I rarely go to a Chain Fast Food outlet (CFFO's) - you know, (TIC) the Regal Burger, Golden Arches, Gloria Brews Coffee-type places - however, this weekend I had to make an overnight trip to Sydney to my daughter's new home to help her solve a problem with her two puppies who were demolishing the house grounds.
It was a 468klm return trip and it was also necessary that I took my own dog, Denny, with me so I was very limited as to where I could eat along the way. CFFO's were the best option 'cos of their ample parking and I could leave Denny in the truck while I went and collected some take-away food to feed the two of us (usually I'd drive on to a roadside 'Rest Stop' where we could sit in the open air and eat.)
I was taken back by the de-humanising aspect of the process of getting in, ordering food, paying for it, collecting it and getting out. You were a number and any real 'choice' was impeded - you ordered the meal deal for the meal price and that's what you got. "I don't want coke nor do I want the hash brown - just the chicken burger and the large fries, thanks!"
No! I couldn't do that 'cos their receipting system was geared to meal deals and not single item purchases and No! - I couldn't sub the coke for a 600ml bottle of water (bottled drinks were part of another - and more costly - 'meal deal') and the cokes only come in cardboard cups with ice! How can you drive with a loosely topped 600ml container of coke and ice with a drinking tube sticking out of it - obviously suggestive of a business ploy to make you stay and sit inside the CFFO in the hope that you (or a family member) would find something else to purchase while you ate your 'meal'?
You queued up, shuffling inevitably forward until you got to the counter and then you ordered (after haggling over needs - I walked out and dumped the coke and the hash brown as I left), paid and then merged back into the crowd and waited for your "number" to be called. You went forward, collected it and exited through the queued and waiting throng.
While waiting I said to another WASP-ish Australian male standing nearby who appeared my age and just as bewildered by the process that "It's a joke, surely!" He said - "They do it this way so that the production process is maintained! It's the 'sausage factory' assembly line approach to customer service!"
We chatted for a while and he remarked that "The 'sub-cons' love it, probably 'cos they are more used to losing their identity to a number and dealing with large numbers is probably something they are more culturally attuned to!" As we chatted he told me he had spent three months touring the sub-continent - Sri Lanka, India and Pakistan - and that CFFO's were "all the go over there!" I looked around and sure enough we were in a crowd of people whom appeared to be mostly of sub-continent origin, family groups and couples, and they were laughing and jabbering away and seemingly enjoying the whole process.
I compare these experiences (three all up) to another experience when I took the truck over to Fyshwick, an industrial development in Canberra, last Thursday to get some glass replaced - I had an hour wait while the new window had to be fitted and as I was told to be there early (7.30am) and had just driven over an hour to get there I asked the guy if there was a food outlet around. He told me there was a Take-Away diner around the block, so I walked around.
The difference was amazing and quite a contrast - very personal service at a take-away or dine-in diner mostly patronised by nearby industrial workers, linesmen, tradies and clientele like myself. It was spotlessly clean, airy and well lit and the aroma of fresh coffee and hot grills filled and warmed a cool morning.
"Grab a table and sit down", I was told. "We'll bring you over a coffee while you make up your mind what you want!" Ordering breakfast - no problems "Small, medium or large breakfast? How many eggs? Do you want fries or hash browns? Another coffee, sir and would you like water with your breakfast? You can pay at the counter when you are finished - would you like today's paper to read while you wait?"
I declined the newspaper and elected to watch the comings and goings - the unshaven mechanic in his dirt dusty overalls ordering a hot take-away meal. The two linesmen from Telstra who obviously knew everyone else by their loud greetings who merely sat and ordered "The Usual, thanks!" - no fuss, the waitress knew what they wanted. The guy in the business suit who merely wanted a large white coffee to go! The lady who came in with a tray and an order list for morning hot drinks who chatted to a guy who appeared to be one of the management while her order was processed. The two plumbers - senior and junior - who studied the board and chose their 'sit-down' breakfast. the whole place reeked of friendliness and helpfulness.
I waded through a huge "small" breakfast of fried eggs, bacon, fries, grilled tomato, toast and a pot of steaming hot coffee. Lord only knows what the medium or even the large breakfast consisted of but obviously they were in the business of serving clients who had huge appetites. I made a comment to the waitress who merely chuckled and said "Leave what you can't eat! We get a lot of interstate truckers in here and they sure like their food!"
I could just imagine long haul interstate truckers, on a meal break, calorie loading a gargantuan feast during a break while their load was being handled at a nearby warehouse!
When I went to the counter to pay as I left (change out of $15) I was asked "How was your breakfast? Was it OK?"
I told the guy that it was great and thanked him. He gave me a big grin and said "Come again!" - it's definitely on my list of meal stops the next time I'm in the area!
I am now struck at the difference between the two styles of catering businesses. No doubt the CFFO's are making a fortune as they cater for the passing highway hordes, however, that small eatery business in Fyshwick was also a very profitable business but had a trade of regulars and 'walk-ins'.
I know where I would prefer to eat and the type of service I prefer to receive. Next trip I intend to leave the highway when I want to eat and go into one of the small towns that showed up on my Sat-Nav system and look for a local eatery. You never know, I just might get lucky and re-discover some good old-fashioned personalised customer service at a regular roadside cafe!