TWO weeks ago, we went to celebrate a friend's birthday at the Brazilian Restaurant in Wan Chai. Our festive mood was ruined by a surly, incompetent waiter. He took our order wrongly, so the birthday girl was served only a starter but no main course, and was inattentive and uncommunicative throughout the evening.
After we paid the substantial bill so one guest could go to another appointment, some of us stayed on and ordered another jug of sangria. The waiter put the jug on the table and demanded $75. We informed him we were not finished yet, and to present the bill when we were ready to leave. He turned away, muttering: 'It's about time to leave anyway.' Unfortunately, the situation was not helped by the manager. We commented on the drawback of the menu, pointing out that as all vegetarian dishes were listed together, not differentiating between starters and main courses, the vegetarian in our group had ordered an appetiser as her only dish. We suggested a new menu design, and the manager retorted: 'It's my problem, so I'll take care of it, OK?' On a visit to the Rainforest Cafe in Festival Walk, some customers were enjoying their meal when the waiter accidentally poured a glass of iced water on one of the guests. Most of the water went on the table, but some of it went on the person and the clothes she was wearing. The staff were apologetic, but made no offer to compensate the guest for the discomfort of sitting through her meal in wet clothes.
At the Grand Cafe at the Grand Hyatt, a waiter accidentally poured a glass of cold coffee down a customer's back. The waiter apologised and handed the guest two napkins to clean herself up. When she requested that her clothes be dry-cleaned at the Grand Hyatt laundry, the waiter suggested she go home to change. After putting up a huge fuss, the manager finally offered a room for her to shower and change.
While Hong Kongers do not have to put up with what New Yorkers have had to endure - the snooty, condescending 'I'm not really a waiter, I'm an actor' riposte - we are still frequently on the receiving end of a take-it-or-leave-it attitude that is infuriating.
From waiters who refuse to turn down air-conditioners to owners who do not set aside at least a token area for non-smokers, it seems that this sector of the service industry is not always taking the Hong Kong Tourist Association's 'Be a good host' campaign very seriously.
William Mark Yiu-tong, president of the Federation of Hong Kong Restaurant Owners, comments: 'The decline of service has been a problem for some time, and I blame it on lack of training. Before the monetary crisis, when business was good, staff were always on the move and there was no time to train them up. There was a restaurant boom and junior staff were promoted up the ladder before they were ready, and professional standards went down.' Johnny Yip, novelist and food writer, agrees that the economy has much to do with the decline in service.
'I think that some restaurants are trying to hire cheap labour. It's especially bad with Chinese restaurants. You get servers who can't even speak nice Cantonese. There are lots of immigrants from China, they're new here and they need to find jobs, so they work in restaurants,' Yip says.
'But even in hotels and some Western restaurants, the standard is not as good as before and it's quite noticeable. It's not fair, some of the places still charge high prices, so you should get better service. It's due to lack of training.' Mr Mark owns the Chiu Chow City Group and has a thorough knowledge of how restaurants are run. 'For service staff, there's a two-tier system. They get their basic salary, and the more senior staff get a cut in the 10 per cent service charge and tips. Their income is closely related to the business; when business is slack, their income is reduced. Morale is a problem right now.' At his restaurants, Mr Mark says that all his junior staff have intensive, compulsory training from 3pm to 6pm every other day, for at least four weeks.
'They learn not to just stand around, they know what to do. Attitude is most important, they learn to be attentive.' This kind of training is rare nowadays. The pressure to get paid staff working as quickly as possible means that new servers often learn simply by following around a more senior waiter for a day or two.
'The priority of taking service jobs is quite low for job-seekers,' observes Mr Mark. 'In the old times, people were reluctant to serve. Attitude has been changing, but still there is an inferiority complex, which is a handicap.
'There's a big difference - at California restaurant, the waiters are very friendly, they serve from their hearts. This is the main problem, even if you get intensive training and the staff are qualified technically, attitude is still a problem.' Mr Mark believes that with the economic downturn and resulting lull in business, this is an ideal opportunity for food professionals to upgrade service standards.
'The trade should do something about this. Now is the time to intensify training. We used to rely on backpackers, now that they're gone, we have more stable staff; they're not going to get up and move around. The trade shouldn't miss this golden opportunity.'