Friday, 10 February 2012

Service Included

Despite the recent recession in the UK, the restaurant industry is thriving and more places keep opening up regularly, which as someone who takes advantage of the booming London restaurant scene, is great news. The problem that I have is that whilst the food gets better and better, the service can suffer badly.

In Europe, being in the service industry is a profession and people take it seriously. It is a skilled one, but one in the UK that is available to everyone potentially as many have a high staff turnover, so students and those temporarily out of work are readily available. So it acts as a stopgap for those youngsters – meaning that not all of them necessarily have the same amount of passion for the job in hand as those who take pride in their job (obviously I'm generalising, but you get my main point).

Image by Baron C. De Grimm

In the past twenty years or so, wait staff have got younger and younger. It is no longer a job to take pride in but a mere ‘stop-gap’ whilst saving for one’s gap year, or something to do in the school holidays. At the last restaurant I worked, when the inevitable, obligatory question ‘So... how often do you work here?’ came around, the answer 'I'm full-time at the moment', it was always hastily followed by ‘but this isn’t what I want to do…’. There isn't really a need to dismiss it so quickly. A lot of people do have a career in service and take pride in making a customer as happy as possible.

This generation of half-arsed servers don’t care about whether the plate is garnished before carrying it haphazardly into the restaurant from the pass, nor if the customer is enjoying the meal and certainly not if the customer is looking desperately looking around trying to attract the waiter’s attention because he or she wants to order drinks. 

The other more recent service trend seems to be in the hip pop-up phenomenon which (as is their forte) puts food right at the top of their priorities, not a bad thing in theory, but with design and atmosphere coming second, service is inevitably last, often resorting to the partners/friends of the new operation, who might have never even worked in service before. Chaos usually ensues.

Another reason that it is so difficult to get dedicated servers is the pay. Waiters and waitresses are notoriously badly paid, and so must either work very long hours, work in one of the very best places (which the higher up you go, is obviously more difficult, though you could argue that with any job) or look for another career which is less physically draining for the amount of money that you make.

A lot of restaurants have a distinctly unfair system when it comes to tip distribution, as far as I have ever experienced and heard about, anyway. Opening an envelope to find £20-worth of tips makes it difficult to believe that’s all you've earned from 3 months work – employers must be keeping some, AMIRIGHT. Some restaurants, of course, place an automatic charge on the bill for service. Basically, the staff are guaranteed a tip so where is the incentive to go that extra mile? Furthermore, some of the chains that automatically charge for service often take a percentage of that charge, meaning the big guys at the head of company profit further, presumably, despite not having done any ‘serving’ at all.

I want to go into a place that’s not full of ennui-filled 17-year old kids surreptitiously checking their Facebook on their phone and gossiping about that couple on table 2. I'd rather have the old Italian waiter in the trattoria who’s been there 30 years, who really cares and seems genuinely pleased to see you.

So bring back waiters and waitresses who really care about their jobs and for God’s sake, pay them a bit more, you can probably afford to! It’s as important a job as any other career, and the difference bad service can make to someone’s meal is phenomenal. Of course, this is not applicable to all restaurants, bars and cafes – there are plenty of places that have friendly waiting staff who care about what they’re doing and anticipate the customers’ every whim. But not enough. Yet. Maybe it’s the next restaurant trend.

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