After our recent trip to French Polynesia, I am having some trouble pinning down exactly how I feel about the service we received at several high end establishments.
For the most part, the resort restaurants we patronized (from breakfast buffet to "fine dining,") were staffed by young, French speaking servers, some Polynesian, some French. My French is not perfect by any means, but my accent is good, and my rendition of "L'addition, s'il vous plait," is certainly understandable. Yet we encoutered, time and time again, being plain old ignored by our servers. They would forget second drinks we had ordered. They would take questions about ingredients and say they would ask the chef, but would never offer an answer. They would nod to the aforementioned "L'addition," question, and not print out our bill. They would not pre-bus, or bus the table at all (and there certainly was no bus person dedicated to this task). They put fingers in our taro mash. They forgot to fire our deserts. They pulled the lightest, wateriest single espresso I have ever had.
These were USD 300 + meals, mind you, not some regular, every day brasseries.
This got me to thinking about what I am used to as an American.
When I was trained for my first front of house job, as a waitress in a Bennigans (read: TGI Fridays), I learned about the windows of service. That the drink order should be taken within 5 minutes of seating. That there needs to be a checkback after each course is dropped for drinks, condiments, or possible problems with the order. If I did not follow these rules, chances were I would not make my 15-20% (which at a Bennigans is about $6-$8) tip. At subsequent jobs, and better venues, I learned about upselling water and drinks. It was in my best interest to sell as much food and drink as possible to the customer, not just to boost my restaurant’s profits, but to ensure I could make a living off of a percentage of that gross in the form of tips. I also needed to do as much business as possible and turn over as many times as I could. So if the food was not out yet, I went to the kitchen to find it before my customers had time to miss it. If something wasn’t on the table I went and got it myself, especially if I noticed my runner was weeded.
Since the service is included at those French Polynesian establishments, it made me wonder. Is French service more socialist and American service capitalist?
Granted, the corporatization of American restaurants is distasteful sometimes- hearing the same stock company script over and over to point where “it’s my pleasure to serve you,” loses its meaning. (Really, if I had wanted fries with that I would have asked for them. Fries are not something I need help remembering.)
But the hustle and elbow grease that I’ve come to expect for my 20% seems to be a special thing.
Or is it?