Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Heads up, Freo cafes: Poor customer service isn't cool

I've spent the last couple of days enjoying my birthday festival. It basically involves celebrating the two days either side of my actual birthday in an attempt to be excused from doing household chores (except cooking, for reasons of self-preservation).

On Sunday my wife's family made the trip down to Freo so that we could catch up over breakfast and celebrate the last day of my birthday festival. We left our apartment building and headed to Market Street discussing our many breakfast options. The only prerequisite was that ice cream be on the menu (Byron's input), and a faint but forlorn hope that we might find somewhere with air conditioning.

Option 1: Simple Nosh (on Norfolk Street, near Luna Cinemas)

Simple Nosh's smoothies had come highly recommended by a good friend so we headed off to Norfolk Street to try them out. Upon arrival we trudged around looking for seating for six, but despite plenty of floor space all the tables were set up in configurations of four and two.

We approached a member of staff about the possibility of having two tables pushed together. After vague assent, she promptly disappeared and wasn't seen again. 

After quieting a rapidly overheating nephew by plugging his mouth with a lollipop, we asked a second waitress if we could combine a table with the one we were sitting at. She responded by telling us with a marked lack of enthusiasm that no, that wasn't possible as there were no tables free - apparently the effort of turning her head 180 degrees to an empty table two metres away was too much on a hot Sunday morning.

With my wife showing signs of being on the verge of grasping the waitress firmly by an earlobe and marching her to the empty table for a lesson in furniture identification, the rest of the family wisely decided that if Simple Nosh simply did not want our money, we'd better just leave them to it. 

Option 2: X-Wray Cafe (near Luna Cinemas)
Due to its proximity to Simple Nosh, X-Wray presented as the next logical option for our group. It's been my experience that the food can be hit and miss (I gave up ordering eggs benedict because the hollandaise sauce was always curdled) but I've always enjoyed a friendly, welcoming and enthusiastic service at this cafe.

We sauntered into X-Wray and, after assessing the relative temperatures inside and out, grabbed one of the booths. It was still hot, but not quite as hot as the tables outside. Unfortunately for X-Wray the concrete laneway it sits next to acts as a bit of a heatrap. No sooner had I sat down than I was sweating profusely, and Byron was doing his best impersonation of a five year old in the last stages of heat exhaustion. 

The fan above our booth wasn't switched on, so we asked if it could be turned on, only to be told it wasn't working. My father-in-law then spotted an air conditioning unit near our booth. So, to the sound of weak laments from Byron pleading for a life saving ice cream, he went down to the counter to ask if it could be switched on.

This was happily agreed to, but five minutes later it still hadn't been turned on. So my father-in-law got up and went to the counter to find out again about the air conditioning. This time he was told that they couldn't turn it on, with vague references being made to lost or broken remote controls. He returned to our table and passed on the news. 

It's not X-Wray's fault that both the fan and air con were out of order, of course, although given the layer of dust on both one wonders whether this is a longstanding issue. But why had nobody had bothered to come over and tell us and explain?

Increasingly hot and disillusioned, we decided to move on.

Option 3: Il Cibo (on Market Street opposite Pioneer Park, near the train station)

Fifteen minutes later and after a brief diversion to Breaks (who had air conditioning but were full, no doubt for that very reason) we trudged into Il Cibo.

The wait staff were friendly. They actually greeted us with a cheery hello and a smile as we entered, which didn't happen at Simple Nosh, X-Wray or Breaks. Upon greeting us and seeing the size of our group, the waiter (who bore a remarkable resemblance to both former Chelsea star Gianfranco Zola and, according to my excited mother-in-law, Inspector Montalbano) immediately took the initiative and showed us some tables where we could sit, in comfort and coolness thanks to the functioning air con. This was good.

We sat down and noticed the friendliness and enthusiasm surrounding us. There were singles, couples, and families, all looking content and chattering happily. I immediately remarked to my wife that we should return to Il Cibo more often. The music wasn't too loud and added to the happy atmosphere. Byron was smiling from ear to ear as a scoop of vanilla icecream that he had ordered off the menu promptly arrived with a friendly flourish from the waiter. The food turned out to be tasty, too, and we lingered there for a long while after it was gone, just enjoying ourselves.

My father-in-law commented that in tough times, it is the level of customer service that helps to establish a point of difference for cafes and retailers. I have no doubt in my mind that Il Cibo has created its own point of difference for my father-in-law and that he'll be insisting that Il Cibo is our first option on future visits to Freo for breakfast. 

On this blog, I've talked about the importance of creating memorable experiences for people and having welcoming places. My wife's family did not have a memorable experience (well, not in a good way), nor were we made to feel welcome on Sunday morning. I felt embarrassed about Freo's businesses when my wife and I returned to our apartment. When will Freo's businesses learn that poor or indifferent customer service just is not cool?

And is business really that great in Freo that cafes need make so little effort? Somehow, I don't think so.


  1. Hi Michael - that was a really good blog post - funny and really punchy.

  2. I guess I will check out Il Cibo now.


  3. +1 for Il Cibo -- always a pleasure. Agree with the food at X-Wray Cafe being hit or miss, although for me largely misses the mark. Meals are nothing special, small serves and overpriced, and lethargic staff.