Sunday, September 30, 2007

On the tips of his toes

Waiter Sankaranarayanan tries to fulfill the guests’ need even before they ask him

By Shevlin Sebastian

When waiter Sankaranarayanan, 46, was going to get married in 1994, he gave invites to twenty five of his regular customers at The Mercy hotel. Imagine his surprise when each one presented him with cash envelopes, ranging from Rs 1000 to Rs 3000. "I was moved," he says. "They were showing their love and appreciation for the service I had rendered to them over the years."

Sankaranarayanan has been working at the The Mercy hotel for the past 26 years and has now become its senior-most waiter. He is assigned either to the Roof Garden restaurant, the bar or the new luxury business hotel.

So what sort of guests does he handle? "In the bar, we get gregarious bachelors, married men and loners,” he says. “Some have particular brands they like and order it all the time. Some want ice, some don't want ice. I try to fulfill their needs, even before they ask me. That makes them happy."

Apart from liquor-guzzling men, on weekends and public holidays, several families come regularly to the Roof Garden restaurant. So, do they order the same dishes all the time? "Not at all," says Sankaranarayanan, with a smile. "Sometimes, the family follows the choice of their children, sometimes, the wife or the husband does the ordering. When the family is accompanied by friends, they allow them to make the selection."

But there are also families which, despite the variety in the food on offer, also order regular dishes. "Our hotel is well-known for its ginger prawns and chickens and Kerala-style prawn fry," he says. "The guests say that they don't get these tasty dishes in other hotels."

He says that one of the strong points of the hotel is that they have plenty of repeat customers. And this is ensured by the waiters and the support staff behaving in a courteous manner. "The logic is simple," he says. "If we behave well, the guests will come often, the hotel will earn profits and we will get our salaries."

However, not all waiters follow this logic. "Young waiters behave any which way they want," he says. "They are also very fickle. They stay for three months at one place, before they move to the next hotel. So, there is no loyalty to any one organisation."

This loyal employee stumbled into the hospitality industry by accident. After he completed his pre-degree, he was looking for a job. His elder brother was working as a waiter in the Al Akapuri Hotel in Kozhikode and arranged for him to get a job. He did a three-year stint there, before moving to Kochi.

He stays in the hotel’s staff quarters at Ravipuram, while his family--wife Sathy, 39, and sons, Sharath, 14, and Sanath, 8--live in the family tharvad at Palakkad. He goes there for four days a month. “I have been living like this ever since I got married,” he says. “My family has also got used to it.”

His monthly salary is Rs 3500 and, like all waiters, he depends on tips to boost his income. “Nowadays, ninety percent of the guests give tips,” he says. “On week days, we get a total of Rs 400 to Rs 500 per day as tips. On weekends, this can go up to Rs 650. This money is shared among 17 waiters and each waiter gets about Rs 2,500 every month.”

However, these tips remain steady during the non-monsoon season, October to May, and the graph goes higher during festivals like Christmas, Onam and New Year’s Eve. But the business goes down during the rainy months, as is expected, and during the Lenten period before Easter and the Sabarimala season.

Getting tips is the pleasant side of working as a waiter. But there are numerous instances, when a customer is rude or drunk and abuses the waiter. So what does Sankaranarayanan do, in these circumstances? “I try to remain as calm as possible and try to soothe the guest down,” he says.

But not all waiters remain calm. Some shout back at the guest. Then what happens? “Once or twice, it may be overlooked,” says Sankaranarayanan. “However, if a customer lodges a complaint, there is a strong possibility the waiter will be sacked. The hotel has hired us not to lose our temper with the guests but to treat them in the best possible way.”

Treating people well is Sankaranarayanan’s forte. Says K.K. Sunny, general manager of The Mercy: “He always takes a keen interest to find out what the customer wants and delivers it to him as soon as he can. He is a sincere person and does everything from the heart.”

Says long-time customer, Sreekumar Menon, 41, a businessman: “Sankaranarayanan knows how to behave with a customer. If I run short of money, he will allow me to pay part of the bill at a later date. Which waiter will do this? Of all the waiters I have met, he is the best.”

Sankaranarayanan smiles at the accolade and says, “I just try to do my best all the time.”

(Permission to reproduce this article has to be obtained from The New Indian Express, Kochi)

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