On a business trip to Asia a few years ago, I had one of my more memorable and, dare I say, enlightening customer relations experiences. I had successfully finished up my work with the Hong Kong Football Club a day early—I was fortunate enough to have been chosen to serve as facilitator for the development of that wonderful private club’s strategic plan, a plan, I might add, that turned out quite well—and decided to spend my last twenty-four hours exploring parts of the city that I had not yet seen.
A few minutes before noon, I wandered quite innocently—and by pure chance—through the inviting open front door of a locally owned restaurant in Wan Chi with the mundane intention of having some lunch. (My stomach, as I recall, had never quite adjusted to the local time, and I was ravenous.)
The restaurant featured a dark wood motif. Its décor, rife with Chinese lanterns, also featured pictures of the owner’s immediate and extended family (presumably), all of which were prominently displayed on the walls. The combined result? A welcoming first impression and comfortable ambiance. A sparkling rectangular aquarium sat behind the main bar—a nice touch, I thought. The restaurant had both tables and black leatherette booths for seating. The aroma of ginger and sesame oil emanating from the woks in the back kitchen was palpable, and the air-conditioning was a most welcome relief from the stifling midday heat and humidity outside.
Seeing no one around—the place appeared to be totally empty—I began to amble toward a nearby table to seat myself, presuming that someone would show up in due course to offer me a menu and take my order.
Without warning, a waiter suddenly materialized, as if out of the nineteenth century ether, and immediately began to harangue me, telling me in no uncertain terms that I simply could not enter the premises until the restaurant was officially open for business.
“What time do you open?” I asked sheepishly, confused by the fact that the front door had been left wide open and intimidated both by the obvious venom in his words and his accompanying wildly gesticulating hands.
“Noon,” he said with a curt finality that made me shiver.
As he was replying, I happened to espy a big old-fashioned clock high on the wall directly behind the two of us, so antiquated that it had one of those large bright red second hands on it. It was, I noticed, precisely thirteen seconds before high noon when he had finished with his rude and demonstrative answer to what I thought was a simple and innocuous question.
When those thirteen excruciatingly long seconds of awkward—and near hostile—silence between us had finally ticked away, the waiter instantaneously changed from a dour and resolute guardian-of-the-restaurant-front-door-at-all-costs into someone who would make a greeter at Wal-Mart look like a recluse.
“Welcome!” he said, now sporting a huge and enthusiastic smile. “Thank you so very much for choosing to dine in our fair establishment. May I have your name, please, so I can look up your reservation?”
A reservation? I needed a reservation? There wasn’t a soul in the place! It had literally just opened! “Er,” I stammered, as my befuddlement with the entire bizarre situation continued to grow, “I don’t have a reservation.”
“Unfortunately, without a reservation, sir, I am reasonably sure that we will not be able to offer you a table,” came his officious reply, in a tone that somehow succeeded in combining forced gracious hospitality with a subtle-but-still-noticeable rebuke. “However, please remain here, and I will speak directly with the owner on your behalf.” And with that, the waiter disappeared into the kitchen from whence he had first (presumably) emerged.
By this time, curiosity had gained sway over my initial anger and ongoing bewilderment, so I decided to wait and see just what decision the owner would make. Would the owner allow me to dine at his establishment, even though I had made such an apparently egregious culinary faux pas? Perhaps I should now call the restaurant on my cell phone while I waited and make a reservation? And what exactly would I say? “Hello, I’m the guy currently waiting in the front entrance of your restaurant, and I would like to make a reservation for exactly one minute from now.”
After nearly five excruciatingly awkward minutes—either the owner was himself perplexed as to how to handle what for him was apparently virgin territory in culinary etiquette, or else he was somehow making me pay for my conspicuously outrageous violation of local restaurant protocol—the owner himself trudged to the entrance of his restaurant, looking as if he carried the entire weight of the world on his undersized and drooping shoulders.
“Sir, although you do not have a reservation,” he began with the gravity of a faceless politician announcing that yet another invasion of Oceania had just begun, “we will make an exception—but only this one time—and offer you a seat. We in Hong Kong do not take well to any variations from, or deviations to, our long-established rules.”
I decided to stay and eat—even though my continuing elevated bile level lobbied hard for me to leave. (Remember, I was hungry—damn hungry!) As it turned out, the food was quite good and the service equally impressive. (Thankfully, a waiter other than the person whom I had first met, to the great relief of both of us, had been assigned to handle my table.) However, I couldn’t help noticing throughout the course of my leisurely repast (with, I must admit, not a small amount of perverse satisfaction) that the restaurant only served about twenty people that entire day for lunch. Numerous tables had remained empty throughout the time I was there. Having said that, I also couldn’t help begrudgingly confirm that everyone who entered was greeted with genuine warmth and overt friendliness and quickly escorted to his or her designated table. Clearly they had all acted in full compliance with local custom (and, presumably, the accompanying moral rectitude) and had duly made advance reservations.
To learn more about two other books recently written by Norm Spitzig (these under the nom de plume Clive Endive Ogive IV), please visit www.CliveEndiveOgiveIV.com.