Indian restaurants and service charge

More and more Indian restaurants charge a “service charge” on their bills these days. It’s usually somewhere in the 5-10% range, unless you’re in Delhi, where 10% is almost standard. Being in the F&B business and having run a restaurant of my own, I thought I’d write this post to clear up some common questions about it. I get asked these often enough that having a post to clarify is worthwhile.

Is service charge mandatory as per any government regulations?
No, not at all. It is completely at the restaurant’s discretion. Not all restaurants charge it.

Do I have to pay the service charge? 
If the service charge is disclosed in the menu, you have agreed to pay it by virtue of placing an order. That’s a legal contract.

Why is there a service charge at all? I don’t understand the point of it.
Because the industry works on a principle of low salaries and extra money through tips. Indians are notoriously lousy tippers (yes, I know, not all of you.) The service charge gives a more reliable income source for wait staff while aligning their incentives to restaurant sales (given that the charge is a percentage of sales).

In an ideal world, wait staff would be paid a more reasonable wage and there would be no need for the service charge. Unfortunately, that has the effect of upsetting the profit equation in the business by increasing the percentage of sales that goes towards salaries. For instance, 15% of turnover is considered about average for salaries. If that became 30%, restaurants would need to increase base prices of dishes, which would have pretty much the same effect as that service charge levy anyway, except that some customers would think the food is more expensive and not visit, which would actually make things worse.

But I got lousy service, man! WTF?
None of this excuses bad service, of course. If you get bad service at a restaurant and get a service charge on the bill, you have options:

1) Talk to the manager, register your complaint, tell him/her you won’t come back because of the crappy service. Possibly bitch about it on a food forum or on social media. Any half-competent manager will realise the bad PR potential and waive it.

2) Do not return to the restaurant. This isn’t too far-fetched; you would probably not go back to a restaurant with crappy service even if they didn’t levy a service charge, right?

OK, tell me the truth. Does this money actually go to the service staff at all?
That depends on the restaurant. Most will pay out a large percentage of the service charge to wait staff, somewhere around 60-80%, usually setting some money aside for breakages etc. Sometimes, the kitchen staff too get a portion of it.

Do I have to leave a tip if there’s a service charge on the bill?
Don’t leave a tip if there’s a service charge on the bill unless you think the service has been that outstanding.

Hope this clarifies things from a restaurateur perspective.

Posted in Uncategorized | 8 Comments

My Ford India road trip to Hyderabad

Greetings, citizens.

This blog post is to tell you about a road trip I’m undertaking from 10-15 August, 2012, sponsored by Ford India. Since I’ll probably be posting more than a few tweets about it, I thought it would be a good idea to write a post to give a few more details and to lay down my ethical disclosures.

So a social media agency that works with Ford India, WATConsult, approached me a month ago and said I was a “top influencer online on food” (if you ignore my numerous wisecracks, of course) and that Ford India had created a campaign to send influencers on many topics on a 5-day road trip in a Ford Classic Titanium car with one tank of fuel to “pursue their passion” along with a film-maker who would shoot this trip and post a video of it after we were done. Of course, being the skeptical kind, my inner voice immediately asked “What’s the catch, yo?” Fortunately, there was no “you have to post tweets about the car” type requirement in the terms and conditions, or I would have refused straight away.

The location I chose to explore was Hyderabad, and Aditya Sawant (the film-maker) and I are team “Highway Belly” who will drive to Hyderabad via Kurnool to explore the food scene during Ramzan time, and try to check out as many interesting places to eat as we can. Along the way, we’ll shoot videos and take pictures and post them. I’ll also try to organise a Hyderabad food tweetup so we can have some fun. I’ll be tweeting about it using the hashtags #1tankfull and #highwaybelly so you can either track or filter those tweets out. :D )

If you have any suggestions on what to eat and where to go, please do post them as comments here, or tweet them to me @madmanweb or mail to mail@madhumenon.com

Right, so now that the information part is done, here come the ethical disclosures:

1) This road trip is sponsored by Ford India, who have paid for our hotel bookings along the way and given us a meagre daily allowance of Rs. 1000 per day for F&B, with Rs. 7500 incidentals and emergency money. That’s all the money I’m getting, so I’m not getting rich on this. There might be a couple of t-shirts thrown in too, but I think that’s it.

2) Ford is also providing me with an iPad to chronicle the trip, which I will get to keep at the end of the trip, so yes, that’s effectively a freebie.

3) I will not be posting any tweets endorsing the Ford Classic car in which we are travelling unless I actually believe what I’m writing. Believe me, I get approached a fair bit by clueless social media agencies to attend events for various brands asking me to tweet about it in return for “lots of exposure” and “meeting celebrities”. I just refuse all of them. My integrity is the most important thing to me and takes years to build, and it’s not up for sale. I have refused to do restaurant reviews for publications where I knew the owner, for instance. If people start doubting whether my writing is paid for, my opinion’s value drops to nothing.

4) I will not spam your Twitter timeline with tweets about the trip. Like you, I too hate it when somebody takes over my timeline, so expect only about 5-6 tweets per day on average. I’ll ask suggestions from people on where to eat and where to go, but you won’t see any “OMG DIS IS OSSUM BRO!” tweets.

And lastly, here is a teaser video that Adi has made for our trip:

Posted in Uncategorized | 12 Comments

Air India to launch new branding and ad campaign – “mother’s love” new positioning

(Special to MadMan’s Web)

India’s national airline, Air India, which has long been criticized for its aging fleet and even older flight attendants, has finally got the message. In a press conference yesterday at New Delhi, Air India Chairman Rohit Nandan announced a completely new branding campaign and a radical new positioning for the airline to set it apart from the competition.

“The new campaign will be centred around the concept of “Maa Ka Pyaar” and will position the elderly flight crew as care-givers who treat passengers with motherly love, unlike the new breed of airlines who have only brash crews of inexperienced youngsters.”, explained Nanda. “When you are thousands of feet in the sky, anxious to get through with your flight, wouldn’t you rather have someone like your mother to look after your needs?”, he continued.

The new campaign aims to turn one of Air India’s perceived weaknesses and turn it into a notable strength. For this, Air India has roped in well-known award-winning advertising agency Olives and Marshmallows (O&M) and laid out a budget of Rs. 100 crore for a nationwide rebranding campaign. O&M’s National Creative Director, Arnab Kushti, also present at the conference, was visibly excited when he explained the long-term branding strategy. “India has long had ‘Maa‘ – the mother – as a caring symbol of the Indian family. Your mother looks after you unconditionally, and takes care of your needs. Air India’s flight attendants too deliver this same level of love and affection, and we are going to make sure the rest of the world knows about it.”, he explained.

To synergise operating procedures with their new ad campaign, Air India will make changes in the roles of their flight crew. Flight attendants will be trained to treat passengers just like their children, tucking them into bed on long flights and putting crying babies to sleep. In First Class and Business Class, they will bring you seconds for dinner just like mum, and will also sing lullabies on request. What if customers object to this level of pampering? Nanda retorted, “Would you dare shout or get angry at your own mother? Then?”

Details of the campaign, which will cover not only print and TV, but also online channels and social media, are still being worked out, but unconfirmed sources have reported that actress Reema Lagoo, Bollywood’s go-to person for motherly roles, is being courted for Air India’s TV campaign while actress Rakhi Sawant is being considered for the role of a rude flight attendant of a rival airline.

 

(Satire, not real news)

Posted in Humour | 11 Comments

Airtel announces new Gold and Platinum support plans for customers

(Special to MadMan’s Web)

Bharti Airtel Ltd., which had already declared its vision as “By 2015 airtel will be the most loved brand, enriching the lives of millions”, today announced an accelerated plan to fulfill that vision in 2013 by launching two new levels of technical support plans for its customers.

Launching the new Gold and Platinum support plans at a press conference today, Sunil Mittal, Chairman, said it was based on extensive analysis of customer feedback over the last year, and aimed at fixing many of the existing complaints.

Customers who opt for the new Gold Plan at an extra Rs. 99 per month (+taxes), can avail of features like:

1) Chances of speaking to a real human within 2 minutes increased from 7% to 50% – Mittal said that Gold customers will face shorter hold times. The previous average time on hold of 10 minutes will be reduced by over 50% and there will now be a 50% chance of speaking to a human in 2 minutes.

2) Exuberant female voice on IVR to be replaced by a normal-sounding person – Mittal discussed the findings of their research showing that customers couldn’t readily identify with a female voice that sounded like a 10 year-old getting a new puppy as a birthday gift when announcing words like “Welcome to Airtel!” The new Gold plan will use a more normal sounding 28 year-old woman instead.

3) Access to special Twitter account and web site status page – A major demand from customers was a status update page on both the Airtel twitter account  that informs customers about problems and outages when they actually happen, instead of the earlier operating procedure where customers would be told things “We experienced an outage two days ago for three hours, and it’s fixed now” on Twitter. The new Twitter account, accessible only to Gold and Platinum customers, will provide real-time status updates to help them plan their work day better around service outages.

The new high-priority Platinum Plan, at an extra Rs. 299 per month (+taxes), has all the features of the Gold Plan, plus even more features for Airtel’s most demanding customers. Some of these are:

1) Chances of speaking to a real human being within 2 minutes increased from 7% to 70% - A 10x fold jump in responsiveness, this plan is designed for those customers who absolutely, positively, need to speak to a tech support representative on the phone and are not content with longer wait times.

2) Airtel jingle on loop replaced - Responding to increased incidents of customer phones being damaged by being flung against the wall, Bharti Airtel commissioned independent research into the matter and found out it was caused by irate customers who were listening to the Airtel jingle on loop while being put on hold. Airtel has swiftly taken action. Mittal said, “We will replace the Airtel jingle with bhajans, prayers from the Quran, or Christian psalms instead, keeping in mind the spiritual side of India.” Mittal was confident this would reduce complaints, “…because you can’t swear at God.”

3) Upgraded Twitter responses – Platinum customers, being the cream of the crop, will no longer get replies from the current Twitter and Facebook bot that responds to all complaints with “Would request you to please mail us at airtelpresence@in.airtel.com” “Instead, a responsive team of real people from Airtel and not an outsourced PR company will now handle their problems and escalate them to the right channels”, said a smiling Mittal, as the crowd burst into spontaneous applause, and geeks attending the conference immediately started tweeting about this.

Mittal concluded by saying that he realized that not everyone would be the right target for these value-added plans that required customers to pay an extra monthly fee. So, in true Steve Jobs style, he saved a final interesting bit.

Mittal announced the launch of the new ”Fuck this, I just want to speak to a human being” option for telephone support. At an extra cost of Rs. 29 per incident, all customers can now press 9 to bypass the numerous options and be connected to a live human being who would be able to help them. The reduced time on hold once connected, however, would only be available to Gold and Platinum customers.

“We have something new for all our customers, depending on their needs and priorities”, said Mittal. “This is what makes us the telecom giant that we are, and in the coming years we will continue to pursue this vision, delivering value to both our customers and shareholders.”

 

(For the humour-impaired, this post is satire, not news. If you’re a Bharti Airtel lawyer, and hence humour-impaired by definition, satire is protected against defamation claims in court.)

Posted in Humour | 31 Comments

Of new restaurants and restaurant critics

Vikram Doctor points me to an interesting couple of blogs posts, one from a restaurant chef, and the other from a restaurant reviewer.

The first post is by Alex Sanchez, a young chef from the US who’s now cooking at this new restaurant in Colaba. He complains about how restauarant reviewers in India don’t give the place a chance to settle down before reviewing. Mangal Dalal responds in Mumbai Boss making the point that restaurant culture is different here and you better get ready to hit the ground running.

Having been a restaurateur, I agree with points on both sides.

Sanchez is right; no matter how well-trained the staff, how organised the kitchen, handling a full house of customers in a new restaurant is stressful, and it is impossible to get into the flow of things for at least a month. This is why I generally don’t visit new restaurants until a month has passed since opening.

Let me share a personal experience: when I moved Shiok to a new location, my original plan was to open with not only a new look, but also a new menu. As delays hit the setup process, I also figured that things would be slow enough with a new restaurant, and there was no need to aggravate it by changing the menu as well. Despite this, things took the usual 2-3 weeks to run smoothly, and this is for a restaurant with largely the same service staff and entirely the same kitchen staff.

That said, as a paying customer, I firmly agree that if a restaurant is taking a customer’s money, they are entitled to a proper dining experience, especially in a high-end place. When Gautam and I visited Edo, the expensive Japanese restaurant in ITC Gardenia in B’lore, we had an excellent experience, despite the restaurant having been formally open only for a week or so.

My recommended way around this for restauranteurs is to not start with a big bang on day one. Restrict news about the opening to only a few connected people, and let a couple of weeks go by with low-traffic before embarking on a publicity blitz. It gives the staff time to get used to the workflow and settle down. This may not sit well with investors, but it’s the best way.

As for the other question of restaurant reviewers, I agree whole-heartedly that most don’t know their mouths from their asses. If it’s college kids writing most reviews (as Mumbai Boss points out), then they possibly don’t know enough about either restaurant reviewing or food. Every restaurant, even the best of them, can have a bad day, and it’s not fair to assess a restaurant till you’ve dined there a few times. You say you don’t have the resources to do that? Well, don’t do restaurant reviews then. You say there are too many new restaurants? Well, don’t review every last one of them. And if a critic is knowledgeable enough, he/she can surely make a judgement call on whether a screw-up is due to general incompetence of the staff or just them having a bad day. The incompetent ones need not be visited again.

Let’s face it, the whole “restaurant review” business in this country is fucked up. The “reviews” for most major newspapers are arranged by PR people, and the critic will happily turn up after informing you in advance. You will make small talk with them, make sure your best waiter is at their service, and the head chef himself handles the food for their table. If you’re a Page 3 person who has been added to the restaurant management for your celebrity value, you will schmooze with them too – so, essentially, nothing like a typical guest’s experience. They will then partake of your free food and booze, and hopefully give you a stunning review. They may even write wonderful things about food they never tasted (a newspaper critic wrote about my fragrant Beef Rendang despite not trying it, and only reading its description in my menu.)

Restaurant “awards” from major publications too are usually a matter of who has more publicity clout or is a major advertiser, and I have often gone, “you can’t be fucking serious!” after seeing a particular restaurant win a category award.

Unfortunately, the average Joe is heavily swayed by such reviews and believes them to be authoritative. And that is the real tragedy of it.

(A post about the uselessness of “user/community reviews” web sites will have to wait for another day. That much vitriol in one blog post may be too much to handle.)

Posted in Food & Cooking, Society & culture, Writing & media criticism | 11 Comments