Sunday afternoon we drove to the outskirts of Oxford for a bite to eat and then see the latest Bond film, Quantum of Solace.
The retail park that contains Oxford’s Vue Cinema also hosts an outlet of Frankie and Benny, the American-style Italianesque diner.
I wish I had good things to report about our visit to the latter. Sadly words almost fail and that isn’t good at all.
We walked in and stood by the cash register and waited to be seen.
Actually we were seen by several members of staff almost immediately we walked in.
Seen and ignored.
At least five times.
So we waited some more.
After waiting far too long (had there been an alternative dining outlet in the retail park I would have insisted that we should have walked out, but hunger kept me there) a guy – who we presumed to be the manager – walked up and said ‘Two seconds guys’.
We waited some more.
We were eventually shown to a table that hadn’t been laid or prepared correctly.
Unfortunately the floor underneath the table hadn’t been cleared either, but we didn’t notice that until I’d trodden on a very stale, greasy portion of chips (French Fries if one is from the far side of the pond).
We took our menus from the person who showed us to our seats and waited.
When the waiter returned to ask if we wanted to order drinks we also gave him our well-deliberated food orders.
To be scrupulously honest to these folks our food arrived quickly and it was good.
We ate and enjoyed.
Except for the part where the manager guy walked past the table, stopped, leaned over and removed a menu from the holder on our table.
Without so much as a please or a thank-you. Rude bastard.
Anyway, we finished our main courses.
And then waited.
And whilst waiting we deliberated over desserts which we eventually chose.
And then waited.
And then ordered.
When our two dessert-bearing dishes were put in front of us the waiter told Soph that she had no whipped cream because they’d run out. Nice of them to let her know and give her the opportunity of ordering something else.
My cheesecake had no cream of any variety, despite a statement to the contrary on the menu.
We ate our almost-but-not-quite-completely-presented deserts while I mentally grumbled about the shabby way Frankie and Benny had treated us. And as I did I began to look at the way the food chain presents itself – from an image point of view.
Sunday afternoon’s clientele was almost exclusively young families with very young children (apart from us, natch). I wondered how these 21st Century customers viewed the peculiar ‘early 1900s’ decor. I also wondered what relevance it had to them.
Did these customers, for example, come to Frankie and Benny’s because of the (you have to admit) quirky decor, or did they come simply because Frankie and Benny’s is there.
Black and white photographs of old jazz singers means what, precisely, in a family restaurant?
Or perhaps Frankie and Benny isn’t a family restaurant?
And there’s the rub.
Frankie and Benny might have intended their chain of food outlets to be a family restaurant within the context of 1940s/50s America, but in the hard light of 21st Century England the image is uncomfortably anachronistic.
And speaking of being uncomfortable…
When the staffÂ trot out the birthday cake for whoever it is, and the lights dim a little, they play a song over the PA. To a very familiar tune the lyrics are:
Happy Birthday to you
Happy Birthday to you
Happy Birthday [whatever your name is, we just want your money]
Happy Birthday to you.
(OK, I made the bit in the square brackets up, but those words sum up the Frankie and Benny experience for me)
And then they play Cliff Richard’s second-placed Eurovision entry ‘Congratulations’. The lyrics of this song are:
When I tell everyone that you’re in love with me
Congratulations and jubilations
I want the world to know I’m happy as can be.
Who could believe that I could be happy and contented
I used to think that happiness hadn’t been invented
But that was in the bad old days before I met you
When I let you
Walk into my heart
I was afraid that maybe you thought you were above me
That I was only fooling myself to think you loved me
But then tonight you said you couldn’t live without me
That round about me
You wanted to stay
I want the world to know I’m happy as can be
I want the world to know
I’m happy as can be.
Given that the majority of the birthday people there on Sunday were children, I couldn’t help feeling distinctly uncomfortable at this lyric.
But perhaps that’s just me being aware of what the message in the song actually is about – a couple declaring their (distinctly non family!) love for each other, rather than labouring under the enormous misconception that the words are just back-slappingly laudatory.
Although the food was good the service was absolutely dire and the manager led by example as exemplified by his rudeness. Added to these aspects, the overall ambience was little better than sitting in a crÃ¨che, whilst the exceptionally poor standard of front-of-house cleanliness made me seriously question how clean the food preparation and cooking areas were!
So Frankie and Benny’s – whose registered UK office is in Marshalsea Road, Borough, London, SE1 1EP, there are a couple of messages here.
Your chain in Grenoble Road Oxford needs some serious hands-on management. You need to rethink the appropriateness of playing ‘Congratulations’ for every birthday presentation (and indeed, examine the meaning behind the lyrics and rethink how appropriate it is full stop!) and you really should think about doing something with your image, the one you have now is lacklustre, tired and 15-20 years out of date.
Stick a fork in it. You’re done.