How to become a smart diner? Smart Dining is a modern-day concept applied by food and beverage (F&B) outlets to optimize revenue generation without compromising customer satisfaction. It implements software-driven POS (point of sale) mechanisms to reduce the gap between order-taking and serving time, automation of communication between the restaurant and the kitchen, efficient use of workforce and curtails malpractices as much as possible. This is a great innovation to boost guest turnover significantly. But you need to read between the lines. Hence, I am going to talk about smart dining from your perspective.
All of us, at some points in time, have had that sinking feeling after spending a fortune in a fine dining restaurant, that we have been duped, whether we admit it or not. Some such instances could be due to making the wrong choices of items on the menu, but many could be that you were deceived without knowing how. So, be smart and remain one step ahead.
To become a smart diner, you need to have a preliminary idea about how a restaurant operates. I have been associated with the F&B business from the beginning of my career and am heading the F&B Controls division. The primary responsibility of my department is to enhance revenue and to plug revenue leakage, thus multiplying the profitability of my organisation. You can also say, I am addressing issues relating to misappropriations, corruption and negligence. Therefore, to be an efficient member of the counter-intelligence team, one has to be fluent with the nitty-gritty of “intelligence”. But today, I am not going to talk about F&B controls and bore you to death. The only reason I mentioned this is to help you get some idea of how the controls team add value to any F&B business. And in doing so, how we (the entire industry) in the business cheat you- our unsuspecting guests. However, to let me forgo my sins, I am here to share with you some classified information that can make you smarter than the smartass restaurants.
Ordering wisely is the first step towards becoming a smart diner. While selecting your dishes, keep balance, especially when you are ordering à la carte. Order such that you get a variation of the colour of the dishes; differing textures; non-repetition of the same main ingredient- for instance, if you order a chicken item for the main course, do not order another chicken dish for the main course. Order some veggies or lamb/mutton or pork or beef or seafood; pair rich food with light ones. Ask the waiter or the manager about the size of the portions. Don’t feel shy. When you are paying for it, you must get your value for money and you definitely do not want to waste food or leave with a half-empty stomach. If you feel the portion size does not justify the price, avoid it. Do not ever get emotionally attached to any brand or outlet even if you had been its loyal customer and never had had any reason to complain. As with any other business, restaurants are not running a charity and the least of their concerns is your budget.
Understand the Menu Card
It is absolutely essential to understand the menu card to become a smart diner. Read the menu carefully before placing your order. Even if the item names are unfamiliar to you, the descriptions help you understand the main flavouring agents, the main ingredients, allergens if any and often the country of origin. If any specific ingredient is foreign to you, do not hesitate to ask. Good waiters will be able to guide you and some may even help you order the right combinations. On the other hand, many restaurants use floral adjectives to describe an item, such as, “velvety”, “dreamy”, “low calorie”, “cooked to perfection”, etc. Some use confusing or misleading ethnic names for very common dishes. For instance, a restaurant in Delhi where I have dined many times and am quite fond of their food uses weird names like “Chiang Mai Train Station Noodles”. If you have not dined there, I am sure you don’t have any clue what this item is all about? It is nothing but simple Burmese Khao Suey. And the funniest part- Chiang Mai is a city in Thailand that has nothing to do with Burma. These are the wiles employed by restaurants to trick you to order a dish which, maybe, you do not want at all.
If you are ordering alcohol with your food, it is very important to familiarise yourself with various types of alcoholic beverages. Particularly complicated is ordering your wine. Click here to check one of my previous blogs on the same. A poor food and wine pairing can spoil your entire meal.
You can never be a smart diner and a true connoisseur unless you practise playing with your food. Be brave and adventurous and face with an open mind. Trust me, there is a lot more left unexplored than you think. Do not squirm by just looking at the menu. Ask the waiter or the chef or even better, try it. Sure, you will go wrong a few times; but, as the cliché goes, “you will never know unless you try”. Once you develop the taste for such foods which you were unaccustomed to, you climb a few steps up to become a smart eater. Of course, I am not talking about food and beverages that are by and large considered weird, gross and offending. You can check here if you want to know what I mean.
Understand food cost to become a smart diner
Getting to know the elementary process of how restaurants do their costing and pricing of food and beverages will help you a lot. The margins for low-cost items are always higher than high-cost items. The reason is, if the same food cost percentage (the percentage of the cost of ingredients of an item to the selling price of the item) is applied for high-cost items, the selling price would be so exorbitant that it would not be feasible. Value-for-money for you will always be more for expensive items than low-cost items (if the restaurant is operating with a minimum level of integrity). For example, a portion of Dal costs not more than Rs 30/- but is sold anywhere around Rs 250/- (plus taxes) in a decent restaurant which gives a food cost of only 12%. Whereas, a portion of Tandoori Prawns costs no less than Rs 270/-, but, is sold around Rs 700/- (plus taxes) giving a food cost of 39% which means the margin is much less. So, do you know now how the restaurants fleece you by selling items with low input cost? If still not clear, let me cite another example. The ingredients cost for making roti or naan is not more than Rs 8/- and you pay at least Rs 100/- (plus taxes) in any fine-dining restaurant, giving it a margin of 92%. Whereas, the cost for a portion of New Zealand lamb chops is not less than Rs 900/-, but you pay around Rs 2500/- (plus taxes) giving the restaurant a margin of only 64%. Refer to the pictures below. In a hypothetical situation, if all the guests start ordering New Zealand lamb chops, the restaurant would have to shut its doors. If you are interested to know more about the same, you can check this link.
Watchwords for smart dining
#1 Weekend diners are universally looked down upon with contempt by cooks and waiters alike, though they are good for business. They are viewed as out-of-towners, rubes, slack-jaws, well-done-eating, undertipping nouveau riche hordes who would never return. Weekday diners, on the other hand, are the revered ones, the loyalists and connoisseurs whom all concerned want to make happy. Rested and satisfied after a day off with a few bottles of beer, the chef is ready with his armoury and brigade to start the week on a happy note. A happy chef means happy customers. He is expecting his best quality products to come in at the beginning of the week and achieves an orgasmic high fantasizing about his unique creations to pamper you. On Fridays and Saturdays, he is more worried about turning over the tables and getting through the rush of the weekend. So, if you want to have a real good meal, go on a weekday.
#2 Shed your taboos unless they are on religious grounds. A very lame argument put forward by pork-haters is that pigs are dirty animals and eat all kinds of stuff including non-eatables. What they do is just deny themselves of the many delights of pork. Maybe, they should visit a chicken ranch. And, surprisingly, India’s and even America’s favourite meat is chicken. Commercially available chickens (I am not talking about the expensive corn-fed or free-range birds) are storehouses of salmonella. They are filthy. They eat their own faeces and are packed like Mumbai suburban trains. When handled in restaurant settings, they are most likely to cross-contaminate other foods. And chicken is boring. Chefs see it as a menu item for people who don’t know what they want to eat.
#3 Observe the restaurant. Is it busy on a weekday? Or is it slow although it has a big and varied menu? The key is rotation. You may be tempted to order your favourite, say a bouillabaisse. If you see bouillabaisse flying out of the kitchen every now and then, it sure is a good bet. If not, chances are you will eat fishes and shrimps which had been in the freezer for quite some time. Look at the waiter’s face and understand his body language; probably he knows it too. If you find a waiter insisting too much on a particular dish on the menu rather than giving you interesting suggestions, you can almost be certain he was advised by the kitchen team to sell a product which had not been moving for days. If there are special offers on the bar menu, take it with a pinch of salt. Be very suspicious if the restaurant is offering a heavy discount on a specific brand of beer or if they are offering “buy two and get one free”. Without any doubt, they want to exhaust their stock of beers which are very close to their expiry dates. Remember, in this business, there are no free lunches.
#4 Always be polite to the waiters and show respect. He could save your life with a raised eyebrow or a sigh. If he likes you, he may even stop you from ordering a piece of shit he knows is going to hurt you. If the chef ordered him, under pain of death, to move that salmon before it begins to reek, observe his body language. A happy waiter could not only be your life-saver, he would go that extra mile to ensure you carry with you a wonderful and memorable moment with your loved ones.
#5 Do not ever judge a restaurant by its décor or ambience. More important is, is the restaurant clean? Are the waiters and cooks well-groomed? Is there urgency and responsibility in their movements? If yes, do step in. The logic is simple. If a person is lazy and cannot take care of himself and his surroundings, how can he be expected to take care of his customers? Nothing puts me off more if I see waiters and managers occupying a front table, chatting or watching cricket or a football match on the telly. Plumber walking through the dining area with his tools? Bad sign!! Then, do you have to play Sherlock Holmes every time you plan to dine out? No, not at all. Practise, and it becomes a conditioned reflex.
“Your body is not a temple, it’s an amusement park“- Anthony Bourdain
Choosing the buffet does not make you a smart diner
Choose buffet if you must. I avoid a buffet like “the plague” unless it is an eatery that serves buffet exclusively. Even then, I have my reservations. Ask the chef to eat from the buffet he designed and watch how he shudders at the thought. Because he knows what has gone into the food. Any and every raw material which is unfit for use in the à la carte menu is dumped into the buffet spread. Stale processed onions, mushy tomatoes, dried up vegetables, meat trimmings from à la carte portions which otherwise should have been thrown into the waste bin or sold as scrap, weeks-old seafood, frost-burnt meat, expired groceries and anything worth disposing of. And you thought you had an enormous spread at such a price? Nothing could be farther from the truth. You can argue, you had a wonderful meal. But did you get your money’s worth?
Particularly ostentatious and scandalous are the festival buffets when many restaurants stop serving à la carte for the day altogether and sell only the buffet. The rates are usually exorbitant and you get conned without even realising. Festival buffets are ideal opportunities for restaurants to get rid of their garbage. Clearing excess inventory? Yes. Second-grade raw materials? Yes. Sloppy cooking? Yes (what do you expect when twenty-odd guests are waiting in queue outside the restaurant?). Pathetic service? Yes. Waiting endlessly for chafing dishes to be filled up? Yes. Don’t get fooled by the optics of a huge spread. You are definitely not such a glutton to try all the dishes. Most of the items are for those who do not understand food. And the managers and owners are happily counting their cash with a wry smile on their faces.
When I say buffet, I mean a separate buffet counter with food-containing chafing dishes that are being kept warm with steam from below or by an induction heater for hours on end. Can you imagine what it does to your food? The pasta becomes soggy; the meat loses its juices; the vegetables become overcooked and their texture goes for a toss; the prawns and other seafood get rubbery; the noodles break and become mushy; the curries dry up, and the bread? The less said, the better. ………… Need I say more? The only courses worth eating from a buffet are from the cold kitchen section- salads and desserts. But, just half an hour into the service, the desserts section looks war-ravaged.
Some good restaurants are coming to their senses though. They are guessing correctly that taking the guests for granted will cost them in the long run. Today’s food aficionados are much more educated. Easy exposure to online gastronomic knowledge and reviews cannot be ignored anymore. These restaurants are now shedding the idea of buffet and offering set menus or Table d’hôte menus which is a win-win situation for both the guests and the restaurants alike. No chafing dishes and no stale overcooked food. Freshly prepared dishes from the set menu are served as per the choices of the guests and service is usually pre-plated. The guest is happy as he is getting his money’s worth of an unlimited amount of what he wants without bothering about such paraphernalia which he would never touch. The restaurant is also happy since the chef can do near-perfect portion control thus reducing wastage significantly and helping the restaurant maximize revenue.
There are many more secrets that I cannot share on this platform. You sure understand I cannot be a traitor to my own profession. So, let me wind up before the industry charges me with treason or blasphemy.