This may shock some people that really know me, but the biggest adjustment I have when traveling back to the United States is getting used to the restaurants and the service I now receive. The reason that this may shock some people is because I have spent so much of my life in the restaurant industry and spent a big portion of that time as a server or a bartender. In fact, I have spent more time in this job profession than I have as a teacher or a writer. I know it better than any other profession, and if I wanted to I could probably hop right back into that madness without much adjustment. The thing is I don’t want to get back into service and find more joy and a sense of worth with my chosen profession right now. I am glad that I took the path that I did to get where I am today because any time I do not appreciate it, I can go back to restaurant and remember where I came from. But if I know so much about this profession, why is it the thing that makes me feel so uncomfortable when I come back to the United States?
It really hit me last night when I visited a few friends from Korea at a restaurant in downtown Denver called Los Cabos Puro Peru. We were sat and spent almost four hours enjoying a casual dinner with various appetizers and entrees with a couple of drinks. We were never rushed and it was a beautiful way to spend an evening with friends. I left the place stuffed and satisfied, but a lot of this had to do with the fact that the style of serving that happened in this establishment reminded me more of what I would see in Europe and less of what I would expect from the United States. Before I had moved overseas, I would have thought of it as some of the worst service I ever had, but now I appreciate it more.
When I was a server, I was considered one of the better ones at every place that I worked. I was able to sell a lot of food and drinks, my customers were never in need of something, and I could people in and out quickly, making a lot of money through my tips. I could anticipate people’s needs. I would get them a refill if they needed it, and get rid of plates right as soon as they had their last bite. I knew if the customer was enjoying each stage of their meal or not, and I could have a conversation with anybody based upon what they wanted to talk about. I was there for the customer, and this kind of attitude is what makes me nervous today.
When I experience servers in Europe, it is a completely different attitude. He or she will come to the table to take an order for drinks and food, and if I need him or her again, I need to wave them over. They would leave me alone unless I did this. Sometimes this might mean that I do not have a full drink in front of me, or it might take me a little longer to pay my bill and leave, but for the whole meal experience, I do not have somebody hovering over me, waiting for me to take a sip of water so they can refill that sip instantly. I am left to myself and my company to enjoy.
At first this really bugged me. I felt like I was being rude to the people serving me, and they had to hate me because I was always waving them over. If somebody had done that to me during all of my years of waiting tables, I would have wanted to kill them. But I look at it differently now. The focus shifted from the waiter to the customer in the European model as opposed to the one I had been trained in. As a customer, I should not be pressured to consume more, and be pushed through my meal. I should be able to enjoy my evening at my own pace, and if I need something, why should the server be offended if I wave them to ask for something more. That is why they are there, and it is a simple form of communication.
Now, this becomes a problem sometimes when it comes to the check. I do hate having to ask for the check when I would like to leave because it seems to take forever before they can get it to me, and for me to pay it. But I have come to realize that the process is not much quicker in the United States model. In fact, I think that this is the place where both models fail miserably because when I am done, I do want to leave.
But this is where I think the Koreans have perfected the art of waiting tables. It is the thing I appreciate the most about Korea. Most restaurants have what is called the Yogio button. It is a button on your table that you press if you would like service. The server will not come to bug you unless you would like to see them, and with the button you do not have to catch the server’s eye in order to hope to get a new beer. At first, this button bugged me, but as I got used to it, I started to appreciate what it meant and how it simplified the whole waiting process. The best part is that when I want to leave, I do not need to ask for the check. I just go up to the cashier, tell them what table I was at, and then give them the money that they need. It makes the checking out process so easy. And if there is a large party with a split check you just tell your cashier what you had and they will split it for you right there. I have become accustomed to this style of restaurant service and I think it is the best in the world.
Could the people of the United States ever be accustomed to changes in the service style to the one in Korea? I don’t think so. They have been trained just as much as the servers have, but I do hope that if they find themselves in a different part of the world, they will appreciate the different styles, and that those styles do not give them the anxiety that they gave me when I first encountered them. And if they ever want to experience a more European style, Los Cabos Puro Peru gave me that experience last night, and it was one of the most pleasant dining experiences I have ever had in the United States because it was done at my pace. It is something to appreciate, and I am glad that I now am able to understand its advantage.