It’s 5.00am in Cardiff and I’ve been awake since 4.15am. As usual, the air-lock door swings open when I wake and 101 thoughts come rushing through like sea water breaching a submarine compartment. The bells of the town hall ring out every 15 minutes and, after a while, I think “bugger it” and decide to get some work done. There’s nothing wrong with the Cardiff Hilton – in fact I would go as far as to say it’s a good hotel for it’s genre – very modern, very clean – although why does every hotel in the world have a desk lamp that doesn’t work? Do they buy them especially? Last night I used the hotel gym to “enjoy” a 5k treadmill run in exactly 30 minutes (not good but not bad) and then 15 minutes on the rowing machine. After a quick sauna and swim I avoided the hotel bars and restaurants (mid-week and full of lost souls like myself) and wandered a few streets away to seek out pasta and red wine – and to finish reading The History of Love. There, a few hundred yards away, were Pizza Express and Zizzis – two doors away from each other (and owned by the same franchise company). I have often said that, when I travel, I use franchise businesses because I can trust the brand (Hilton, Pizza Express, Tony & Guy for haircuts). I own loyalty cards with most of these franchises – after all, what do points make? Prizes! So, with my trusty Pizza Express Club Card, I wandered in, expecting the same service as I enjoy all over Britain. But no. A flustered young man walked in my direction and, before I could utter a “table for one please” he volunteered, “I won’t be able to sit you at a table for at least 10 minutes.” If the place were rocking I could understand and sympathise – but looking around I saw that a good half of the tables were empty. Pizza Express is often full to the brim with happy customers – so what gives here? Well, I was to find out. I sat by the door with a small group of equally confused potential diners, all of whom were getting the same story from Mr “Its more than my job’s worth to give you a table”. As I waited I switched into observation mode. He (the waiter) was working alone, trying to serve a host of tables – not another staff member in sight except for much further down on a lower floor. He was working at one pace – and one pace only – calm, steady, slow and “I’m not going any faster than this.” Behind the open plan kitchen, one chef diligently spun pizza bases – at one speed only. Ah ha! Short-staffed. Maybe because of illness, maybe because of a recent departure – who cares? Not a manager in sight and no sign of any improvement. My potential “waiter” wasn’t waiting on table, he was making sure that we waited, so as to regulate the flow of his work. “I’m off” I thought, as bad customer service and a late digestion problem were off my list for the evening. I muttered something about “you can tell when a place hasn’t got it’s act together” to a confused couple stood behind me and I walked out of the door, turned right and, two doors down, walked into Zizzis. “Can I help you?” said the cheery girl who greeted me. “Yes – tell me you are not short-staffed and I won’t have to wait 20 minutes to get served.” “No problem”, she said (magic words) “A table for one and we will serve you straight away.” Within 10 minutes I was tucking in to penne, wild mushrooms, rocket and pine nuts (beautifully cooked in olive oil – plain and simple) with a glass of still water and another of valpolicella. Great food, served quickly and a chance to finish reading my latest novel. Settling the bill with a generous tip, I explained my previous experience to my waitress. “Ah – well we are better then Pizza Express anyway.” How true – and yet how sad. Stephen Covey would say “if there is a problem with the team, the problem is you.” I wonder where the Pizza Express manager was last night? Paddi Lund would say “blame a system, not a person.” I agree – the flustered waiter was doing his best, in the absence of the usual system. I bet the boys at Pizza Express head office would be livid. Anyway – its 5.30am now and I’ve had a cup of tea and the obligatory shortbread biscuit. I’ll catch upon emails and then get ready for my practice visit today.