High standards

December 30, 2008

Anthony Bourdain explained what it takes to be a great chef, “You adopt high standards early in your career, and you never relinquish them. Ever.”

In our careers we tend to replace the youthful enthusiasm and eagerness at the beginning, with a routine apathy with the passing of years, tempered by jadedness and cynicism. I used to wake up every day itching to go to work, because it was so interesting, so much to learn.  Nowadays, it takes some effort to motivate myself just to wake up, but for reasons due more to advancing age than a lack of interest. Work is still very interesting, and at this stage in my career, where I don’t do as much engineering nor sales, but more management & strategy, and if I see myself as a valuable part of the company, I’d motivate myself in more innovative ways, think up of improvements of systems & resources, strengthening existing infrastructure.

And if it only takes some small amount of intelligence or logic, and large amounts of attitude, determination and character, then it applies to any discipline and any task, any situation.

Including the restaurant business.

Normally I’m a quicker judge than what I went through last week in a chinese restaurant in an upscale neighbourhood in KL (blocked out the name of the restaurant from my memory).

It was a modern and chic inspired by a new wave of Taiwanese/Hong Kong eateries, and the menu looked appealing enough. It was 9pm and my mother & I thought it was late and we’d give it a try.

In point form; 

*There were only one other table of guests. *The hostess took our order enthusiastically, but never came to attend to us again. *The owner and a man in chef’s uniform sat in a booth not far from us to watch a football game. *The order was overly slow to arrive.*My noodles were soggy and overcooked. Had 2 bites and push the bowl aside, and didn’t touch it the rest of the evening.  The hostess/owner/chef all noticed it, but never came up to ask about it.

I asked for the bill, and summoned the owner, who was perhaps a young 20-something. He was cordial and seemed genuinely interested in my comments.  Although what I had to say was piercing, I had only his (restaurant’s) welfare in mind, that I wanted a neighbourhood store, a mom & pop, a family business to thrive – I explained that.  I reasoned that it was better to hear harsh criticism and adjust quickly, than staying oblivious and not survive.  Beyond an attractive face which entices a stray customer, how do you want to keep them coming again?  What was the point of setting up a restaurant? What does customer service mean? Where are the high standards in the quality of the food?

It is said that 90% of all businesses fail in the first year, which is to say 90% lacks the right combination of passion, experience, management & organizational skills, social skills, network, foresight, discipline, people motivation, planning, money, and luck. Which is to also say that 90% of these people are delusional. There was also an old malay couple who poured all of their life savings into a cafe which they tried to position as upscale, which was anything but, situated at the ground floor of a condominium situated at a cul-de-sac which only the residents and regulars would go. The food however, was genuinely great roadside fare (never had a better nasi goreng ikan masin anywhere else), but would-be-clients were detered by the 50% premium on the cost of a meal. As the losses pile up, they would tinker with the menu, sell clothes on the side (literally on a rack), and as the ship went down in flames, the old uncle would ask,”the food is great, everyone says so, I don’t understand why nobody comes to eat here.”

In this critique, I do not offer solutions, because the problems are unique and require unique answers.  In the case of the old malay couple, with whom I had great empathy, I would have thought that  understanding your clients’ needs (in that location) would have served them better, rather than setting up a cafe just because “everbody” said auntie your food tastes great you should set up a restaurant. 

Then building upon that understanding, they’d plan carefully with a proper cashflow projections and business strategy, and stick to it.  Minor adjustments are common, but if you’d make huge overhauls a few times it would mean that you did not think things through the very beginning.  If it doesn’t make money in the first 6 months, shut it down. 

The old couple were in the red every month for 2 1/2 years.

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