So You Want To Be A Waiter

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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.

PicForNewsletterSpainSept2006SantiagoDeCompostelaOldestHotelWaiter

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

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