Are we being served

eadiefyeschampagnemasterclass11Hospitality is the art of making people feel welcome. It sounds simple enough, but just how well do our Christchurch cafés, bars and restaurants measure up? Jo Bailey goes undercover to find out

It is no secret that great service is the lifeblood of the hospitality industry. Despite its intangible value, it is possibly the most important thing a business has to sell. Ambience and product are paramount, but it is service that can set an establishment apart from its rivals and bring the punters back again and again.

I’ve always wanted to be a spy. Now I’m finally getting the chance, with a little help from an expert in the undercover world. Melissa Wilson, a friendly Canadian and director of mystery-shopping organisation Customer Care, is an authority on top-notch service. She’s the perfect companion for my mission – investigating the service provided by Christchurch hospitality businesses.

Melissa and I enter an unsuspecting inner-city café, where the welcome from the waitress is almost as frosty as the temperature outside. At the food counter, Melissa reaches for a plate for her muffin and notices it is smeared with a chocolate-coloured stain. The tongs aren’t much cleaner. It is not an auspicious start.

“I think service levels in Christchurch are a mixed bag,” she says, as we take a seat. “There are some fabulous people working in hospitality, but overall, I think it is hit and miss whether customers will have a great experience. I have been in Christchurch 15 years and can only think of one front-of-house person who delivered really fantastic service every time.”

Hospitality businesses engage Customer Care to ensure their service standards are being met or to get advice on things that could be improved.

“Cafés and restaurants often get feedback when guests are very happy or not happy at all, but it can be hard to ascertain how the average guest feels about their experience. Mystery shoppers are paid to be that average guest,” Melissa says.

Greeting is one of the most critical aspects of great service, as this first impression will either enhance or detract from the customer’s entire experience, Melissa says.

“The welcome can’t be fake or insincere; it must be genuine. Service staff should immediately engage with the guest, make eye contact, and smile. If this doesn’t happen within the first two minutes, they’ve lost them. If they get the greeting right, then it sets the scene for everything else.”

Poor service can leave more of a bad taste than bad food. If the service is warm and inviting, the customer is more likely to forgive any hiccups that might occur, Melissa says.

We agree the greeting at the café where we are meeting left a lot to be desired. Then Melissa casts her professional eye over the surroundings and sums it up. “The ambience and music are good, the food is well presented, the greeting was poor, and the tables aren’t very clean.” She notes the dirty cups on the table next to us. They aren’t cleared until half an hour later.

To deliver consistently high service levels, hospitality business owners need to first define the culture of their organisation, she says. “Running a business is not just about pushing product out the door; it is about bringing a set of values, setting realistic expectations about the theme and service, then coaching and encouraging the staff to deliver on these.”

We flick through some of the mystery-shopping surveys that Melissa’s team fill out after their undercover visits, providing feedback on everything from the atmosphere and presentation of premises to the quality of the food and beverages. The service component makes up by far the biggest part of the survey.

Armed with a dossier of surveys and checklists, I’m ready to do some investigating of my own. Melissa suggests I visit at least 10 businesses, but that I shouldn’t get bogged down with too much detail – simply focus on the greeting from staff, the service throughout the visit, the ambience, and the quality of the product.

The timing is perfect, as the next few weeks are a social whirl. There are dinners out; drinks with a friend from Auckland who is keen to check out the local nightlife; and a reunion with my partner’s now 40-something St Bede’s first XV teammates. Throw in the obligatory café visits, Sunday brunch, and a quick bite to eat before the movies, and I easily surpass my quota. My outings range from the inner-city to the ’burbs, from fine dining to pub grub, from wines with the girls to beers with the boys, and everything in between.

And the verdict? I have to agree with Melissa that service standards are a mixed bag. Most Christchurch businesses seem to have a good standard of product and ambience. I didn’t have one bad meal, bad coffee, or bad wine. Yet, bad or, perhaps worse, indifferent service did detract from my dining experience. Only about half of the greetings I received from staff at the 20 businesses I visited would have met Melissa’s standards. Surely, it can’t be that difficult to smile and look someone in the eye?

Other crimes against good service included being warmly welcomed into a restaurant, then receiving only intermittent, disinterested attention thereafter; waiting more than half an hour for a simple bowl of soup in a café only to see the guy at the next table get his within five minutes; and not being able to attract the attention of wait staff because they were deep in conversation with each other.

The state of the bathrooms is another area where some businesses let themselves down. My Auckland friend and I were invited into a cosy little bar by a friendly bouncer, given great service by the bar manager, and enjoyed some live music over which we could still hold a conversation. On our way out, we decided to visit the bathroom. It was filthy and a disappointing end to what had been, until then, a great experience.

On the flip side, I did enjoy top-notch service from some fabulous front-of-house and wait staff. The “going the extra mile award” goes to a barman at The Bicycle Thief for his service one busy Friday evening. When I explained I was buying two glasses of bubbles, but my friend had yet to arrive, he came out from behind the bar, carried my drinks, found me a table and said he would keep an eye out for my friend so that he could tell her where I was sitting. And no, I’m not a regular, but it’s that kind of genuine, spontaneous service that would make me think about becoming one.

I won’t name and shame any of the businesses whose service didn’t measure up, but it is worth mentioning others that rated well. Estudio – S served superb food, with great service from professional, knowledgeable staff. For casual dining, Bealey Avenue’s Speights Ale House came out tops. The friendly, efficient service from all four staff members with whom we engaged during our meal was impressive, as was the food. Joe’s Garage was packed on the Sunday morning we went for brunch, yet the staff still managed to be attentive.

Of course, this is merely a snapshot of service standards from a sample of businesses over a few weeks. However, it has allowed me to reach my own conclusion. Yes, we are being served by some great and sometimes fabulous hospitality staff in Christchurch, but, at times, we also encounter decidedly mediocre and indifferent service.

In the current economic climate, with less discretionary income available, many consumers expect greater value for their dollar and won’t reward bad service with a return visit. And, with so many choices of where to eat and drink, surely providing great service has never been more important?


JO SEAGAR – celebrity author and cook, of Seagars at Oxford café

“I think the service in Canterbury is great and that as New Zealanders we are generally friendly and nice. I’d say that 99 per cent of the time I’m met with a welcoming, ‘glad to have you here’. People are working hard for those dollars in a recession, so the service has to be up there. A lovely greeting that is personable, and not in-your-face, is very important. Occasionally, a waiter or waitress might get a bit carried away and almost think that they’re a guest at the dinner, but, overall, I think we’re doing fine.”

RICHARD TILL – celebrity chef and food writer

“There are some very capable waiters (men and women) and a great deal of semi-trained, semi-interested and semi-capable ones. I’ve no idea where the median capability level is. I’ve received memorable service that was slow and ill-informed about what the kitchen had just run out of, but was excellent, because it was warm-hearted, sincere, willing and, even although under incredible pressure, calm and composed. These things are so much more important than all that silly stuff where the waiters hang around and insist on putting your napkin back on your lap after you’ve been to the bathroom, or holding the bottles of wine with their thumb in the right place.”

MARTY FULLER – national vice-president of the Hospitality Association and co-owner of Trevinos

“If you look back 15 years, we’ve come an awfully long way, but there’s still room for improvement. Overall, I think we are pretty good, but, in these times, pretty good is probably not good enough. It’s unrealistic for businesses to think they’re going to attract floods of new customers at the moment, so great service has never been more important. Existing customers should be loved and have service lavished on them, as it is these intangible, personal, wow factors that are the difference between whether or not people come back. And it’s not about how the plates are placed on the table – it’s about immediately engaging with guests and continuing to engage with them throughout the service. Making eye contact, trying to anticipate their needs, being proactive rather than reactive, and a simple smile – these are the key things.”


Burnt coffee, corked wine, a slug in the lettuce, cold or undercooked food – we’ve all had something go wrong at a café or restaurant, but do we complain, and if so, how?

There are all sorts of opinions on this topic. Some diners reason that they’re paying for the food or beverage, so have no qualms about speaking up. However, a great many of us will never say a word, but then tell 10 friends about the experience and not patronise the establishment again.

When there is a problem, guests shouldn’t feel bad about letting the business know, Melissa Wilson, of mystery-shopping organisation Customer Care says.

“Most businesses would be horrified if they knew their product didn’t meet expectations, so it is a disservice to them not to say anything.”

She suggests diners simply “say it as it is” when it comes to the problem, and follow it up with “would you be able to sort that out for me”, giving staff an opportunity to put things right. “Don’t think of it as a complaint; think of it as a request.”

Celebrity cook Jo Seagar doesn’t mind at all when people send something back at her café, Seagars at Oxford. “There is nothing worse than a disgruntled customer leaving and you don’t know about it. I would much rather they gave us the opportunity to fix the problem, rather than say nothing, although there should be a good reason to send something back. Saying ‘I don’t like it’ really isn’t enough.”

Jo says her team understands that the customer’s perception becomes their reality. “The customer knows what they want, and I remind my staff that it is the customer, and not Jo Seagar, who pays their wages.”

And when it comes to making a complaint itself? “Simple communication and using good manners is the key – our mothers were right all along.”

Food writer Richard Till sometimes sends food back, but he is often unwilling to talk to staff about the problem. “Most often it’s a subjective matter of taste, and I assume that the establishment served it that way because that’s the way they serve it, so if I don’t like it, I’ll have to be sure not to go back there.”

And what about people who are reticent about sending food back because they’ve heard the horror stories of food being spat on or dropped on the floor before it is returned to the table?

“It’s very unlikely,” Richard says. “They’ve been watching too many sitcoms.”