Taking up the service challenge

Getting diners to change their service expectations in restaurants might be one way to grapple with the manpower crunch, but restaurateurs said it would be an uphill task because many Singapore diners expect full table service.

They also said that it is not impossible to provide the niceties that Singapore diners have come to expect when they eat out but it would take time for service standard to reach the levels in Europe and the United States.

Some are already working towards the vision that Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam articulated in his recent Budget speech.

He wanted restaurants and cafes to be more like those in Europe or the US, which operate with fewer staff, each with more responsibility and better pay, and "where customers treat staff with respect and the staff wear their uniforms with pride".

He also said that quality service comes in many forms and need not mean having service staff constantly waiting on consumers.

Responding to this, restaurateurs, hotel operators and culinary schools told SundayLife! that while this is not impossible, it will take time, especially when the food and beverage scene here is facing a severe manpower crunch due to government regulations restricting the hiring of foreign workers.

They added that Singapore diners expect full table service.

Ms Cynthia Chua, founder of the Spa Esprit Group, which owns several food and beverage outlets such as Skinny Pizza, Tiong Bahru Bakery, 40 Hands cafe and House, called it a Catch-22 situation.

She says: "It is difficult to cut down on manpower when consumers have high expectations. And if you are constantly at the beck and call of people, you won't be proud of your job. There needs to be give and take, and customers need to be more patient."

At its casual cafes such as Tiong Bahru Bakery and 40 Hands which do not levy the 10 per cent service charge, she said diners are still waving to the staff when they want their water glasses topped up.

"It's ingrained in diners to expect full table service," she said.

Agreeing, Mr Philippe Pau, director of Bistro du Vin, said: "The current lack of full-time waiters requires us to rely on part-timers who are less experienced. Most of our time is spent on training them. We can increase wages, but the current staff crunch is already driving salaries higher and higher. The transition to have fewer employees and increased responsibility will take a minimum of two years."

Mr Yuan Oeij, chairman of the Prive Group which runs restaurants such as Wolf, Roadhouse and The Green Door, brought up the example of Bistro Moncur in Sydney. When he dined there in 2007, there were only four waiters serving a full house of 100 diners.

"All their movements were graceful, precise and very efficient," he said. "They had a strong awareness of what was going on while carrying out their multiple tasks."

He noted that local servers here may not be exposed to what he terms "great service", which their counterparts in Australia, the US or Europe provide. Waiters there are also valued for their skills.

Mr Oeij said: "To have a system like those in the US or Europe where you have great friendly service and fewer, but higher-paid servers performing a lot of tasks is going to be extremely difficult. It involves changing the whole tipping culture and how service charge is practised in Singapore."

Besides monetary incentives for staff, he is looking to focus on quick-service concepts in the restaurant group that would require fewer staff to serve customers.

Mr Adrian Tan, group manager of Peperoni Pizzeria, highlighted a difference in culture. "Casual restaurants experience a faster flow and turnover rate. While guests at fine-dining restaurants tend to take their time to wine and dine, guests at casual outlets tend to eat faster," he said.

"In Europe, a dinner can last for three hours and restaurants usually have very few staff, who multi-task. The staff are not expected to be at the beck and call of guests all the time as the guests prefer to take their time to eat and enjoy their meal."

At hotels, negotiating manpower has added complications, with various departments such as housekeeping to factor in as well.

At Orchard Hotel, responsibilities for the food and beverage sections would include serving dishes course by course.

Those who hold banquets at the hotel are also required to pay more if their events require additional staff.

Mr Riaz Mahmood, 51, the hotel's general manager, said: "The usual service ratio is two staff serving three tables and one beverage server to three tables. For requests to allocate additional staff, there is a charge of $100 for every extra service staff throughout the event, from pre-event cocktails to the end of the event."

But he also pointed out concerns with having fewer staff take on bigger responsibilities.

"In the long run, it may affect service levels. One individual might be able to do more, but not all at once. Such a prolonged situation may cause our employees to be overworked and thus compromise their work-life balance."

While the challenges seem daunting, some employers are working their way around the issue.

Mr Andrew Ing, chief operating officer of The Lo and Behold Group, which owns restaurants such as Extra Virgin Pizza, The White Rabbit and The Black Swan, offers higher salaries for service staff with at least four years' experience.

He said senior service staff who are called assistant managers do not manage or do any administration work. They get an assistant manager's pay but continue to serve customers because that is what they are good at.

"We can have fewer staff and fewer headaches because they are the best. This also motivates the junior staff to work harder to get a higher salary once they are managers," he added.

Others turn to using automation in their restaurants. Mr Tharman cited the example of Japanese restaurant chain Genki Sushi, which reduced the number of staff serving tables by about 85 per cent and cut waiting times for orders by half.

Pacific Marketplace at the Pan Pacific Singapore uses iPad menus and is looking to introduce an automated system of food ordering.

Instead of using iPads, restaurants such as casual restaurant chain Manhattan Fish Market get customers to place their order through an order form, as well as pay at the cashier, so that waiters do not have to deliver bills to the table.

Similarly, at ramen restaurant chain Ramen Keisuke, diners also tick their meal options on a form, which helps to minimise the chance of waiters making errors.

Mr Nobuyasu Sato, 43, director of Ramen Keisuke Tokyo, said: "It helps to cut down on manpower and most importantly, is efficient and avoids any miscommunication. So there are fewer mistakes and fewer complaints."

In Japan, diners order ramen via vending machines but he does not intend to implement this here as "communication is very important".

Moving forward, culinary schools said they are working to turn out the kind of service staff that Mr Tharman said Singapore should have.

All the schools include service training in their curriculum.

Ms Eve Felder, managing director of The Culinary Institute of America, said key lessons include beverage and wine service, setting and clearing of tables, menu engineering, organisation of service crew, taking orders, speaking clearly and articulating appropriately, among many other lessons for both formal and casual settings.

The institute started training students in 1946 when it was established in the United States. It opened its first overseas campus here at Temasek Polytechnic three years ago, in partnership with the Singapore Institute of Technology.

Ms Felder said the "rewards" of training and education in hospitality will be reaped in years to come.

She said: "In Singapore, as it was in the United States 20 to 30 years ago, the food and beverage industry - including service - is not valued as a career.

"As the industry matured and more restaurants opened and food manufacturing grew, career opportunities expanded.

"It took a while, particularly for parents, to understand that working in the food industry could be a professional career choice. Now, of course, we have seen more and more food-related jobs opening up."

She also said that the launch of the Food Network cable channel, an Asian version of which is available here, gave the public greater insight into the complexities of the hospitality and food and beverage industry.

"While the primary focus of television is entertainment, the Food Network has helped to increase interest in our industry," she said. Good service is more than just table service, noted Mr Alvin Goh, deputy director of culinary arts at ITE College West.

He said: "In fine-dining, customers would expect service staff to have good product knowledge, make recommendations, explain the menu and exercise flexibility in service. Yet, service staff must be emotionally connected to guests because everyone has different needs.

"If you have a couple on a romantic evening out at a fine-dining restaurant, then as a service staff, you need to be discreet and non-intrusive with your service. In this case, perhaps less service is more."

Over at Shatec hospitality school, the finer aspects of service are covered in the subject, Fundamentals of Hospitality Hosting, which is part of all its diploma level programmes.

Ms Margaret Heng, 53, chief executive of Shatec, said: "Students are immersed in role-playing and simulation exercises based on actual workplace scenarios.

"Some topics covered include the importance of positive attitudes and the art of being a gracious host. I look forward to the day when quality service is synonymous with the Singapore service industry."

euniceq@sph.com.sg

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