Systems at the Temple

There are a couple of things I want to write about today but mostly, they revolve around something close to my heart – systems.

I had wanted to write about my experience at Annalakshmi at the Temple of Fine Arts, Penang the night I got home, but I took a few days to clear my mind and think: how can I turn this into something positive? A lesson to be learnt?

We took a friend who is vegetarian to dine at Annalakshmi last week. He had come from Ipoh and we knew he enjoyed the delicious vegetarian fare each time he ate at Annalakshmi.

I myself like the ambience and the food, and I have been a loyal fan of its food for the longest time, ever since I was in the university.

In fact, I’ve even met the late chairman, Dr Ramakrishnan, once about seven years ago. He explained that Annalakshmi is a restaurant owned and operated by The Temple of Fine Arts, Penang. The Temple as it is fondly known among Penangites is an organisation which promotes and cultivates Indian culture through classical dances and musical performances, such as bharatnatyam etc.

The restaurant is manned completely by volunteers from the Temple and serves home-style Indian food for lunch and dinner. The other concept at the restaurant is that it is up to you, the customer, to give a value to the food you partake. It means you pay as you please. Lunch is served buffet-style while dinner is ala-carte. This means for dinner, you order direct from the kitchen, which is again, manned by volunteer cooks. The concept is good because proceeds from the restaurant goes back into culture and arts promotion for the Temple.

I’ve always been to Annalakshmi for lunch and brought friends who’ve loved the simple fare. Their dishes are always appetising, and their mango lassi is one of the best around town. They never stinge on the ingredients either.

Last week, however, was the first time I went with my friend for dinner.

The restaurant closes at 9pm so by the time we arrived at 8.30pm (parking is madness because the Temple is located in a residential area, and the road is narrow), the restaurant was a hive of activity. Every table was occupied. Luckily we found a table.

We waited until I could wait no more, so I headed over to the counter and asked if I had to order from the counter or get a menu myself. A volunteer-cum-wait staff told me that we would be attended to, shortly.

I returned to my seat. By this time, we were really hungry.

A boy came by about 10 minutes later and rattled off their offerings. So we ordered 2 masala tosai and 1 vegetarian burger. Plus 1 tea and 2 mango lassis.

A 15-minute wait ensued. I saw a plate of tosai placed on the counter. So was a burger. The wait staff didn’t know who ordered what. I eyed the food hungrily. I knew it was ours but it would have been rude to snatch the plate from the counter.

So we waited. No one bothered to ask who ordered the food. It was now almost 5 minutes since the burger sat alone on the countertop. The boy re-appears, takes the plate of burger and walks off. The restaurant is not huge; it is the size of a regular living room. It had about 12 tables of customers. He brought the burger back to the counter after one circle around the 12 tables or so because he could not locate the customer who ordered. Then he disappeared into the kitchen.

I could not wait much longer. Our drinks had not arrived and our food was getting cold on the counter. I walked up to the woman at the counter and told her the burger was ours. Then I asked if the tosai was masala tosai. She said no, it was plain tosai. I tried not to get mad but I did self serve – I brought the burger to our table.

Another 10 minutes of waiting. This time, my Ipoh friend took the lead. He went up to the counter and asked about our order of masala tosai. To his horror, the woman said that they don’t have it because they ran out of masala tosai! Imagine our fruitless wait! And the boy didn’t even tell us our order was non-existent.

By this time, we had lost our appetite despite being hungry as horses the time we arrived. We were ignored by the wait staff, we were not given our food and we were left, ignored until we inquired at the kitchen.

But here’s the problem: there was no system at all. That’s what made it such a mess that night. I am not too sure if this mess happens each night but if it does, this is a true system breakdown. A system failure.

My questions are:

1) If the boy was writing down our orders, why couldn’t he deliver the burger to us? No table number? Not true. Each table was numbered.

2) Why were the customers (and I noticed it wasn’t only us) kept waiting for their food? Customers were going to the kitchen and asking, no, taking plates of food away themselves. I guess they were too hungry to care.

3) Why were some customers (who came later than us) got served first? Our drinks never arrived, and we shared (yes, shared!) one vegetarian burger. It was the worst kind of dinner to serve a guest from out of state!

4) Why were there so many volunteers milling about and yet, and yet only one poor boy who was the wait staff?

The poor boy looked stressed enough each time he was called to the kitchen to deliver an order to a customer. He just didn’t remember who ordered what!

The level of service was completely incredible. And it’s no justification to say that it’s some teething problem because the restaurant has been opened for the longest time already. And it’s also unjustifiable to say that these were volunteers. Volunteers or no, they should be able to provide a level of service which was acceptable, not make irate customers of people who come to support the Temple and the restaurant!

I still don’t know if it was a bad night to go for dinner or that the system completely went kaput that night but from now on, I’ll just stick to the buffet lunch.

It’s much safer and less agonising. And less embarrassing too.

But the lesson I learnt is this:

Anything, any business, any organisation, should have a good system in place. That’s why McDonalds does so well. It’s not the crew or the manager. It’s a system which is tried and tested and made to work so well. Any business, large or small, should think about having a system that works. What happens when an order arrives? Who’s responsible? What’s to be done? All these and more lie at the core of any good business.

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