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Daily Archives: September 17, 2009

Tipping in US vs. Europe Round 1

As promised, here is the first installment of a conversation about the tipping system of the US vs Europe specifically (and can be extended to the rest of the world). And you’ll see why Erik correctly characterized me as “loquacious”.

Blogger Erik, who proudly lives in Spain after growing up in the US started his argument, stated as a series of myths, as presented in my previous post. His first point was this:

1) Myth: Service is better in the US because of tipping.

I have lived in Europe for over eight years now, and I can see no difference in the overall nationwide level of service between the US and Europe. This is, of course, only anecdotal evidence, and it would be awesome to see some hard data, like average wait time, etc. The problem is that good data on this topic would be impossible to obtain. There are too many other variables, e.g. server mood, how many customers in the establishment, how many waiters, what kind of food is being ordered, what quality and price of food is being ordered, waiter experience, etc. Anecdotal evidence is all we have to go on here, which renders this point completely a matter of opinion. However, if you  are an American and wish to argue this point after having spent a week in Paris, Barcelona, London, or Prague and never having left the tourist zone, I suggest you defer your opinion to an expatriate. I would love to hear what other American expats in Europe think about this, and especially from any European expats living in the US.

I responded as follows:

I too have lived in Europe (7 years in Germany). The dining culture is different in Europe than it is in the US. First of all, we have much larger restaurants that have to be staffed up. I live in a medium sized city (about a million) and within a 5 mile radius of me, I can count at least 25 restaurants that seat over 150 people. There are probably over 120 restaurants of that size in the metropolitan area. Restaurants in Europe tend to be much smaller. Most of our restaurants goes on a wait around 12 noon and 7pm almost every night (except for Sunday and Monday perhaps) because Americans tend to dine out between 12 – 1:30 for lunch and 7- 9pm for dinner). People wait between 30 minutes to 2 hours just to get seated. And Americans are far more focused on speed. If they don’t get greeted within 2 minutes, they start complaining. If they don’t get their first drink within 4 minutes, it’s horrible. How do I know? Because we have “secret shoppers” who grade us on these time standards.

“Service standards”are more relaxed in Europe, which allows them to staff at lower levels than the US. Comparing service standards here and there are futile because there are too many variables. Europeans tend to treat dining out more socially than Americans do. They spend more time at table and aren’t as concerned about getting their entree five minutes after their salad. this allows a restaurant there to have 5 servers instead of 10. heck, in the restaurant that I worked at before this one, we had 10 servers (12 when the patio was open), 3 bartenders, a bar back and FIVE server assistants just to handle the crush. And you couldn’t get a table for at least 45 minutes if you got there after 6:30. and this was for a casual mass market restaurant that sat 175+ people.

I ate a lot in Central Europe (although never in Spain) and was just fine with the slower pace. Many of the restaurants that I frequented only have a handful of servers (and were MUCH smaller). I might wait a couple of minutes at the door just waiting for someone to acknowledge me so I could be sat because the servers were also responsible for seating people. That would be unacceptable here in the States due to the expectations of Americans. However, I didn’t complain about it because that’s just the way things were. You adapted quickly.

Here in the States, we don’t have a lot of street food. So, most of the dining, especially during the day, is funneled into restaurants. Hence the crush.

Erik then had a couple of reasonable questions:

Thanks for this, Teleburst. It’s nice to have another anecdotal account about the differences between the dining experiences in US and Europe, particularly from a country where I have dined only a handful of times.

I agree that Europeans are in less of a hurry than Americans. I count this as a win for the European side. Another difference is that the vast majority of American restaurants are huge franchised chains. How many of 25 restaurants close to you are of the TGIFridays, Applebee’s, Outback Steakhouse variety? And how many of the “small” restaurants you went to in Europe were owned by national corporations? This is exactly what I was referring to when I mentioned that tipping was about the rich (corporations) taking advantage of (paying shitty salaries to) the waiters in the US. Call me a liberal commie, but this goes against my moral values.

I then replied, including his questions in my reply:

You can count it as a “win” for the European side, but it ignores the *reality* of my rationalization of tipping being better for this type of service.

“How many of 25 restaurants close to you are of the TGIFridays, Applebee’s, Outback Steakhouse variety?”

Probably about half. There are 5 high-end steakhouses alone (two of which are non-chains but none of which are of the “variety” that you mention). There are at least 2 American bistro independent restaurants large enough to fall into the 150 seat or more size. There are probably another 5 “independent” type restaurants of various types of the variety that you mention. The rest would be your TGI Fridays’ Chilis sort of places. And I didn’t count the handful of smaller “fine dining restaurants”, the ubiquitous Starbucks/cafe-style bakeries, Mexican restaurants, Chinese buffets, smaller Vietnamese pho shops. Throw all of those into the mix and you have another 30 restaurants, some of which like the Chinese buffets, tipping is only incidental and the servers *are* paid higher wages.

” And how many of the “small” restaurants you went to in Europe were owned by national corporations”?

Many of them were family owned. And it’s easy to do that when you’re not servicing 600 people a day. It’s easy to pay a wait staff of 3 people a full wage, especially when Uncle Luigi is the chef.

“This is exactly what I was referring to when I mentioned that tipping was about the rich (corporations) taking advantage of (paying shitty salaries to) the waiters in the US. Call me a liberal commie, but this goes against my moral values.”

You are simply ignoring the difference in scaling from here and there. I can assure you that I’m not being “taken advantage of”. I, and most of my brethren, are making more than most other service sector jobs. We are tipped a lower wage because of the fact that tipping is the system.

America is quite different logistically than Europe. With the exception of places like Manhattan, the small family neighborhood restaurant paradigm isn’t something that’s particularly successful there. Sure, it might be successful on a case by case basis, but not as a majority of the dining operations. This is because, let’s face it, America is a driving/commuting/parking lot society. This is based on geography. While I personally prefer the idea of mass transit/biking/walking/neighborhood shops of Europe, you can’t deny geography. While I prefer the more relaxed and quaintness of European dining, I can’t ignore how this is allowed by a wage system, and I can’t deny American’s impatience with just about everything, especially including dining.

Stay tuned for Round 2, probably posted in the morning.

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Photo of Spanish waiter from http://www.johnnyjet.com/blog/myblog.html

Responding to observation of non-tipping in Europe

On August 31st, Erik, an expat living in Spain posited this, in his post intitled “Tipping”:

“One difference between the US and Spain – and the rest of Europe, I think – is the practice of tipping in restaurants and bars. In the US, tipping is such a common custom that the waiters’ salaries are reduced, sometimes below minimum wage, under the assumption that the tips that they make will put them back over the minimum wage. In Spain, waiters are paid at least minimum wage, and there is no tipping whatsoever. None. If the check comes and it says 4.80€, you put down a 5€ bill and you wait for the change to come back. That’s the norm. I submit to you that the European system of non-tipping is inherently superior to the American system of tipping”.

He then went on to make three major points:

1) Myth: Service is better in the US because of tipping.

2) Tipping demeans waiters.

3) Tipping favors the rich over the poor.

Under each point, he proceeded to make his case.

In my next four posts, I’ll be addressing each of his points and I’ll post the update that he posted after our conversation.

Normally, this sort of observation is made after someone goes to Europe on vacation and is astounded to find that tipping is only incidental as best. They come back enamored of the idea that the US should adopt the same system. I was especially interested in this because it wasn’t someone who didn’t really have much knowledge of the European dining culture but someone who had lived there for close to a decade.

On one hand, this would make it hard to defend tipping in the States because he had knowledge of both systems and he still came to this conclusion. He didn’t come to it after a superficial “if this is Tuesday it must be Belgium” sort of experience. On the other hand, however, it might actually make it easier if I could point out the structural differences between both systems that he could recognize but hadn’t possibly thought of. I did have one thing working in my favor – I too had lived in Europe for close to a decade (in Germany) and had seen the dining culture of Europe up close and personal.

You can find his post here:

http://www.erik-rasmussen.com/blog/2009/08/31/tipping/comment-page-1/#comment-4817

So, stay tuned.

For those of you who like to turn to the end of the book early, or don’t mind being spoiled about a movie plot, you can read the update at the end of his post or read the comment section to find out how it all turns out. Otherwise, feel free to  ~cue dramatic organ music~   follow our intrepid hero as he goes on a cliffhanging, 4 part adventure into the unknown!

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Top Chef episode 5

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Image courtesy of http://serenabartonsblog.blogspot.com/

This episode was hot and dry, sort of the Joanna Lumley of Top Chef episodes.

Disclaimer – I am the proud owner of a Walrus four person tent, a Sierra Designs one person tent,  a 26 year old Gregory internal frame state of the art backback (that set me back almost $200 way back when!), various backpacking stoves, fuel bottles, water bottles, tarps, flashlights and other assorted house-on-your-back stuff. None of which has been deployed for several years.

While it wasn’t exactly Survivor, it was funny to see these folks scrambling around in the desert because, not only is the desert hot in the day, it can get cold at night. I’ve experienced this when I was deployed to Ft. Irwin, California to take part in Army OPFOR exercises (Opposing forces exercises where the “home team” was outfitted as Russian troops). 40 degrees is damned cold when you’ve been working in 100 degree heat all day. We didn’t have cute teepees though.

But let’s go back to the beginning (ignoring the opening which was a bit flat and maudlin in turns), where we get one of the most taciturn, yet critical judges yet,  Tim Love. He’s pretty clipped and curt and looks like he just ate a rattlesnake one rattle at a time.  It’s appropriate that the viewers chose a prickly ingredient for a sometimes prickly guest judge. When Tim Love smiles, it’s through gritted teeth.

Mike Isabella is starting to come on strong after a bit of hubris hovering over his boastful statements about his abilities. Maybe there’s something behind it. And, isn’t just adorable how our little mime pronounces cactus “cactrus”?

We see ceviche becoming a dominate theme in this episode, something that is borne out later when our intrepid chefs are thrown into “the wilderness”.  Various chefs struggle with the sliminess of the cactus but Mike has the best solution and that is to let salt draw a lot of that sliminess out.

“Wet spot”! Best.Line.Ever.

Poor Ron. He just keeps getting outgunned, outclassed, and outdone by both the other chefs and the various challenges. He’s only hanging on by his accent. However, we’ve seen this before. All it takes is one challenge that’s actually in his wheelhouse and he could very well regain his equilibrium. But I doubt this will happen. He just doesn’t seem to respond well to this format.

When the chefs are told of their challenge, they seem to get the right idea. At least it seems that way. I suspect that there will be some serious failures to execute along the way. And I’m right. But here’s the thing, nobody said anything about ceviche during the Whole Foods segment. Serving ceviche to ranchers? That’s like Andrew from two seasons back serving vegetarian sushi rolls to firefighters. Not the smartest ploy if you ask me.

I know, hindsight is 20/20, but if it had been me, considering the guest judge, the prospective audience and the cooking conditions, I would have probably gone with pork “country-style ribs”. They aren’t really ribs, they are rib-shaped slices from the pork shoulder. Not having enough time to properly smoke and pull them (even though they are smaller, they still take a couple of hours to cook to the point of pulling or being tender enough to eat), I would have probably broken them down into bits and “smoked” them that way. I’d have tossed them in a quick rub and gone to town. Made some sort of BBQ “stew” using a little commercial beef stock and water. Maybe an onion, a carrot, a foiled wrapped potato cooked directly on the coals and then diced at the point of being firm but cooked. Grabbed a couple of cans of BBQ beans, a jalapeño and some canned pineapple and heated a slightly spicy/sweet pineapple BBQ beans dish over a smoky fire under a tin foil canopy. But it’s easy to be a Monday morning quarterback.

What? Our Aryan princess/dominatrix doesn’t like losing control of the cooking environment.? What a shocker.

Frankly, I was disappointed at the challenge. A little over an hour doesn’t allow much use of flame and smoke, especially since it seemed that they were allowed no prior prep time as they usually are when cooking at a remote site. I also wonder if they weren’t allowed to even start the fires until the challenge began. If they weren’t, that seems a bit harsh. I’m also surprised that no one used the griller/smoker that was seen in some of the shots. Ashley seems concerned about even heating. Why not use one of those instead of the fire rings?

Bears and cougars. Saw that coming a mile away.

Even though I’m uncomfortable mentioning it, Ron’s Aunt Jemima moment was chuckle-producing. And who doesn’t love them a little voodoo?

Hey Eli, you’re asinine. No, Teleburst, you’re asinine. No, you are.

Gotta love a well-placed outhouse. I’m surprised it wasn’t labeled as a GE Monogram outhouse.

So Ash was an “animal psychologist” in a prior life. Probably tried to break the id of a cat and failed miserably. That’s why he’s a chef now.

Cooking, cooking, slipping, banging, spraying, buckboard raiding, sword-needing. More cooking, flaming, baking (in the sun).

Hey Mike, it’s not gyro as in gyroscope.

Dashi. Like a good Thai coconut based dish, always a good, smart choice. I love me some dashi.

Could shrimp/prawns be the undoing of yet another chef? Oh dear – “chlorine”. I suspect that he meant “ammonia”, but same difference really. If it was chlorine, could the cooler that she used might have been sanitized but not completely rinsed out? I suspect that this would be picked up by the ice and transferred to the shrimp, especially if the bag that they were stored in wasn’t sealed correctly.

What is Cesar Rosas from Los Lobos doing ranching? Did the last album tank?

Hey, bearded old fogey – wipe your mouth! Don’t you know that you’re on television? Where were you raised, in a barn? Oh, you were. Never mind.

Ron doing Haitian Tai Chi. Rippin’!

Tasting, tasting, tasting, evaluating, spitting out, pulling faces, praising, praising, praising…

Here’s a hint to the viewer, when a cheftestant is shown on camera saying that they thought that their food was great, plan on seeing an unpleasant Judges’ Table® experience.

JT was fairly brief on all counts. Not much to talk about really. Robin showed the wisdom of copping to mistakes. Mattin made the common mistake of continuing to defend his food. Ron was just sort of there.

And so, with a fond wave of the baguette, we bid a fond adieu to our mime. In this case (paraphrasing Billy Crystal in This is Spinal Tap), mime isn’t money. We pull a Marcel Marceau with a single painted tear on a whitewashed cheek and we expressively and silently wave goodbye while standing crookedly against an imaginary wind.

Mattin, please take your beret and go.

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