10 May 2012


Living in a place to which one is not instinctively accustomed can lead to frustrations. One of my biggest frustrations with life in Singapore is the unbelievable customer service.

When Paul and I first moved here, we had a lot of trial and error endeavors. We needed outlet adapters and electronic cords; we needed clothes and kitchen items. At times, we bought the wrong thing. In America, most places will accept returns with no hassles other than the outrageous customer service area lines. In Singapore, people looked at us like we were crazy when we approached the representative at the register asking for a refund.

We found one electronics store that would honor our returns when our items were in their original cases and were accompanied by a receipt, but most stores would not accept returns.

Restaurants are the prime example of truly appalling customer service. If one finds an example of good or exceptional customer service, everyone on the island needs to know because that place becomes a keeper. One example of fantastic service is our favorite family-run Italian restaurant.

When I call the restaurant’s phone number, someone actually answers. If for some reason, someone is able to answer the phone, I am able to leave a message and someone returns my call the same day. The fact that someone answers is a rarity but the option to leave a message is even more surprising since almost no one in Singapore has any type of answering service.

A man greets us from the time our cab doors open, outside the restaurant and either offers to take us to our table or offers us a drink while we wait. The wait staff actually knows all of the items on the menu and all of the ways the items are prepared – no questions asked. They have the enormous list of the daily specials in their heads and, again, are able to answer any questions without leaving the table to return in no less than five minutes.

They fill the drink glasses without asking, they provide free bread and they check on the customers throughout the meal to ensure that the evening is going as planned. This is how a restaurant is supposed to be run.

More often than not, however, restaurants here do just the opposite. No one answers the phone when it rings and no answering message is available either. No one greets customers as they enter. If customers have a question about anything, the wait staff leaves the table in the middle of the conversation, even if that person is in the middle of taking orders.

Waters are usually not provided as a courtesy; they are never filled either. Waiters do not check on customers; they show up three times only after they are flagged – once to take an order, once to provide the bill (most of the time the waiters do not bring the food) and once to close the bill, returning either cards or change.

Paul and I experienced a classic example last weekend when we visited one of the biggest expat neighborhoods, Holland Village. We had not been to the area since our first week in Singapore so it was great to see how the area had changed within the year.

The idea I presented was to try one of two Mexican restaurants on the strip since Saturday was Cinco de Mayo. Getting to Holland Village was an adventure – it was just one of those days when public transportation was not our forte.

When we arrived it was after 7 so the streets and the food venues were pretty packed. The main street was blocked with barricades so that the people could freely walk in the streets. The food courts and restaurants emitted sounds of laughter and conversation as well as smells of fried food and spices.

The neighborhood was lit with lights from the venues and from the spectacular Super Moon that looked down on the street party.

We hiked up the hill, taking in the sights and smells, and found our way to El Patio. I was excited for the Mexican food and the anticipated margarita but my mood was quickly altered. My plan to arrive before the dinner crowd backfired so I anticipated a wait. When we arrived, we stood for a minute or two before a girl noticed us.

I pointed “two” and she just looked at me and said, “We have no tables. We are full.”

I think my jaw dropped. I looked at her, eyes wide and asked, “How long for two people?” She gave me a look that indicated she just made up a number, replied, “15 or 20 minutes,” and then babbled something about a couple to her left and not knowing how long.

Paul walked away and I soon followed. Lorong Mambong Road is lined with open-air restaurants climbing a curvy hill. The street is one block behind a major roadway so it truly became a street party out of traffic’s way. The people ruled the streets – and by “people” I mean kids on scooters and kids running around and climbing on things while their parents were drinking at a table down the street.

We decided to sit on a big open porch and order some food at some unknown place. Our waiter brought us our requested waters with lemon – a bonus because I have only twice received the lemon I requested – and took our order.

I stated that we wanted to start with an order of the fried calamari and then I wanted a burger. I asked if the burger had sauce because places here almost always put some sort of schmere on sandwiches. The waiter told me that there was barbeque sauce on the burger. Intrigued, I repeated, “Barbeque sauce?” And he confirmed. I said O.K. and advised that I wanted the burger medium well when asked. Paul ordered a fish dinner with a side of fries.

In a minute, the waiter came back to the table. He told me that there was no such thing as medium well. I started at him dumbfounded. I said, “Actually, there is,” and then Paul and I deliberated. Fearing the medium would be too underdone, I took a risk and ordered a well-done burger, hoping it would not be dry and crusty.

The waiter left. And then he came back. “Just to let you know, well done means the burger will be pink in the center.”

“Um, it shouldn’t,” were my exact words. Paul shooed him off so he left again.

Then he came back. Before he could even take a breath to start whatever he had to say, I seriously considered telling him that I did not care and asking him to walk away but I did not. Instead, I let him tell me about my burger. Again.

This time I was told that the burger did not have any barbeque sauce. Fine. He confirmed again that there was no sauce. Great. Leave.

I think after that he was scared to come back to our table. We had the hardest time trying to find him.

A woman came to our table and announced a plate of fries. Confused, I looked at her and said, “We ordered fried calamari.” Paul accepted the fries since he knew he ordered them with his meal and we began to snack.

When the fries were finished, the calamari arrived and, later, so did Paul’s fish with roasted potatoes. My brain questioned why there were potatoes on the plate when he ordered fries with his meal but I did not say anything. After another couple of minutes, my burger arrived boasting a couple tablespoons of mayonnaise.

We got another waiter to bring a fresh bun with fresh greens so that I could eat my burger sans sauce as intended. It wasn’t bad but the service we received was enough to make me only want to come back for a beer if I was seated at the bar. Paul went to the bar twice to get water because no one came around to fill our empty glasses. At one point, Paul returned from the bar and then, seconds later, the waiter rushed over to fill his already full glass because he had seen Paul’s sly move.

All of this does not compare, however, to the utterly unacceptable service that my friend, Van, received last night.

It's hard to believe that anyone can consider our nation's capital one of the more racist areas in the U.S., but my friend, Van, is constantly amazed at the amount of abuse he receives. You may remember Van, the master and creator of the Bourbon Trail. He is a married man in his 30s. He graduated from two Virginia Universities and currently works in the technology industry. He is confident, the life of the party wherever he goes and, as he puts it, “stunningly handsome,” and yesterday, at a restaurant on Pennsylvania Ave., he was yet again reminded that some people never learn.

When he received his bill, he noticed the Check ID read, "Van Rai Chino." Van, who has neither a Rai nor a Chino in his name, is of Asian descent, was, of course, offended by this identifier. 

When he asked the bartender why the bill was marked in such a way, he was simply advised that there were a lot of people in the establishment so the bartenders need to have a way of identifying their customers. He wondered how many other people in the restaurant also had code names and he requested to speak with a manager. The bartender called to another man behind the bar. When Van asked if this guy was the manager, the man simply replied, "I can be."

No one at the restaurant saw anything wrong with the way they name checks and no one apologized for offending Van. My friend was offered a voucher for the amount on his bill yesterday but he has no intent to return. It's quite a statement for Aria Pizzeria & Bar to condone these actions just minutes from the White House. But, most of all, it’s amazing to me how racism is still an issue today, when I feel like people should have learned the lessons from decades past. 

No comments: