Orders That Take the Biscuit

By Vyt Karazija

Maybe it’s time for restaurant staff in Bali to get unionised. The more I find out about employer practices here, the less I like it. The last week, with low tourist numbers and an intensive ceremonial period, has been an eye-opener.

So I wander in to one of my regular restaurants, an attentive staff member materialises and we exchange the usual pleasantries. I’m not really hungry and don’t feel like an alcoholic drink, so I order an iced tea and a relatively cheap prawn entrée. The waiter is stricken. “What’s the matter?” I enquire solicitously. He looks incredibly disappointed. “Only that? No full meal? No scotch and coke? Not even a Bintang?” He wanders off disconsolately.

Five minutes later, one of the attractive waitresses comes over to “check my order,” which is code for trying to up-sell me. She can’t understand why I’m ordering so little. I explain my uncharacteristic restraint, because normally I am noted for both my gluttony and fondness for a moderate tipple. “I think you should get the steak,” she says. “You will get too thin!” No chance of that, I think. When the up-selling fails, she slopes off, but I see an unexpected sadness in her usually cheerful eyes.

“Ah, I get it,” I say to her departing back. “You get commission, right?” I am joking, but I see from her expression as she stops and turns around that I have hit a nerve. “Yes,” she says with a grimace, then stops suddenly and corrects herself. “No, not commission, but…” But then she refuses to say any more, except for a briefly muttered “Doesn’t matter.” Something is going on here. I want to find out what it is, but everyone clams up when questioned.

The next day, I find out why from my secret sources. The restaurant is one of those that include both government taxes and the staff service charge as part of the menu prices. That’s one reason I like it – you are not hit with up to 25-percent surcharge when the bill arrives. A restaurant’s “service charge” is supposed to go directly to the staff in lieu of tips, and many service workers rely heavily on this money to supplement their very meagre monthly salary.

I know that some unscrupulous owners never pass this money on, retaining it for their own benefit. But apparently this particular restaurant has added a new wrinkle. If the gross take is above a certain owner-determined amount, the legally mandated service charge is passed on to staff. But in times of low tourist numbers, that minimum revenue is not reached, and staff are paid only their wages, which are barely enough to live on.

The pressure is therefore on staff to cajole customers into more expensive meal choices, desserts and extra drinks – because they know they have to raise the gross receipts enough to trigger payment of the service charge, or miss out. This might be smart business practice, but it’s, you know, just a little bit naughty.

There are other ways that restaurants use to save costs and therefore increase net revenue. Ever notice that the quantity of food seems to be less when times are tough? In seafood dishes, you might find that the number of prawns drops alarmingly, or the vegetable portion shrinks to a minuscule dollop of green stuff. If I wanted nouvelle cuisine, where overpriced restaurants serve 50g food portions on a one-metre diameter plate, I wouldn’t be in Bali. I do like quality, but frankly, quantity trumps all when you’re hungry.

Then there is the “shortage of produce” excuse for saving money. One of my favourite places suddenly has no mango juice on the menu. Now, you may think that’s trivial, but for me it’s a veritable tragedy, because I have a belief in the mystical properties of fresh mango juice that transcends reason. It not only hydrates and provides electrolytes; it cures hangovers, restores potency, builds muscle mass and dissolves stomach fat while increasing alertness and mental acuity. OK, OK, I lie like a cheap doormat; it doesn’t really do that. But I like it, and insist on having it for breakfast almost every day.

“Why is there no mango?” I cry plaintively. “Out of season” is the reply from the waitress. “No it’s not,” I retort crossly. “Every other restaurant around here has it!” She shuffles a bit and looks uncomfortable. “Um, the boss won’t buy it – too expensive,” she finally admits. I try to explain that I understand that fruit prices fluctuate, and that I will happily pay a premium to compensate the boss for his horrific loss of earnings. It would probably cost me an extra Rp2,000 per glass. No dice. She leans over to whisper: “He doesn’t want to change the menu to a new price. Too expensive to change.” I hope she explains to the boss why his strategy means that I don’t go there for breakfast any more, but I somehow doubt that she will.

The techniques used to maximise restaurant profits here also appear to include over-working the staff. Where else would you find a staff roster that schedules staff for an afternoon shift finishing at midnight and expects them to be on deck at 7am the next morning? Where else would you find staff scheduled for work on a major religious public holiday when they have family obligations? I spoke to one waitress who was working disconsolately while her family was spending the day, without her, at an important ceremony. “Why are you working today?” I ask, surprised. “Didn’t you tell the boss that you have to be with your family – that it’s important for you?” She tightens her lips in that classic Balinese expression of quiet anger, and mutters, “He said the restaurant is more important than my ceremony.”

I look around. “So where is the boss?” I ask, intending to gently chide him. “He’s not here today.” I’m confused “Why not?” “He said he has an important family ceremony,” she says through gritted teeth. She doesn’t say: More important than mine, but I can hear her think it.

I guess it’s the privilege of the ruling classes to take time off while their staff work on designated public holidays. And of course, it’s their privilege to maximise profit, regardless of the human cost. But really, is it worth it?

 

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