British people complain three times a day about small things, apparently. According to The Independent newspaper, we complain about waking up with bad hair, forgetting to buy milk and someone treading mud into a carpet. Top of the list are the Wi-Fi not working, supermarket self service tills, traffic queues and feeling overworked. Most interestingly, 45% of Brits don’t complain until they get home…
I rarely complain – it’s not in my nature. I’m a happy soul and I believe in positivity as a lifestyle. I was brought up to be polite and nice. But I was also brought up to speak out when things aren’t fair or right. It can be difficult bringing the two together, but at times it’s impossible not to be honest.
So here’s the dilemma I found myself with last week and I wonder – should I have complained less or more, and if so how? I was mystified by what was the right thing to do. Imagine yourself in my situation here. You go out with lovely people for a nice Sunday lunch. Everyone is happy – then the food arrives and it’s not good – see the picture above. What do you do? I can hear many people shouting, you have to say something. But what if it would make the people you’re with feel awkward? What if it’s not the fault of the people you’d be complaining to. What then?
It was to do with the vegan option. Ah, of course, I hear you say. As vegans, we’ve never had it better. In most places you go to eat nowadays, there’s a ‘plant-based’ option. That’s good, isn’t it? That’s what we want. Or maybe there’s a catch here. What does plant-based actually mean? Sometimes it’s great and tasty, but it’s often a catch-all for something tasteless and homogenous.
So, here’s the story. I attend a Sunday lunch miles from home. The place we’d booked was popular. I looked at the menu online before I went there and, to be honest, none of the four vegan choices really appealed, but everyone else was happy to be there, so I was happy too.
The warning signs began immediately as I arrived. Once inside the restaurant, a sign told us to wait to be seated. There was no-one around and the phone was ringing on the tiny desk. No one came. Eventually, a woman turned up, ignoring the phone and led us to table 52. She said, ‘Decide what you want and order it at the bar.’ I glanced towards the bar. There was a queue of twenty-five people waiting to be served, being attended by one woman. Immediately, I knew that the restaurant was understaffed, that the people working there might be stressed and under pressure, and that there must have been a conscious decision on the part of the owners not to employ enough people to wait on the high volume of diners. I already felt sorry for them. Then I thoght about sharing lunch with my friends and I was determined we’d have fun – it’s the company that counts, the conversations, the good times.
I queued up, and when it was my turn, the woman behind the bar trotted out the corporate line. ‘Thanks for waiting.’ I asked for the drinks and the food that I’d been sent to order. Everyone knew what they’d have. It was just me, the vegan, who hadn’t made up her mind.
I didn’t fancy the kale salad with plant-based meatballs, or the double plant-based burger and chips with a melted slice of Violife cheese, or the crusted sweet potato pie with chips and gravy. That left one vegan option, so I smiled sweetly and said, ‘The vegan fish and chips – can I have it with a baked potato instead of chips?’
‘Yes,’ She turned to type it in the machine.
‘So – what is it?’
‘The plant-based fish – what is it?’
The woman was nonplussed. ‘It’s plant-based.’
‘But plant-based what?’ I asked.
‘You tell me what you can’t eat…’ she tried.
‘No, can you tell me what’s in it please, and I’ll tell you if I want it.’
The woman looked confused, so I tried harder. ‘If it’s made from tofu or banana blossom…’ (I make both of those at home.) ‘Or aubergine, then that’s great.’
‘Wait there,’ she replied. There was a queue of over thirty people behind me. Several minutes later she was back. ‘It says plant-based on the box.’
On the box? So, it was precooked and just heated up…? I shrugged – maybe nice things come in boxes? Maybe it was a time-saving meal that just needed crisping? Perhaps I was being a fussy vegan? ‘Well, I’ll try it.’ As an afterthought I said, ‘Please don’t put butter in the jacket potato.’
Everyone on table 52 was tucking into their carvery and microwaved pre-cooked fish dinners when my lunch arrived. I looked at it and couldn’t help laughing. I mean, I actually burst out laughing, much to the embarrassment of my fellow eaters. Then they saw it too. On the plate, there were a few peas, a shrivelled microwaved spud (with no butter, just as I’d requested…) and two nicely-presented golden lumps of something totally unrecognisable, that might have been soggy chicken’s lungs. I felt sorry for the waitress, but I said, ‘Is there anything to go on this?’
‘The tartare sauce contains dairy…’
‘I know…’ I tried again. ‘A slice of lemon, maybe?’
She returned a few minutes later with half a lemon in a tiny pot. I squeezed it over the lungs alongside half a pot of pepper. I attempted a mouthful, I really did but – no, I couldn’t eat it. How to describe the taste? Somewhere between cardboard and bitter sponge. Not pleasant, even worse than it looked. I tried the dry potato. It was hard in the middle, so I pushed it away. I ate the peas. They were great.
At the end of the meal, everyone else’s plates were almost clean. Mine was almost untouched apart from the peas. Then a waitress turned up and said, ‘How was your food?’
Everyone at the table attempted a smile and said, ‘Fine thanks.’
Then I said my few words. They just came out. ‘I cannot lie – it was honestly disgusting.’ I indicated the plate. ‘It was inedible, in fact.’ I tried again, with the kindest smile I could muster. ‘I have to say – if anyone ever asks for a recommendation, it’s not very nice at all.’
I immediately felt sorry for my friends, who were looking the other way and rolling their eyes in a ‘well, she does have a point, my food wasn’t great either, but I don’t want to say anything…’ kind of complicit expression. I felt even sorrier for the waitress. She looked helpless. It wasn’t her fault. The people I really needed to tell that the food was beyond insulting were miles away, enjoying the profits of their chain of inns.
‘I’m sorry,’ the waitress blurted. She looked at the plate. From the look on her face, she wouldn’t have eaten it either. ‘Well, maybe next time you come, you can try the burger – it’s really nice.’ I gave her my sweetest smile and said thanks for the advice, and with that she grabbed the dishes and scuttled away.
I’ve been to wonderful places where there are delicious vegan dishes – quiches, chilli, curries, nut roasts, risottos, pasta, a range of vegetables and breads and rice. Cooked from scratch. This place, in comparison, wasn’t good. But what should I have done? I didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, and the poor staff were overworked. It wasn’t even the chefs’ fault – they couldn’t control what was inside the box. I leaped into fun conversation with the others on my table and made light of the food – it wasn’t important – and the conversation bubbled. I didn’t want to spoil the celebration. I drank my wine and left it at that.
One of my party suggested buying puddings and taking them away – then someone else said, ‘They do great food at the market hall. Let’s go for puddings and coffee there.’
That’s what we did, we took ourselves elsewhere. I had mixed feelings about saying my piece in the pub afterwards though. If I’d saved one person from the vegan fish dinner, I’m glad. It had to be said to someone, but the waitress could do little other than agree. And I was really sweet about it. Perhaps I should have asked for a manager and suggested they try to eat it, but that might have been a step too far. It wasn’t her or his fault either. And I wanted to be honest, not nasty.
We left, went to the market hall and I found a vendor who sold me a plate of hummus and pitta bread, and I had an oat chai latte while everyone tucked into cakes and puddings and we had a great time. I’d learned my lesson – the pub was understaffed and the owners disrespectful to the people they employed and to the people to whom they served food. And that was the point. Underpaid staff working flat out struggling to put unpleasant food on a table, doing their best to make sure it gets there still warm, don’t need difficult customers to add to their problems. Their job couldn’t have been very fulfilling. I’ve done it myself once or twice in the past – they have my absolute sympathy.
The situation isn’t easy. We can’t always to go to the places where the food is good, I suppose. I tried to be honest and true to myself and to be nice to everyone else at the same time. It’s not easy to get the balance right, but I did my best. To complain or not to complain, that is the question. I thought it was better to say it earlier, at the place where it happened, and not wait until I got home, like the 45% of Brits.
What would you have done?