By Akhil Sood Jan. 19, 2017
Empty seats drive customers quicker than a pile of funky garbage at the front door. Nobody ever wants to be the only customer inside a restaurant.
There’s nothing quite as heartbreaking as a restaurant without patrons. It’s as distressing as a shirtless beggar in the December cold. A third-grader being yelled at by the teacher on his birthday. A fart in the lift. Someone at my table being rude to the waiter, leaving me torn between righteousness and loyalty. Anyone driving with an “L” on their car. Me when I have to pay my monthly rent.
You feel the emptiness of a restaurant even before you see it is devoid of any patrons. The waiters whose shirts haven’t even creased all day, whose name tags are still glistening with sketch-pen ink, will greet you with desperate eyes and overeager smiles. They lean forward to the point where you can hear their racing heartbeat begging you to give it a shot. They heap you with all their thwarted hope. “How many people,” they ask. Upon an answer, they respond with a “Let me check”, with two large spoons of artificial nonchalance. There may be zero people inside, but the place is still filled with their unwavering pride.
Even as you take your seats, the urge to sprint is strong. Empty seats drive customers quicker than a pile of funky garbage at the front door. There’s even a term for it: the imaginatively thought-out and pretty self-explanatory “Empty Restaurant Syndrome” which succinctly states that nobody ever wants to be the only customer inside. If we are, our brain kicks into overdrive and a distinct discomfort descends. Why is this place empty? Is their supply… (shudder)… organic? Are their recipes stolen? Is the furniture haunted? Is the place a front for black money laundering? I think it’s a little too cold here. Where are all the cool people tonight?
A country of 1.2 billion people where a McDonald’s outlet during lunchtime resembles the Virar fast, is testament to the fact that there are enough people out there, at any given point of time, looking to go out for a nice/not-nice meal. And yet restaurants tank: Sometimes faster than Abhishek Bachchan movies. While my heart doesn’t break when AB bombs, I feel for a restaurant.
You plan to insist to your friends that every meal you go for must be had at that place, to the point of circulating a Change.org petition if that’s what it takes.
People don’t open up restaurants because it’s sound financial management with an assured return on investment within six months of bootstrapping the start-up. They’re not quite slick, business savvy, US-returned, grease-haired MBA yuppie schlongs with five-year plans outlined on Excel sheets littered with jargon and cynical exploitation. Restaurants come from a place of great passion, wherein someone feels a strong sense of connection to food and the art of eating out.
Every new place that opens up is trying something out. Restaurateurs are always so full of themselves because they feel a messianic fervour to redefine that relationship between an establishment and its patrons each time they start something new. Experts are spoken to; a great deal of time and effort is poured into researching every single aspect of the dining experience, beyond merely the food – the font on the menu card, the functionality of the cash register, those impossible-to-navigate swan napkins. And I’m sure it’s all done with so much enthusiasm; there’s clearly limitless excitement the owners feel when they start a new restaurant.
And then reality and Zomato reviewers come trolling and the dream begins to unravel… fast.
So even as you scout the menu while squirming in your seat, you can’t help being overcome by a primal urge to help out. You have the unreasonable itch to order literally every single item on the menu – even seafood, which you hate. You plan to insist to your friends that every meal you go for must be had at that place, to the point of circulating a Change.org petition if that’s what it takes. You want to chip in with helpful advice like a kindly elder brother, telling them that maybe the music could be a little softer, or that the lemongrass room-freshener they’ve used smells like Harpic, or that naan-pasta and Rooh Afza cocktails don’t seem to understand the difference between kitsch and shitsch.
But you do no such thing. You think instead of Jerry Seinfeld. See, Seinfeld went to Babu Bhatt’s new restaurant once. It sucked, so Seinfeld gave him some well-intentioned advice. Needless to say, it didn’t work out. The restaurant shut down, Babu Bhatt was deported, Seinfeld wound up in prison.
So you sit tight with your noble intentions but cannot bring yourself to order and after a 15-minute tryst, you mumble pathetic excuses like, “Oh, I forgot my wallet at home. I’m allergic to salt. My grandmother is unwell. The dog ate my homework.”
And then you sprint.
Akhil Sood writes about music and culture and struggles with the concept of Diet Coke.