Food service category Selling Mediterranean meals to millions reared on Cantonese cuisine requires extra attention to detail, according to a top executive at the New Mario food chain. This year, the food firm has performed so well it has picked up the 1997 Hong Kong Retail Management Award for food service in its Mystery Shopper programme. New Mario general manager Siu Kam-cheong said running an award-winning operation was a complicated exercise, particularly in Hong Kong where there was intense competition among employers to attract good staff. 'The quality of the food, the cleanliness of each shop and the overall environment are all important in providing the customer with a good dining experience,' Mr Siu said. Founded in 1990, the Italian food chain now boasts 22 stores and nearly 700 employees and was recently sold by the popular Chinese fast food chain Fairwood to the local food service company Yuk Charm Enterprise and Holding Ltd. Company representatives are proud of the accomplishment and the award provides an excellent indication of how the chain stacks up in Hong Kong's fiercely competitive food industry. Mr Siu said the eatery's success stemmed from dedication to training, quality control and providing the type of service HKRMA's mystery shoppers were seeking. The key to maintaining this quality control was to properly train new restaurant chefs and waitresses, he said. Part of such training was product knowledge. 'They need to know what they are serving because many of the new waiting staff and the customers they serve have never eaten Italian food,' he said. New Mario specialises in selling quality gourmet food to middle-class diners. Mr Siu said the SAR was full of expensive Italian bistros but New Mario remained the restaurant that introduced people to a new eating experience. 'One thing we pay extra attention to is customer opinion,' he said. On every table at all New Mario outlets sits a stack of cards requesting customers' opinions. Mr Siu said each store carefully examined responses and used the most pertinent to improve each store. 'We take these very seriously, because they are a direct reflection of what customers are thinking,' he said. At least two or three times a week, members of management appear at each New Mario restaurant to check on everything from cleanliness to staff presentation. 'It is most important for staff to treat each and every customer really well,' he said. In the search for staff, Mr Siu said many employers were forced to hire people fresh out of school. 'We look for smart people,' he said. 'But it's ok if they come in not knowing what to do. We'll train them. 'Some people think they will lose face if they are a waiter and serving someone else,' he said. 'We make sure they understand this is a great job.'