What kind of job is waiting tables?

In my last post, I introduced some of the problems surrounding service and tipping in Vancouver. Continuing with that theme is today's post, let's look at  the craft of service and the level of respect we show to the people who serve our food and drinks.

An Industry Divided

You may have noticed something about the restaurant industry these days: it is an industry divided. On the one hand, you have the big corporate chains like Joey’s, Cactus Club, and Earl’s. On the other hand, you have the smaller neighborhood restaurants, cafes, bistros and bars. While I'm reticent to say that one is better than the other—they cater to completely different crowds—one fact seems inescapable. One of them is selling appearances, the other substance.

This isn't to say that every neighborhood place is better than Cactus Club or Joey’s or any other “casual fine dining” chain. But it's a testament to the fact that you can do very well in food service by establishing a brand. And make no mistake, those little black dresses, cut above the knee, that you see on all the Cactus Club girls are very much part of that brand. They're as much a part of Cactus Club’s identity as Rob Feenie or the kitschy decor.

Recently, I sat down with Mayuko Peerless, general manager of Ouisi Bistro on Granville. While Ouisi is part of a group of restaurants and bars, it's very much a neighborhood bistro in practice. Flirty dresses have nothing to do with Ouisi’s service model. In fact, she recalls the experience of one of her servers, formerly a member of the corporate restaurant world.

This young woman had a job at one of the big chains. At the beginning of service, the manager would gather up the servers and walk down the line making comments like “You didn’t spend enough time on your make-up” or “Your skirt is too long,” clearly directing the servers to dress and act seductively towards the clientele. Of course, this is all directed towards the male customers.

And why not? Men will tip an attractive waitress for being attractive. If she’s friendly, they will tip even more in an effort to impress her. The more she flirts, the more they buy and the bigger the tip.

According to Peerless, some guys actually expect to go home with their server. Predictably, these guys are the same ones who do a lot of drinking and run up large tabs. They are also the ones who are prone to inappropriate touching.

Notice how these guys are paying for attractive girls, predictable food, and booze. Quality of service is likely a distant fourth on their priority list. This is not to say that such customers would fail to be offended by bad service. Rather, it is to say that they are not specifically rewarding good service when they leave a tip. Neither is the service what brings them back. Attractive girls and predictability bring them back.

The Small Restaurant Service Model

A place like Ouisi has to do something much different. Bistros live and die by the old adage “people go to a restaurant for the food but come back for the service.” If you want to succeed as a smaller place, you need to offer customers a reason to visit you, rather than eat somewhere like Joey’s.

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