience. Sometimes, there is slow service at drive-throughs; so slow that lines of cars are stacked out of the parking lot and into the street. By the time you get to the food pick-up, you want to pay, grab your bag of food, and leave as quickly as possible because you may only have had 45 minutes for your lunch break and it has taken you so long to navigate the long and winding queue line that you now only have five minutes remaining in your break. So, you grab the food and dash back to the office or work site, only to find that your hamburger is two buns sans burger and the fries you ordered didn’t make it into the bag. By the time you realize it, you are out of time to make a trip back to the restaurant.
It is really annoying to have to try to reassemble your burger after the staff at a fast-food establishment does a sloppy job putting your sandwich together. Have you ever had a sandwich where the cheese was thrown on a hot burger half-way with the bun also sliding to the side? Ever try to “realign” that sandwich to make it something manageable? It is a messy, aggravating experience. And some establishments will claim the delay is because the food is being made from scratch, but when you get it, the food is already cold. So you are sitting, many times in your car, trying to peel your toppings out of the sideways, melted cheese on a burger that is cold in the bag that just got handed to you.
I recently ordered an establishment’s signature burger, a side of fries, and a soda. I got to the pay window, paid, and moved to the pickup window, where I was promptly told to pull into the dreaded customer waiting parking space because they needed time to get it ready. While waiting for that delivery, I was left to ponder why a “fast-food” restaurant would need to make a customer wait so long that they pull the customer out of line and into a holding pattern for a meal that should be “hot and ready”, something they know will be in high demand and should be quickly available? It also made me wonder how they handled special orders. Did they just tell them to come back the next day?
I have always thought it was the responsibility of the owners and managers of food service places to ensure that staff practice good service skills, including maintaining good food quality standards. An undercooked burger, a piece of old, hard-crusted chicken, or a missing order of fries could mean the loss of months of business. When a customer has a great experience at a restaurant, they might tell one or two people. But if they have a negative experience, they will tell 20 or 30 people.
I have been in jobs that entailed providing goods and services to the public for most of my career. I know how demanding, impatient, and aggressive customers may be. They will disrespect you, cuss you, and make demands that seem unreasonable. They will place an order and as soon as you have it ready, they will change their minds. For some, the product or service is just never good enough. But part of the job of a customer servant is to provide service. Patience and courtesy are the best tools a salesperson has.
Front line workers in the restaurant profession have had a tough row to hoe over the past year. The pandemic has caused many wait staff, cooks, and other restaurant personnel to be laid off. Some restauranteurs have found that shifting from the “dine-in” model to the “dine-out” has created major savings, but it has also put many people out of work. Those who have continued to work, are stressed with long hours and poor working conditions. It is incumbent on the owners and managers to educate their front-line workers on the importance of providing good quality in both food and service. A disgruntled customer represents lost revenue potential.
According to grit.com, 4.5 billion pounds of fries are eaten every year in America. 2 billion of those are from fast-food establishments, along with 6.7 billion pounds of potato chips and 75 million pounds of Tater Tots. That is a lot of taters.
Assuming an order of fries at your favorite fast-food joint averages $1.50 and an order might average a quarter of a pound, the revenue generating potential annually of fast-food fries is roughly $12 billion or the equivalent of 571,000 jobs. And that is just the fries, a side item. So, it really does matter if the customer comes back for that second, third or more order of fries.
All of us have been through a lot. When we are stressed out, we get sloppy in our work. And being sloppy is costly. Managers and owners owe it to themselves to provide their front-line with the tools and motivation that they need to provide prompt, courteous, and high-quality service not just one time, but every time a customer pulls up to their doors. We are on the verge of significant increases in traffic on the Qualla Boundary and demand on local restaurants will steadily increase over the coming months. In addition to providing a safe environment for staff and customers, food service leadership must compete for the hearts and stomachs of both locals and visitors.