"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Monday, April 30, 2018

Good Service–Why There Is So Little Of It

Americans who travel to Paris for the first time are often uneasy in French restaurants.  There is an indifference, they say, a remove, and an an arrogance.  The diner feels a certain responsibility to eat properly, to use the right fork; to order correctly, and to behave.  The waiter is there to judge this, they feel, an arbiter of high French standards, uncompromising in upholding them, and critical of those who fall below the mark.

There is much truth to this.  Thanks to a long and storied history of their profession and its particular attention to food, presentation, and service; and who can be a bit impatient with dawdling, uniformed tourists with the money to pay for two stars but without the grace, confidence, and presence to belong in a fine restaurant, can be forgiven for their sniffiness.  For a waiter who for most of his life has served patrons who respect food, the culture of cuisine, and the unique joys of eating, the influx of Easterners flush with euros but with no sense of either taste or cadre, is an insult. 

Serving has always been a profession in France, one that requires training, apprenticeship, and hard work, and patience.  The food, its presentation, the waiter who serves, and the restaurant itself are all part of one experience.  No element can be be out of place or wrong.  The food must be classic, familiar, but carefully and perfectly prepared.  The presentation must be designed to bring out color and texture and to enhance the complementarity of individual foods but to assure their uniqueness. The décor must be evocative of a period of French culinary history.  Brasseries, for example, must be undiminished in their ornateness and as bright and reflective as they were 100 years ago.  Perhaps most of all the service must express the respect owed to tradition, the art of cuisine, and to the sophistication of patrons who appreciate it. 

Image result for images paris brasseries

There can be no greater or more telling difference between the cultures of France and America that of food, cuisine, and service.  While American cooking can now rival the best of France and in the opinion of many surpass it.  Thanks to Alice Waters and her generation of California cooks who prize organic, locally-produced, seasonal foods; chefs who never hesitate to innovate and borrow from Asia, Africa, and Latin America as well as Europe; and the newfound appreciation and promotion of regional cooking, it is American cuisine, no longer nouvelle or experimental but a world standard, which is imitated.

Restaurants themselves have been made over to reflect the organic and local nature of the cuisine.  In California especially, restaurant designers have understood the intricate complementarity between the food prepared, where it was grown, and where it is served.  Restaurants must be as simple, organic, and natural as the food served within them.

Image result for images alice waters' restaurant california

The French paradigm, however is missing one critical ingredient in America – service.  Waiting is not a profession but an occupation, often a starter job for young people still studying, making a go in a new city, or on their way to a a more accountable career.  While they may have been trained in the basics of food service – efficiency, courtesy, and responsiveness – they have no tradition behind them; no ethos to uphold; and no sense of cuisine as a cultural value.  While the chef may create unusual, if not remarkably innovative dishes, much goes wrong once it leaves kitchen.  The waiters have been given an outline of the ingredients and preparation – a coulis of this, a spray of that; seared, roasted, grilled; combined with, set off by; sourced from local waters, farms, and gardens – but they do not know the food and its particular flavors; nor do they have the language to express the complementarity of taste or the concept of suffusion.  Sommeliers in Napa and Sonoma restaurants are more astute about matching sub-categories of varietals with the particular offerings of the chef, but those out of touch with the vineyards themselves and inexperienced in the wide range of wines available, cannot hope to be.  They too must rely on outlines – the basics of pairing.

The most distinct cultural difference between French and American waiters is familiarity.  Americans who understand that waiting tables, even in better restaurants, is a work of passage.  Waiters are on their way to somewhere else like most young Americans, and experiences are to be shared.  Not only is there no reason for reserve, it is considered impolite, even disrespectful.  We are all in this together.  We have all been here one way or another. 

Image result for images french waiter paris 30s

American waiters have been trained to be attentive to patrons – to be sure they are satisfied with their meal and want for nothing.  Whereas French waiters have been trained to respond quickly to polite signals from diners, American waiters have been schooled to ask or serve first.  “How is everything?” Water poured in half-filled glasses; wine topped off – intrusive, unnecessary, and irritating interruptions of the meal. Once again, American wait staff have been given the outline, not the substance.  An experienced and properly trained waiter can read body language, overhear critical remarks, and anticipated dissatisfaction; and can stay unobtrusively away until needed.  Again, it is not enough to apply the French paradigm of complete, integrated dining pro forma but to understand the dynamics of dining. 

Patrons are not excused from responsibility for the lack of quality service.  Americans are traditionally hesitant to complain either to the waiter or the maître d’ either because of the camaraderie established between them and their waiters or because of uncertainty about when a complaint is justified.  If one does not like the food, is it right to complain and send it back? Are only functional irregularities – too much salt, too tough, or too cold – justified? It takes a sophisticated diner and waiter to discuss anything more subtle or complex.  If the dish is not presented as advertised – that is if the hints of sage are imperceptible; the raspberry wine reduction too condensed to complement the pavé de boeuf; the charlotte aux pommes prepared with the wrong variety of apples to give the high flavor required – there is reason to complain; but if neither diner nor waiter have any appreciation of the complex preparation required to create a dish, then discussion is meaningless.

Image result for images charlotte aux pommes

Restaurants are perhaps the best example in a discussion of quality of service because they require a number of interactions between service staff and patrons; but the poor service standards throughout the retail industry are as disturbing.  Although many merchants are becoming more attentive to client satisfaction, they have been reluctant to make significant strides because of cost and lack of competition.  CVS pharmacies in Washington DC were notorious for their poor service.  Franchise managers who realized that competition from Walgreens or independent drug stores was weak or non-existent, hired low-quality, minimum-wage employees and gave them cursory training because they could.  However as customers, even in a market dominated by CVS, began to complain and defect, the chain improved its customer relations.  They realized that they could find motivated foreign workers willing to work for low-wages but whose background, culture, and experience encouraged attentiveness, courtesy, and attentiveness.  Whole Foods markets, always a leader in customer service satisfaction also hired many foreigners whose attitude – happy to be in America, employed, and productive – contributed to quality service.

In other words, in America service never has come first; but given an increasingly competitive market and more sophisticated consumers, they were forced to change.  The same was true of Starbucks, a chain which because of the consistently high quality of its product, early entry into the high-end coffee business, and aggressive, savvy marketing commanded the market.  As a result service suffered; but after persistent complaints and a diversifying marketplace, the company put new, simple, more efficient operational routines in place.  They recruited good managers who also understood and were attentive to the social environment in which they offered coffee.  The approached the French paradigm with integrated product-service-environment.

Product service requests are often handled off-shore; and once again major companies such as United Airlines, HP, and others have found that young Filipinos and Indians, happy for the opportunity to work in an international market, make good customer services employees.   Cost and service curves have intersected.

Image result for image filipino call center worker

The public sector has been slow to respond largely because of a captive audience in a non-competitive environment.  There are good reasons why residents of the District of Columbia have feared going to the DMV or dealing with the tax bureau, or housing authority.  There has been no incentive for improvement, a continuing high percentage of political patronage jobs, and above all no competition.  Yet, DC residents have looked for and found political support in local officials, and have learned that even the miserable bureaucracy of Washington can be effected.

Image result for images long lines dmv

Good service, then, is a product of both culture and economics.   Whereas in Europe service was a profession,  and pride and dignity went with it; in America service has always been a waystation on the road of upward mobility.  There was nothing special about the service-customer relationship, nothing inherently important deriving out of a larger culture of respect.   Better service has come about not because of any enlightened thinking about social relationships, but because of money.  As Engine Charlie Wilson, former CEO of General Motors once famously said, “The business of America is business”, thus perfectly characterizing American culture.  Most everything about America is contractual, from marriage to mortgages, all within a legal framework, with disputes settled in court.  The marketplace is the amoral, unsympathetic arbiter of values.

Is service improving across the board in America? Yes, certainly.  In fits and starts in some industries, apace in others, and continually lagging behind in the public sector where improvement is unlikely to happen until most services are privatized in a competitive environment. 

Yet, while service providers have become superficially more respectful and accommodating, the nature of transactions has become skewed.  The electronic, diversified, competitive marketplace is extremely difficult to negotiate for most consumers.  Anyone trying to decipher health care plans or insurance knows this well.  Customer service in such an environment is a completely different experience; one which will not improve until the embryonic pressures for a more transparent, accessible, and open marketplace are felt.

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