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James Huang | 2023.12.31

It is a widely recognised truth that the Food and Beverage (F&B) industry in Hong Kong is not designed to be customer-centric. This may seem counter-intuitive to some, given that the very essence of the service industry should be to cater to the needs and desires of the customer. However, in Hong Kong, the primary beneficiary of this sector's operations is not the patron but the property owner.

The reputation of Hong Kong's service industry, particularly its F&B sector, has over the years garnered a reputation for its brusque manner. A comparison with neighbouring regions, China included, would reveal a stark contrast in the level of customer service offered. Some establishments have even adopted this infamous reputation as a unique selling point, capitalising on the novelty of rudeness. This phenomenon, a long-standing characteristic of the Hong Kong F&B industry, has recently been thrust into the spotlight on social media platforms, drawing much criticism.

The recent surge in complaints is more than mere gripes; it is an attempt to assign blame. The downturn in business and the shift of consumer spending to Japan and the Northern territories are often attributed to the poor service of Hong Kong's F&B industry. This finger-pointing implicates the millions of individuals who work in the service industry and, more specifically, those who work as waitstaff, labelling them as culprits of poor business performance.

From a consumer's perspective, regardless of whether there is a linkage between poor service and poor business performance, there is a general dissatisfaction with the high prices and low-quality service offered by Hong Kong's restaurants. This dissatisfaction has led to increased pressure on these establishments with the hope that the proprietors and service staff will "improve" under the strain.

However, if poor service were indeed the sole cause of business failure, wouldn't the solution be as simple as improving the quality of service and reducing prices? If this were the case, wouldn't entrepreneurs flock to open establishments with stellar service, thereby guaranteeing success?

The truth is, the individuals serving in these establishments cannot be simply transformed into customer service stars as seen in Taiwan or Japan with a mere pep talk. The crux of the matter lies in the fact that Hong Kong's F&B industry has long employed and retained staff with a coarse approach to service. The reason, as it turns out, is quite straightforward: these are precisely the kind of employees that the industry needs.

The turnover rate of tables in Hong Kong's restaurants far surpasses that of Taiwan. On average, Hong Kong sees a turnover rate three times higher than that of China. This means that for a restaurant of the same size, the volume of customers served in Hong Kong is two to three times greater than in other regions. This is due to the fact that the rent in Hong Kong is typically more than four times higher than in neighbouring regions, necessitating a turnover rate three times higher to support the exorbitant rents.

This not only means that the workload in the service industry is more than three times higher than in other areas, but it also means that speed is of the essence. If a restaurant cannot maintain this pace, with tables not being cleaned promptly, cutlery not prepared, food and drinks not served in a timely manner, and queues of customers waiting to pay, then even the most polite service in the world would be rendered useless.

In conclusion, the root of rudeness in Hong Kong's F&B industry lies not with the service staff but with the high rents and the relentless demand for efficiency. Until these systemic issues are addressed, the reputation of the Hong Kong service industry will remain unchanged, serving not the customer, but the property owner.