Stress – the operational word for this experience. Unlike most participant-observation experiences relayed by the other writers in this blog, mine is quite different in the sense that my experience entailed a choice I made before the project was even announced. Also, it was a weeklong endeavour, which further emphasizes the toll it took on me and my groupmates. However, before I jump into the amazing experience that is the JSEC Challenge, let me first give a little background. The JSEC Challenge is an annual 3-part event wherein, for this academic year, a total of 84 out of almost 300 proposed stalls were chosen to participate. Each “phase” pits 28 stalls against each other, and only the best 4 will given the privilege to set up a stall in the actual JSEC for the coming school year. After the last phase, the next best 7 stalls across all phases will also be given the same privilege, bringing the total number of winners to 19.
My key informant for this participant-observation was my groupmate, Mio Yap, who currently owns The Burger Bunch in JSEC. Being an owner, he also went through the hardships of the JSEC Challenge, and he, along with his older brother (who is also a part-owner of their current stall) and his mom (who is a caterer and contributes much help to their current stall), provided most of the information and help we needed as we were chosen to take part in the third and final phase. This phase took place during the week of February 11-15.
For our stall, we decided to go with the name “The Chicken Lodge” because we decided to serve perhaps the most common and sellable food product – chicken. However, what made us different was the fact that we served purely grilled chicken cooked in our very own marinades, and while that contrasts the popular choice of any variant of fried chicken, it was a risk we were willing to take.
Before taking part as a stall owner in the JSEC Challenge, I’ve personally witnessed the Challenge from the point of view of a customer. That experience made me deeper appreciate the great difficulty it was to actually operate one of the stalls because during the operating hours of the challenge, which was from 9 AM to 4 PM, one could not really see what the owners undergo. Now that I’ve experienced being an owner, I could actually say that operating hours is the easiest time we have during the week because the real difficulty takes place behind the scenes – ingress/egress, food marinating, transferring equipment, fixing transportation, etc.
As an owner, I also able to form new friendships with other stall owners, especially with those of stalls nearby. Not all stalls operate similarly, but despite all these differences, almost all of the other owners I observed shared the difficulty of having to maintain their stall. One common problem we all experienced was the inevitable encounter with the Dean of the School of Management, Mr. Rudy Ang. Even before the challenge, we’ve heard of stories of how Dean Ang would be so intimidating in his questioning of a stall’s overall methods, practices, etc. that stall owners would actually end up crying because of his brutal honesty and criticism. “Kamusta si Dean Ang sa inyo?” was normal talk among owners and to be honest, I found this kind of fear-inducing presence interesting enough that I looked forward to it. Ultimately, our encounter with the Dean proved to be pleasant and positive.
Another difference between being a customer and being an owner is that as an owner, I had to constantly be there for my stall, thus I had to endure the heat practically the whole day. The Challenge took place in SEC Field, with huge tents blocking us from the sun, yet the numerous stalls, tables, and chairs made up for very little space, creating a very warm environment. As a customer, one would only be there for perhaps an average of 20-30 minutes for a visit, but I wound up staying an average of around 6 hours a day, every day, so one could imagine the heat I had to bear. In fact, constant presence also entailed sacrificing some of my class time, and I ended up cutting every subject once for that week.
One more thing owners had trouble dealing with was customer satisfaction. Word gets around, and some stalls would be known for having unsatisfactory food, or too little servings, or taking too long in service time. In fact, our stall had to deal with that last problem during our first day because we weren’t able to factor in the fact that our chicken took some time to grill. However, we adjusted, and we improved greatly in that regard for the remaining days.
On a personal level, I took on shifts of being the cashier for our stall. Being a math-loving person, I figured it would be easy because I could do the calculations in my head, but the task actually proved to be quite a tedious one. I had to tally every order on my own tally sheet, then constantly report to the official tally person assigned to our stall, all while giving change and serving drinks to the customer. Peak hours often took place around lunch time and towards the end, and doing all these tasks while keeping customers’ orders, in order, in my head was quite challenging.
Overall, the experience may have been uncomfortable at times, proved to be extremely stressful, but ultimately it may just be the most fulfilling endeavour I’ve had up to date. I learned much about how a JSEC stall works and it provided a glimpse into the food industry. I’m proud to say that all the effort I put in with my groupmates was not in vain as we were chosen to be one of the 19 stalls in next year’s JSEC.
1. What insights were gained from participation compared to just observing?
If I had only chosen to observe how owners dealt with their JSEC Stalls, I wouldn’t have been able to appreciate just how difficult it actually is. While it is still possible to gain much insight from observing, a hands-on experience provides a fresh perspective in the sense that you personally feel everything that transpires, may it be emotional or physical. A mere observation lacks that firsthand nature that actual participation provides. In my case, I personally experienced the stress of having to buy groceries almost every night, bringing my car back and forth to our “headquarters” and school, dealing with Dean Ang, etc. In essence, participating maximizes your exposure and knowledge of a certain activity and gives you a more tangible basis for analysis and reflection.
2. What did having a key informant add to your understanding?
The key informant allowed for a clearer understanding of what we needed to do and what was going to happen. It lessened the potential for unexpected and unwanted events because we learn from our mistakes, and our key informant has already once gone through the process. In my case, it was a huge help that we knew the do’s and don’t’s of the JSEC Challenge. We didn’t have to constantly refer to a collection of rules and guidelines. Basically, having a key informant provided much ease and comfort, which was much needed in such a stressful environment.
3. What was learned from participant observation at this event that a questionnaire or interview about it might miss?
Definitely a mere questionnaire or interview wouldn’t do justice to the JSEC Challenge experience because it’s a 5-day event that requires a lot of physical work and presence. All the experiences and memories of the event could not be provided by these other means and even if one can create a very excellent questionnaire or interview, I don’t think it is possible to capture all the learnings and insights that I received by actually participating.
4. For what purposes might a questionnaire or interview be better than participant observation?
A questionnaire or interview would definitely be an easier and more convenient approach than participant-observation. Events like the JSEC Challenge prove to be quite time-consuming and as stated in an answer to the previous question, it requires a lot of physical work and presence. One can still learn a lot from a questionnaire or an interview even if they are deprived of a hands-on experience especially if it is conducted with several knowledgeable informants. Their combined accounts of the event could suffice to some extent and provide the conductor much insight. Another benefit of using a questionnaire or interview is that you are able to focus on what you really want to know. You can pinpoint certain issues/factors/elements with regards to the event that you may not be able to fully observe had you personally immersed yourself in the environment.
SA 21 – P