Why do restaurants shoot themselves in the foot?

Food is increasingly glorified – as a travel, community, bonding and self-development experience. Many people of my generation and social class spend a huge portion of their monthly budgets on eating out rather than saving for purchases. Unsurprisingly, catering is a robust business even in countries that are still grappling with the impact of the economic crisis. Restaurants compete for this ever-growing market – if not locals, then at least tourists will consume whatever is on offer. Yet I keep seeing habits that are counter-intuitive and don’t seem to make business sense.

1. Keeping staff overworked and underpaid

Those who think they can get away with it, wake up, it’s usually very visible! You may cajole or threaten people into putting on a show that they don’t hate their job, but it will be written in their faces. Meanwhile, friendly and experienced staff can gloss over various mistakes and situations that may happen with the food. Eating is a wholesome experience (here’s a TED talk about that), and being served by overworked and underpaid staff unleashes a whole range of negative emotions: irritation, guilt (because it’s ultimately not the workers’ fault), impatience, annoyance and so on. This affects the experience of eating.

Risk: annoyance, bad reviews

2. Mountains of sad iceberg lettuce

I can almost see how staff shake it out of clear plastic bags. Iceberg lettuce tastes like nothing, and has little nutritious value. Packaged greens only retain mostly fat-soluble vitamins and minerals. Due to mineral depletion, lettuce is nearly useless, so no, it doesn’t make us feel good about ourselves because we’re eating healthy. I’ve never shared a meal with anyone who has ever said, “Oh, great, yummy lettuce!” People always point out that these often pale, wilted greens are just a way to make a plate look fuller. Sometimes these leaves are poorly washed, and they are nearly never bite-sized. There’s little fun in chasing these oddly shaped leaves around the plate and trying to cut or fold them. So there’s not a single benefit of using pre-packaged lettuce apart from it taking up space. Many people leave their lettuce on the plate, contributing to food waste.

Risk: food waste, being unimpressive

3. Boring defrosted veggies

Frozen vegetables actually do retain most nutrients, and they are a good replacement to fresh vegetables when these are hard to come by or store. But are they? A restaurant based in a country with a steady supply of goods rarely has an excuse. I do use frozen vegetables at home, because they are a great way to store larger quantities of food, and they come from countries with better environmental record than Malta, where I currently live. Still, when I eat out, especially in summer, let alone in countries with long vegetation and fertile soil, I expect a restaurant to use fresh local vegetables, because it’s easy to taste the difference. And with sprouting gaining popularity, there is really no excuse. In Romania, I was often disappointed when, in the middle of summer, most restaurants were excellent at cooking their main ingredient, but served tired defrosted carrots and green peas on the side. I have stronger memories about this than about the actual food I ate.

Risk: being unimpressive

4. Gargantuan portions

This is typical of, but certainly not exclusive to Malta. I remember having this issue in Hungary and Israel as well. Travelling in Germany, I always admire how appropriate the portions are, and taking food home if one can’t finish it is culturally accepted.

When I trust that portions are reasonably sized, I am more likely to experiment, to order starters and eat a full portion. In Malta, when I eat with someone else, I often suggest taking a starter each and one main for two, or two dishes for three. Wasting food makes many people uneasy – it is unpleasant to know we have paid for something to go into garbage, and it is doubly unpleasant for environmentally aware people. Stuffing oneself as many grandmothers used to suggest is not just unhealthy, it also makes people leave with less than pleasant experience. What is allowed for a grandmother doesn’t apply in an impersonal, transactional experience. If I take leftovers with me, it is unlikely that I will eat out the next day. Either way, less business for restaurants.

Risk: food waste, less spending

5. Overflowing sauces

This used to be very typical in Lithuania in the early 2000s and I still encounter this issue in my travels. Sauces tend to be unhealthy as many of them contain sugar, cream and all kinds of random additives, so they put off people who are watching their weight and/or health. It’s always best when everyone can regulate how much sauce they want in their food.

Risks: annoyance

6. Vegetarian? Drown in cream!

This is related to the problem above. Many restaurants believe that if someone is not eating dead animals, they surely want to compensate with products extracted from living ones, so vegetarian options nearly always contain cheese, are butter-fried and in many eateries they drown in cream as well.

As my friend and vegan blogger Ugnė has pointed out, it is easier to request adaptations of meat dishes than to veganise a typical vegetarian meal. Which means that vegans, lactose-intolerant people and those who just don’t like dairy will be put off. Restaurants should look into the wonderful diversity of vegetarian food and not base it on dairy so much.

Risk: losing clientele

7. Stingy on freebies

My best memory from Korean eateries is the cute small plates of pickles while we waited for food. People love receiving things for free, even if these things are cheap. They create a vibe of care, generosity and attention. Clients will be less grumpy if they must wait longer, and they will feel they tried more things and got better value for money. Pastaus in Valletta and Maldonado on Gozo offer very nice freebies, and I’m sure many people remember this.

Good impressions lead to recommendations and good reviews, so I see no reason not to make sure that clients feel welcome and cared for.

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