As I ended up spending all of last week’s post talking about the details in preparing ingredients, this week I’m going to cover the details of presenting and serving the finished dishes. We have spent quite some time discussing this subject with the group already, as it covers not only the food, but also how it’s served, what the market stall looks like, and finally customer service. We start off week 7 with the latter point and a discussion about how good or bad customer service makes us feel.
The group has expressed a wish for more practice in serving customers and speaking English to them, and Sarah runs through all the different aspects of good customer service, from looking presentable and friendly to communicating with customers in an appropriate way. For example, she says to never tell a customer ‘I don’t know’ when asked a question, because it makes them think you don’t belong in the stall. Saying ‘one moment, I’ll find out for you’ is much better. The group nods and then spends some time practising a variety of different phrases with each other before heading into the kitchen. Hopefully they’ll feel a bit more confident with serving their customers this time.
Another aspect we spend quite some time talking about is what kinds of plates and bowls to use when selling food at the market stall. So far Sarah has brought in quite a lot of different types for the group to look at and assess. I think it’s a subject you wouldn’t tend to spend much time on, but it actually makes quite a big difference. First of all, we need to think about how and where the customer is going to eat the dish. The market stall will most likely be placed in a market alongside other street food stalls where customers will want to pick up something that’s easy and convenient to eat on the spot. But there is also the possibility that some will want to take it home with them. These situations demand different types of plates, bowls, or boxes.
A second thing to consider is how the dish is going to look served in the particular bowl. For example, certain bowls would make the dish look larger, which appeals to customers who are after value for money. And other bowls might be too large and make the dish look too small for the customer. It’s a fine balance. Finally, there is the question of sustainability. Sarah argues that if a customer is willing to pay around £5 for a lunch dish, in many cases it means something to him or her if the bowl is biodegradable or can be recycled. Those kinds of materials send a certain signal that customers like and are willing to pay for - about taking care of the environment and only using the finest ingredients. Serving the same dish in an aluminium box instead might make the dish itself look cheaper and make the customer think it’s not had as much care and attention put into it. Again, it’s a fine balance to strike to get the pricing of the dishes right, because the more sustainable materials always cost more.
So it might be the case that the group will have to serve a slightly smaller portion but in a much nicer container. I think there is probably a psychological aspect to it though, because I definitely feel it makes a difference to drink from a nice glass rather than a plastic cup!
Finally, there is the question of how to decorate the market stall. In the first couple of weeks, the tablecloth and bunting in our little market stall in the community centre had a variety of African prints. Sarah has asked the group how they like it, and they expressed a wish to have something more authentically Vietnamese instead, such as heavily embroidered fabric. Unfortunately that is very expensive and also quite difficult to find. Instead, Sarah has found some fabric with bamboo print in a neutral colour, and the women seem to prefer this compromise even though it’s probably not more Vietnamese, strictly speaking. Sarah’s also bought some metal containers to keep the different dishes in at the stall, making it look very nice and neat. There are smaller ones for dipping sauce and garnish and larger ones for noodles and salad, all with lids and hanging on a construction that makes it easier to reach into the containers and serving the food quickly.
We are now coming to the end of session 7. The women are running a little behind, carefully rolling the sticky rice dumplings that form today’s dessert and setting up the service area of the market stall. The ESOL participants are getting hungry and have formed a queue in front of the stall. It’s very pleasing to see that the women deal with the pressure in a calm manner. Instead of making service hectic, they remember their customer service phrases, take their time to serve up each dish so they’re presented equally well, and give every customer a friendly smile and a ‘see you again’. It’s just great, the women themselves seem very pleased too and more confident for it. I think they’re seeing that they definitely can gain all the skills and practice needed to run this stall in only a few weeks’ time.