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Food Critic: Help me, I’m your customer

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Jan. 22, 2012, 8:06 p.m. | Food & Nightclubs — by Brian Bonner

Brian Bonner

Brian Bonner has served as the chief editor of the Kyiv Post since 2008. He also held the job in 1999, three years after first arriving in Ukraine to teach journalism. Bonner is a veteran American journalist who spent most of his professional life with the St. Paul Pioneer Press in Minnesota, where he covered international, national and local news during a nearly 24-year career in which he was a staff writer and an assigning editor. For American newspapers, he has reported from abroad in Russia, Ukraine, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Laos. Bonner left the St. Paul newspaper in 2007 to become the associate director of international communications at the Campaign For Tobacco-Free Kids in Washington, D.C. He also worked as a member of the core teams with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe during six election observation missions in Ukraine, Belarus, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan. To contact: email bribonner@gmail.com, Facebook at www.facebook.com/brianbonner, Twitter @BSBonner, Skype at brian.bonner1959.

As a single person who isn’t good at cooking and who has an empty refrigerator on most days, I am frequently at restaurants or cafes and sometimes at groceries around Kyiv.

While the city’s offerings have improved greatly since the first time I was in Kyiv 16 years ago, service is still stuck in the slow lane in too many places.

Basic principles that are ingrained in the business culture of my American homeland and many other nations still haven’t taken root here, for whatever reason. It’s true that I may have raised my voice at a waiter/waitress a time or two (hundred times) for bad service, but really I’m an easy client – a guaranteed 10 percent or more tipper, if treated right. But I am not always. Here’s what I’m seeing that’s too often wrong:

Greet me when I come in: Too busy? Smile and wave. Give me some acknowledgement that you know I’m here. What, you say, you’re not a waiter or waitress, but have some other job in the place? Tell a waitress that a customer has arrived. No matter how crowded, I give a place two minutes maximum to at least acknowledge my presence before I walk out; it should take only two seconds. If you’re not noticed right away, this is a place that doesn’t want your business.

Ask me if I want to order something right away: I’m here because I’m hungry or thirsty or both and, chances are, it’s not my first time here so I might already know what I want. Ask please.

Menu for everyone and leave it, please: I have never understood where this menu-deficit mentality came from. Is it a Soviet holdover? One menu is not enough for two diners – one for each person at the table, please. And don’t be so quick to snatch it away from me; ask me first. Let me get to know it, caress it, memorize it. Maybe I’ll want something else or dessert later on, or maybe I just want to know the offerings better for a future visit. You’ll make more money! If I wanted to take it home with me, what does it matter to you? Granted, owners may be behind this stinginess and, if so, it’s a very short-sighted strategy.

Give me some advice: Be ready to recommend something. C’mon, you work here, eat here and probably know the kitchen chefs. I appreciate it when a waitress says: “This dish is really good today.” Or: “This is what I order when I eat here.”

Don’t serve this slop: The one thing I miss about American restaurants is the customary practice of the waitress coming back to a table she served a few minutes earlier and asking: “Is everything all right with your food?” This has never happened to me here – after hundreds and possibly thousands of restaurant meals. And when something is wrong, rarely are there apologies. If I’ve ordered something and not eaten it, ask what’s wrong, don’t just take it away and give me the check. Yes, in America I would send it back or complain right away. Here, I’ve done it as a foreigner, but I’m a lot less likely to go through the hassle.


Loitering and laughing: Some things stick with you for life. When my co-workers and I would stand around talking and having fun at my first job in a restaurant at age 16, the boss would say: “Break it up, if lightning strikes, you’ll all be hit.” A very lame joke, but it’s annoying when a gaggle of wait staff have nothing better to do than stand around talking and laughing. O.K., you enjoy each other’s company, but do it after work. I need another drink or the check please. Pay attention!

Disappearing act I: O.K., you’ve taken the order and 20 or 30 minutes have passed and … no food, no explanation. You should warn customers ahead of time if the wait will be long. This is inexcusable.

Disappearing act II: O.K., done with the meal. Where are you? Why must I hunt you down to get the check? Why does it take so long to bring it here?

Disappearing act III:O.K., here’s my money, bring back the change. Where did you go? What is taking you so long? I once waited 15 minutes for a waiter to bring the change before I decided to track him down.Turns out, he had decided to go to the kitchen, chat with his colleagues … and bring out other orders first before settling my bill. I told him I was on my lunch break and in a hurry to get back to work. His indignant and snotty reply: “Hey, I’m working too.” No apology, no contrition, nothing – and no tip either.

Don’t argue with me: My Russian is a tragicomedy, especially when I’m angry, so I often don’t take my complaints to the manager or boss or owner, which is common practice in America if subordinates give you trouble. But the waiter in the “Don’t Disappear III” story above cost his boss my business and doesn’t even know it. I’ve never been back there, nor will I go back for a long time, even though it’s a trendy place close to home. He’s probably adopted this attitude with other customers. “The customer is always right” doesn’t translate well here yet, sadly.

Bathrooms and cleanliness: There is a connection. If I’m in your restrooms and they’re dirty and there’s no soap and no hand towels, I’m already wondering about the sanitary practices of your cooks and wait staff.

Making change: This applies to many types of businesses. But it seems to me if you are in business that involves cash transactions, you should start the day well-supplied with small bills and change. I once made a small purchase – a couple of Hr 4 pirozhkis for breakfast – with Hr 200 note. The place had no change. It took 15 minutes for enough customers to give them the money they needed to make change for my purchase. Never, never again.

Don’t ask for kopecks: The simplest money transactions take the longest time here for some strange reason. Please don’t ask me for kopecks – I never keep them and I never take them for change. I know it doesn’t seem frugal as a penny saved is a penny earned. But let’s face it. You can’t buy much with kopecks anyway – even with a pocketful.

Moral of the story: O.K., I know I should be less Type A American – many of us are too easily irritated and complain about the littlest things in life. Nobody died here. I should be more Type B Ukrainian when I go out. It’s still a treat, after all, to be waited on and have someone else cook for you and wash the dishes.

A few close Ukrainian friends who I dine with frequently and who know my antics have taken to warning me ahead of meals: “Now, don’t yell at this waitress, no matter what she does.” And much of the blame for bad service belongs to the owner for tolerating it. Frequently, the best restaurants in America are the ones where the owner is always there, making sure everything is working properly.

I also know waitresses and they work hard for little money – making as little as $300 a month, with tips, for four 12-hour shifts a week. It would make me tired and grouchy as well, but they shouldn’t take it out on their customers.

Most of this advice amounts to simply good business practices and common sense. I really don’t think I’m asking for too much here.

Kyiv Post chief editor Brian Bonner can be reached at bonner@kyivpost.com

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