Friday, February 26, 2016

Memo to the Whitby and others: If you're not going to listen - why ask?


Today I went over the road by myself for coffee and cake. I usually go to the very good but rather noisy Marsden Cafe. This time I fancied a bit of peace and quiet, so i went to the cake place opposite instead. And it was lovely and peaceful - when I went in I was the only one there (their real raison d'etre is making and selling cupcakes).
       I got my coffee and cake and sat down to read the paper. Then the pop music came on - loudly. After a few minutes a young woman who looked as if she was in charge came over to ask "How is everything?""Fine, thanks", I said - and then I added "But the music is a bit too loud."
      So she went back behind the counter and disappeared, and I waited for the music to be turned down. After all, I was still the only customer.
      Only it wasn't. So after a little while, when she was near the counter again, I called out, "Could you turn the music down a bit please?" She looked quite surprised, but she did turn it down.
      The thing is - why ask your customers what they think if you aren't going to bother to listen?

I had my worst experience of this back in December at the James Cook's Whitby restaurant.
       My sister, my brother-in-law and my niece were all coming down to Wellington for the day, the weekend before Christmas, to spend time with me and my son and go to Te Papa. They wanted to go out for a Christmas-themed lunch, and I decided I would shout them as my Christmas present.
       The only pre-Christmas lunch I could find was at the Whitby. I'd been there several times some years ago with Harvey, especially when he had out-of-town work colleagues staying. While it was a fairly standard buffet lunch or dinner, it was always nicely done, with a good range of fresh food and excellent joints of meat.
        Buffets are easy for a group, this Christmas lunch was affordable, and I knew the dining room had been moved upstairs, out of the slightly depressing basement. So I thought it would do nicely, and I booked for the five of us. The Whitby checked twice, by phone and email, to make sure we were coming.
        We weren't the only guests - the large room was about half full, with several large groups, and it had a great view. But the entree and main course buffet was remarkably disappointing. Most of the very conventional selection on offer looked dull and tired - more like an old-fashioned works canteen lunch than a hotel buffet.
       Still, I could see the promised turkey and a large hot ham, so I hoped they would make up for the rest.  I was wrong.
       When I went up, no one was carving. In front of each was a plate covered not with decent-sized slices, but with a meagre spread of small, chewed-looking morsels.
        Then the carver came out, and I realised what was happening. Instead of a carving knife and fork, he used an Asian-style cleaver to hack off more little morsels. My son, who has lived in China for over a decade, told me that was how the Chinese liked it.
         Obviously no one in charge had bothered to notice what was happening to their much-vaunted turkey and ham, let alone put it right.
         The dessert buffet was a bit better than the rest, and my family was much too kind and polite to complain. But I felt mortified that their nice Christmas treat had turned out to be such a disappointment. And I did complain at the end, discreetly, to the man taking my money at the cash register.
          A day later, I received an email from the Whitby:
Hello Anne Else,
Thank you for eating with us in Whitby's Restaurant & Bar on Saturday, 19 December 2015.
We really would like to get your feedback on your meal – if you have any comments you would like to make, please email us at or call us on +64 4 499 9500.
Figuring it would be better to say what I thought in writing, I promptly replied:
Thank you for asking me for my feedback on the Christmas buffet lunch I had with my family on Saturday 19 December. My family had come down from Auckland especially to have pre-Christmas lunch with me. Remembering the high standard I had previously enjoyed at Whitby's buffet lunch, I booked for the five of us.
     What a disappointment. The entree and main course dishes on the socalled Christmas buffet were distinctly lacklustre. The overall impression was more like a cafeteria than a hotel buffet. I got the impression that the restaurant was simply not very concerned about what was served or how it was presented.
      Worst of all was the way the ham and turkey were served. I was very surprised to see that there were only little scraps of ham and turkey available, rather than slices.  I realised why when I later saw a chef with a cleaver, rather than a carving knife, hacking off scraps of both and piling them haphazardly on the serving plates.
       He clearly had no idea how to serve properly carved slices of ham and turkey breast. Even worse was the fact that no one working in the restaurant had noticed how badly the meat was being handled, let alone done anything about this.
       It was embarrassing to have brought my family to the Whitby, and I will not be returning.
And guess what? I have heard absolutely nothing from the Whitby since.
If you're not going to listen - why ask?
PS: Some time after this blog post appeared, I had a phone call from the bar manager at the Whitby. She apologised for the lack of any reply to my original emails, but she did also mention the blog post, so I'm guessing that their response was prompted by their media scan finding it. She offered me a free buffet lunch for two. Eventually I managed to find a time when my son and I could go in the weekend.
         From the time we arrived, we did receive excellent service. We were also offered what turned out to be not just one glass of house wine each, as I had understood earlier, but an unlimited number of glasses (though of course we drank only a perfectly sensible amount - and fortunately we had come on the bus).
         As for the food, I have to say it was of the same relatively low standard as on the first visit, only this time, of course, there was no Christmas ham or turkey or pudding. There were plenty of other people there, especially families, for whom the prospect of unlimited quantities of food for a reasonable set price was obviously appealing - perfectly understandable when they had hungry teenagers to feed. It did occur to me, though, that it must be fairly dispiriting for the cooks to be preparing the same buffet spread, with only a few minor variations such as different soups, day after day. We did our best to put together a passable lunch, but the best thing was the cheese.  And we certainly enjoyed the service.