Every week when I visit my Dad in Morden, I go to one of the many shops on the main road that sell Asian food. I only ever go to one of them and it’s not because they have the best quality stuff – in fact, the others all have fresher and better items. So why my choice? The people working in the other ones are surly whereas the guys at my favourite place have big smiles, call me “brother” and always ask how I am.
If I ever buy meat from them, they give me as much as a third more than I ask for free.
The other day, though, the quality issue nearly broke the bond. I walked in, saw the vegetables on display were really too awful and so I thought I’d go instead to one of the other shops. “Brother, where are you going?”, the owner called after me. I pointed at my favourite veg, karalla – a super-food gourd - and said he shouldn’t be selling the ones he had out.
He said he had fresher ones in the back which he went and brought out for me. He told me I should have just asked rather than go elsewhere. I gave him a big smile which he couldn’t have seen because of my mask and said he shouldn’t have put the old ones out in the first place which led me to that point.
I often find myself acting the same way in my dining out choices. The club I’m a member of doesn’t have a particularly good reputation for its food but the people who work there are so friendly that I find myself having lunch there on a weekly basis.
For years I have seen customer surveys on how people decide where they go to eat, and service virtually always comes first. About 20 years ago, the then strong chain Smollenskys did one of these and found<chefs, look away now> food came fifth – just beating good looking waiters and waitresses. Now, of course that might just say more about Smollenskys but independent surveys all tend to draw the same conclusion.
Yesterday I was in a newish restaurant in Brixton and the front of house guy started off being elusive, his back to the dining room while he checked things on the laptop. Anyone who has dined with me knows that in the past this would have infuriated me and I would have given him a dressing down. Instead this time I caught his eye, chatted with him, joked about my friend’s ambition to eat everything on the menu and from then on, he was all over our table.
And that’s the key thing about getting people to be nice to you – be nice to them first.
Iqbal Wahhab OBE is a London based entrepreneur who founded Tandoori magazine as well as The Cinnamon Club and Roast restaurants. He is Chair of EQUAL, a criminal justice action group and is a past High Sheriff of Greater London.