Its safe to say being at the cafe has taught me a whole lot. In fact its safe to say, I haven’t been exposed to a learning experience this quick and this intense, since I was in college. Because I’m used to an organised corporate way of working. When you join a new place, you are inducted into the job. You are eased into it, one step at a time. And most importantly, you are allowed to make a few mistakes, because there is usually someone to back you up. But what do you do when on your first day of work at a cafe, an Italian woman asks for a “Kok-ah” and brushing aside naughty thoughts, you give her a concoction of Kokum juice and Soda (which is a much-loved classic at the cafe by the way), when actually what she wants is a Coke?
The thing with the restaurant industry is that the effects of your service and actions are immediately visible. For someone from the advertising/communication background, who’s always curious about client feedback and business impact as the only measure for how effective my work is, this has been a whole new world. Because at the cafe (and I’m pretty sure this is the same in any face-to-face service industry) your feedback is immediate. The impact of what you do, and how well you do or don’t do your job is almost instantaneous.
The look of confusion, the disgust, when you give someone the opposite of what they actually want. The excitement when you serve up a pink lemonade, when all the little girl was expecting was a fresh lime soda. The premature sense of satisfaction when you’re approaching a table with a tray laden with cupcakes, brownies and cake. Yes, its all very visible. Palpable, almost. And because it is so, what happens behind the scenes is extremely important.
How well set-up were you before start of day?
How smartly did you handle the kitchen squabble of the day, without letting it frazzle you?
Did you multi task quick enough?
Did you remember to refill the ice on time, make the list of what’s running out and remember to tell people what is not available?
Did you remember to throw out the old cake in time, before someone saw it in the case and ordered it?
Did you smile politely, even though you had just spilled hot coffee all over your right foot?
How successful were you in standing your ground and not get the jitters when that incredibly cute man was very obviously flirting with you?
This is an industry that is as fun as it is is ruthless and uncaring. When guests walk in, they almost never care if you’re having a bad day or whatever else your excuse for not smiling might be. They’re hungry, want to get their money’s worth and sometimes that makes them impatient, angry, rude. And it is the kind of industry where, as the one serving them, you have to just suck it up and take it. Of course there are boundaries that cannot be crossed, but that boundary is usually miles away from whatever you are dealing with.
It is also a very thankless sort of business to be in. Unless you really love what you’re doing, and are willing to invest your time and effort unflinchingly, it will be long before you can really reap the benefits of it. Monetarily, or otherwise. No matter how well you’re dressed, how you carry yourself off or how much you chat your guests up, at the end of the day you are still serving them. And try as you may, there will always be that barrier. Which a lot of the time brings out a sense of condescension. And you guessed it, you’re not the one with the high hand.
I think, this is more so in India. Where we have a sense of entitlement when we are at the receiving end of a service. No matter who you are, the minute you step into a restaurant, you want to be served well. And often, just efficient, prompt service and good food doesn’t cut it. You want it fast, even faster than hands can dole it out, in a packed cafe. You want it to be at the temperature you think fit, even though the chef says otherwise. You want it to be white, not pink. You want it without frosting. Sometimes you want extra frosting, even though it’s sort of not allowed. But you think it should be. Because you’re paying for it, goddamit!
So yes, its taught me a lot. About time management. Processes and efficiency. Etiquette, hygiene and politeness and dealing with people. About how tolerance and patience are sometimes the biggest virtues. It has shown me how there is so much more than just good food that goes into delivering a lovely and memorable experience at a cafe. About how sometimes even your very best, is not enough. But above all it has opened my eyes to the flip side of service and dignity of labour, which is quite unlike it is in the corporate world I belonged to not so long ago.