By Devraj Singh Kalsi
The customer polished off the chicken biriyani – leaving behind no trace of a single grain of polished saffron rice on the ceramic plate with golden borders. The solitary bone relaxed in spacious palatial comfort but soon became the bone of contention. He complained to the manager about the poor taste while making the payment.
The young waiter, a lad of eighteen, standing nearby, heard everything. He went and took the bone from the plate and lobbed it at the shining bald pate of the customer while he was walking out with a toothpick clamped between his fingers. It hit him right in the middle. He quickly turned back to see what missile was that. He found close to his feet the same chicken bone he had left behind in the ceramic plate. He picked it up, took a studied look, and sprinted to the counter to lodge another complaint with the manager, alleging he was hit on the head by some crazy staff with the chicken bone, hoping for prompt, punitive action.
Like a forensic expert, the manager took time to identify the piece of evidence, perhaps wondering whether the clever customer had brought it in his bag to levy a false charge and create a scene. There were endless possibilities, and the manager was in no mood to hastily accept the charge without cross-examining the customer.
Sensing that the manager was employing delaying tactics to let the culprit chicken out, he rushed to grab the collar of the prime suspect and sought a confession under coercion. Accusing the young waiter of insulting and assaulting him, he dragged him to the manager’s cabin, threatening to get him arrested for causing physical harm intentionally with a lethal weapon that could crack his skull or lead to severe brain injury. He threatened to shut down the operations unless the manager tendered an apology.
The manager explained the waiter had no such sinister intent as he was trying to throw the remnants out of the open window for stray dogs. Somehow it turned out to be an odd in-swinger, moving inside in the wrong direction and landing accidentally on his head. The customer remained defiant and unwilling to buy this defence. Finally, the young waiter had to mumble an apology before serving other customers, placing clean dishes, and pouring water into glasses. The angry customer flagged an alert regarding the violent streak observed in the waiter — but he sported a fixed and deceptive smile to ward off such grave charges.
The customer staged a demonstration in front of the manager’s fancy table, thumping it with his fist and refusing to accept the diluted version: unintentional mistake. Finally, the manager stood in front with folded hands and begged forgiveness to wrap up this matter before it snowballed further. The aggrieved customer was adamant and sought a complete refund, or else he would report it to the local politician. To stave off further aggravation, the manager refunded the entire amount paid for the chicken biriyani plate but cursed him in his mind with digestive issues like unstoppable bowel movements at night.
When the pacified customer finally vamoosed from the eating joint, the manager summoned the waiter to explain his behaviour. He told the bald customer gave incorrect feedback as there was nothing wrong with the food. Because the customer lied about quality, he got miffed. He confessed he was surprised he was so good at hitting the target. He had hoped it would land in some other direction or edge past his ear like a bullet.
Many customers relished stale food and paid generous compliments on the rich taste. Whenever the chicken was served fresh, customers had complaints regarding the fare. Sometimes it was not spicy enough, or the taste lacked something they could not express in words but feel on the tongue. Such vague feedback was responded with an ersatz smile and an earnest promise to serve better fare next time. Most negative comments poured in when the bill value crossed the expected mark. There were several examples of customers who ate more than they could pay. They came to the manager and quietly promised to clear the deficit balance the next day. But they did not turn up for several months, hoping the manager would forget the matter. Dealing with such clients was always a challenge.
There was a demand for cabins with curtains from couples, married or otherwise. The waiters exercised their discretion to overcharge for privacy. The manager was helpless in getting it vacated because the food was served late — and they ate very slowly. Even after an hour, the couple would not finish a fish cutlet while others sitting in the open zone gorged on a full plate of chicken and Badshahi Mughlai. The romantic busybodies tipped the waiter and ordered a bottle of cold drink when pressurised to vacate the cabin. Some new customers came and stood shamelessly in front of these cabins. The curtains — flying high in the breeze generated by the ceiling fan — revealed what the couples were up to. They had to quickly get up and clear the table without bothering to empty the cold drink bottle or finish the cutlet on the plate. Eating was an excuse for love birds as their hunger was not food-related.
Managing the restaurant included managing the kitchen as well. There was a tendency to poach the cook with extra salary and perks by rival restaurant owners. It was a big headache – unethical poaching like horse trading in politics. On many occasions, the chefs used to run away and join a rival restaurant without informing just after the day of salary credit. As a result, the slot fell vacant, leading to the cancellation of several specialty dishes till a new chef was hired. Customers returned disappointed, but dishing out excuses did not work, resulting in a steady decline in customer loyalty.
When the new chef came on board, his quality was not always up to the mark. There was a litany of complaints from customers who missed the earlier fare. There was nothing to be done except serving a formal assurance of improving the quality as soon as possible.
The overhead costs of operating a restaurant were high. The profitability dipped. The tipping point reached when the reputation hit the nadir. Customers did not get the menu of their choice. They had to wait before being served. A couple of years of running and ruining a family restaurant made me realise I had no potential to become a manager and manage a business well. I pulled down the shutters of the family-owned restaurant and presided over the end of its glorious run after two decades. The flop outing did not fill me with the passionate drive to prove detractors wrong – like being the author of an unsuccessful book has egged me to bake another one.
Devraj Singh Kalsi works as a senior copywriter in Kolkata. His short stories and essays have been published in Deccan Herald, Tehelka, Kitaab, Earthen Lamp Journal, Assam Tribune, and The Statesman. Pal Motors is his first novel.
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