Just Checked, Restaurant Service Still Sucks

The gringos were in town for 10 days and we ate in restaurants for almost every meal. In that time I realized the obvious, that service in Latin America sucks.

You forget these things over time. You get used to it, like throwing shit paper in the trash. You may even come to like it, like always showing up late. No, I’m not sorry, I’m smiling an ear-to-ear grin as I arrive an hour late! How you doing, great to see you!

But before the gringos’ visit I had started to second-guess myself about the restaurant service. As a former server and bartender, I liked to brag that American service is the best in the world. Which of course it is. I’ve never been to France, but I’ve been to other parts of Europe and their lack of a tipping system simply doesn’t have the incentive system in place to be a contender.

But you get idiots in the States occasionally, and you get nice people who kind of do a good job down here every now and again. I specifically started questioning if there really was a difference after a thread about tipping in an expat forum.

‘Adding the Grat’ in Peru?

The dude who posted that question is an American restaurateur in Peru, and also an Expat Chronicles reader. Check out his restaurant if you’re ever in Huaraz.

Anyway, the argument went as it usually does, with cheap Peruvians and miserable Europeans arguing against the tipping and the Americans and Canadians arguing for it. Of course my input was the most valuable.

And I bowed out of the convo … until someone posted the following drivel:

so basically since being a waiter doesn´t require special skill or education, it´s ok that businesses underpay their workers. however, your customer is ,at the same time, expected to pay extra cash for that very same service that you don´t want to pay because it´s “easy”. well guess what, i don´t need to be served either. how about i make my order, go to the kitchen and get my own food and drinks once they´re cooked? american waiters (and i don´t blame it on them) are the most annoying i´ve ever seen – they keep asking you way too frequently if you need something else and if you´re happy with your meal (no i´m not because you´re annoying me) and all that because they´re hoping to get extra cash. how about restaurants increase their prices and stop treating their waiters as volunteers or slaves and their customers as fools. make your shit (prices) transparent, let me know all i have to pay for your service, save me from having to do math after my meal and from being disturbed while i eat. YOUR business is the one that needs waiters not your customers – all they want is their food. as for me, i´d much rather eat at home than deal with that bullshit every time i go out.

I couldn’t help myself from getting back in with this gem.

I understand the criticism against American service, but on the other side of the coin is an equally vehement criticism of Peruvian and greater Latin American service, which is inarguably inferior across the board. But the most obnoxious to me is the speed. Do I really have to wave across the damn restaurant to get another beer? Yes, I do, everywhere I go. In 10 years in Latin America I have never been offered another drink as I was finishing my current one. And don’t try to pour it for me, just start the process of bringing me another one!

Another gringo jumped on that comment, saying he also hated how slow the beers come. And I responded:

In some places I’ll order two at a time, and they won’t bring you two! They’ll think you made a mistake!

The author of drivel responded with something about “colonial mentality,” ambiguous as to who exactly she was referring, and it all died out. But Christopher responded with a mature comment to diffuse the potential argument.

It is interesting to see services standards across cultures. Go to a high-end place in NYC or Chicago or S.F. and sometimes it feels like they are “always watching me”. Take a drink of water and they come and fill it up again, get up for the restroom or to take a call, and they re-fold your napkin. Not a good fit for me. I do really like it when my needs are subtly anticipated and the server can agree with me that the experience is NOT about him or her, it’s about me and the folks I’m with. Although service standards in Peru generally leave a LOT to be desired, I’ve had some stellar experiences here as well, especially when servers treat my kids well and hand the cuenta to my wife!

After reading that I left thinking, is the service in Peru that bad? Maybe I’m exaggerating. As I said earlier, you occasionally get an idiot in the States. Maybe the difference is negligible.

But then the gringos arrived for 10 days. And it was clear. The restaurant service sucks worse than I had thought.

Horsewhips

Like my comment implied, the main complaint time and again was speed. On the first day or two I just told them, “Peruvian service.” But then every time it happened my kid brother would say out loud, “Peruvian service!” And if we were in a nice restaurant in Miraflores or San Isidro, I would have to tell him to keep his voice down. Many of the people in this part of town speak English.

I added my common quip that I wish I could walk around here with a horsewhip. Then I could beat these people when they’re dragging ass, like you beat a horse to run faster. Hurry up, goddammit! And so instead of saying “Peruvian service,” the code word became “horsewhips.” Nobody would understand what we mean by that.

There were few glaring incidents worth an anecdote. But I realized that I had unconsciously adjusted my behavior since having a family. The whippersnappers will be running around in less than one hour so we’re in a fucking hurry, and the vast majority of Peruvian servers aren’t capable of accommodating that. So I have a bag of tricks when we go out with the three children aged four, two and one.

In the States somebody seats you and gives you a menu to look at before the server comes over. In Peru, I get all the children situated and then scan the vicinity for a menu to grab. Don’t wait for the server to bring a menu. Look for one and jump on it, because you don’t want to wait for the server if you want an appetizer, and I always want one. When he does finally arrive I can put in the appetizer along with the children’s meals.

As the server gets those started, I start taking everybody’s order while he/she is gone. I didn’t realized this until the gringos came, but I was essentially doing some of the server’s job for him. I go around the table getting everybody’s order, and then I alone give the entire order to the server when he finally comes back.

It’s not only that I don’t trust the server to get everybody’s order quickly, but it’s also a bit of the customers’ fault. If I have my in-laws with me, they may not start reading the menu until the server comes back. They think that’s when it’s time to order, so they just start looking at the menu. And they’ll expect him to stand there while they choose at the speed of their quasi-literate reading.

I recognize that it’s not that Peruvian or Latin American servers can’t work quickly. They haven’t been trained to in a culture that’s slow as fuck in everything they do. Mañana culture.

It’s not just slow eating of the food that lunch in a restaurant is a two-hour affair. I think these Peruvian dudes feel that if they’re going to drop $100 on a fancy spread for the family, they shouldn’t rush it. They have to relish the feeling of being the big shot, the Don Hacendado, the patron at the head of the table. Sit down and get comfortable people, we’re going to be here for a while and it’s all because of me.

I didn’t come up with that theory because I want to watch other people in the restaurant. But I can’t help it when I’m trying to get my  server’s attention and he can’t get away from this table, which is clearly not ready to order but won’t let him go, or he’s too afraid to walk away. Or he lacks the creative initiative to, as I used to call it, manage the table and not be managed by the table.

So here’s my standard operating procedure in restaurants:

  1. Scan the restaurant for menus en route to your table. If one can’t be had en route, get up and grab one after the children are seated.
  2. Order appetizer(s) as soon as the server comes over with silverware or whatever.
  3. Get everybody’s order before the server comes back. Then order for everybody.
  4. Ask for the check before the last person is done with their food. Specify “Visa” upfront if paying with a card.

Following that formula helps when it’s just my family of five, but it’s absolutely mandatory when I’m with the in-laws or a gang of gringos or, worst of all, in-laws and the gringos (which happened twice, parties of 10+). Because while each step may seem stupid, letting the Peruvian set the pace will add five to 10 minutes (or more) per step. That adds up, and that time is precious when you have screaming children.

Early in their visit the gringos ganged up on me to complain about my ordering the appetizer for them .,. without even consulting them! At first I explained that they don’t really know what anything is (you didn’t read my book), and plus the menu isn’t in English.

But a redemption of sorts came at El Mirador in La Punta del Callao, where there was an hour wait for a table on Dia del Pescador, a national holiday in this fishing powerhouse. There was an attempted complaint that I ordered appetizers without consulting them, but they calmed down when I explained I ordered two of the giant sampler platters. Later the old man actually thanked me for taking the initiative when those two appetizers took over a half hour to arrive.

“Horsewhips,” I responded with a grin.

Disclaimer: when I’m out with Wife on a date for which we have a babysitter, I don’t execute my steps. I relax and let the Peruvians manage us, however long it may take.

Disclaimer #2: I have favorite restaurants all over town where the servers know me and I like them. This doesn’t apply to every restaurant, but it’s generally the case.

Disclaimer #3: When I order two beers at a time, they almost always bring me two. On only one occasion did it fail … at Bogota Beer Company with my brother we tried to order two pitchers. The server couldn’t get her head around that and only brought use one.

Gringo Anecdotes

In one of the bars, which overall I loved and will go back, the drinks simply weren’t coming out fast enough. Of course mine were coming out just fine because I was drinking Budweisers. But this place has a fancy cocktail menu so my brothers are ordering off that and the old man is drinking his usual whiskey. This actually isn’t the server’s fault because my bottles of beer were fast enough. But he can’t run out cocktails if they’re not ready, and servers don’t make cocktails. So clearly the bar had fallen.

At one point I didn’t even have a beer, and the manager spots us and brings over a bunch of side plates. It turns out he has worked in the States and knows we gringos expect those with appetizers. But our appetizers were salchipapa and sliders, so I told him con todo cariño that we don’t need plates, bro. We’re fuckin thirsty. We’ve nothing to drink and we’ve been waiting quite a while.

I actually feel bad if he went and yelled at the server, because the bottleneck was obviously the bar. If I had been on the ball, which is to say not drinking, I would have had the gringos ordering their next drinks as each drink that arrived. Because they took 10 to 15 minutes each. We’re not little Indian welterweights here. We’re trying to drink and they weren’t making it happen. We would have moved on to a different bar eventually, but we left before we otherwise would have because the drinks weren’t coming out.

The old man calls it a night and I take the two brothers to Ayahuasca, which is not at all a cool place to go in Lima. It’s a beautiful old casona on a major avenue in Barranco, and it has “ayahuasca” in its name, so it attracts a lot of tourists. But Lima people don’t drink there. I’m only going because I have two gringo tourists with me who want to go and we’re right down the street.

We walk in and the middle-aged dike manager greets me in English. I explain that it was hell getting drinks at the last place, so we’d like the fastest server you have on staff please. I’m drunk by now and maybe that wasn’t the smartest thing to say, but from another point of view you could see it as, “Wow, this gringo has money to spend and he’s telling me exactly how to get it. Let’s do it!”

But no, she stays at the host stand for a minute or two looking over the floor plan, killing precious drinking time to the point where I say something like, “How about that table now, you know? We’re really thirsty. Maybe you can bring me a beer while I wait?”

I say all that in Spanish and it makes the chamita hostesses/servers/whatever who are standing behind her snicker and hide their smiles. I wasn’t trying to embarrass the woman, but I realize there are mad workers standing here doing nothing and I’m fucking thirsty.

We get going to the table slow as snails and the dike insists on continuing in English, which she doesn’t speak as well as I speak Spanish, and I’m well drunk and agitated by now, not to mention thirsty, and I make some other sarcastic remarks that makes the people within earshot of our table laugh, snicker and hide smiles. I blow her a kiss as she’s walking away.

Maybe I was an asshole, but it’s over. Our server is here and I so I get two Budweisers en route for myself. The gringos are going to look at the cocktail menu because they haven’t learned their lesson. So I go take a piss, and when I get back the beers aren’t out yet.

My brother says that I need to relax. The manager just came by and said the bouncers are watching me, so I need to behave. By the way, what did I do?

That set me off. Not just the middle-aged dike manager, but my brother and I grew up together and it doesn’t take much for us to come to blows, much less shouting arguments. I explained to him that I had embarrassed the dike in front of her staff because she’s incompetent, but there’s no way the bouncers are watching me. Forget about it.

I explain that this pituca dike was devastated by a little public humiliation in front of her underlings, none of which he understood because it was in Spanish. He doesn’t take my word for it, however, and insists I tone it down. I have 10 years down here goddammit, I counter, and I split. I left the gringos right there in the bar, which isn’t as bad as it sounds because that brother speaks enough rudimentary Spanish to get back to the hotel.

The next day it’s all water under the bridge, and I explain a little about what a “pituca” is, and how obnoxious they are for us gringos, especially the inept AND arrogant ones, emphasizing that I wasn’t being difficult just for the sake of being an asshole. She really was incompetent, which is evident in the fact that she lost a drinking customer when the place wasn’t exactly full. I mean, that’s not a place where people go, I say, I’ve seen it completely empty.

The other brother says that the bar emptied out as soon as I left. They were one of just a couple tables in the whole place. You could quantify how much the dike lost in sales by talking down to us like that. My one brother would have had to drink the two Budweisers I ordered, meaning he didn’t order any cocktails. My other brother probably only had one cocktail. With me drinking and them unfazed by how to get back to the hotel, it very well may have been four Budweisers and four cocktails.

Note: I use the word “dike” with all the affection of a straight ally.

And that’s what really gets me about why shitty service persists. It has a direct effect on sales. It’s negatively correlated with revenue, and it’s easily remedied. You just learn a few tricks to stay on top of demand and you can count on a significant percentage increase to the bottom line.

I will acknowledge that the cocktail menus in upscale Lima are elaborate. Where I was a bartender I only had to manage lemons, limes, oranges, maraschino cherries and green olives. These bars have all kinds of shit: strawberries, fruits from the jungle, fruit pulp, mint and other leaves, eggs and still more. But if you’re going to offer all that shit, you gotta be able to handle demand. Otherwise, why offer it?

Other Anecdotes

From the Bogota days, a couple gringos and I went drinking in the Primer de Mayo district. The bar served beer in what are known as “jirafas,” or giraffes. It’s basically a big fancy pitcher with a spout at the bottom.

The first jirafa took ages to get, and we ordered another before we were finished. It took ages again, and I noticed the bartenders crouching behind the bar. Curious, I went up for a look and saw them opening bottles of Poker and pouring them into the jirafa one by one.

I reported what I saw back at the table, and what ensued was one of those moments where the good liberal gringos try their hardest not to call the locals “monkeys.” Just shake your head. This is Latin America.

For those who aren’t into beer … As cool as the spout is, the reason for ordering the jirafa is to drink draft beer in large quantities. Unpasteurized beer (which comes in a keg and must be kept cold at all times) is fresher and tastes better. If you’re drinking pasteurized beer from a bottle, there’s really no point to putting it in a jirafa (unless you’re the kind of monkey who gets off on using the spout). In fact, the flavor would be compromised because the jirafas are made of plastic as opposed to glass. And the Colombians are slow as fuck as fuck at pouring the bottles in.

Back in 2012, my good friend Chuck came to Arequipa to attend my wedding. His first night was like a Tuesday or some other dead weeknight in a small city, and we got a late start. We hit the San Francisco district around 10 p.m. and hit Montreal. As much as I don’t want to shame this place, their service is so bad I have to put them on blast.

We march right up to the empty bar. There isn’t a customer in the place, and I get the vibe that we’re a bit of an inconvenience to the bartender. I order the pisco sour special, four for the price of three, and the first thing the motherfucker does is get out his little notepad of official receipts to write down the order. I shit you not, his first step after we order drinks is to document the fucking sale.

He’s really deliberate in his spelling out “Pisco Sour” and “3” plus whatever the price was, and multiplying it all for a total. If you’ve never bartended, you may not catch what’s wrong there. But any given guest’s budget for liquor is limited, by his stomach or by his wallet. Sometimes the guest will get his fill only in your bar, but most are going to be there for a couple rounds and move on. So a basic strategy is to get every guest to drink as much as possible in the time he or she is there.

Because they may only be in your bar for one round, you want to get that round in them as quickly as possible. If you do, they may not be ready to leave when they finish, and therefore order another one. It’s bartending basics. Somebody orders a drink, you get the drink in front of them before any and all other tasks. Especially when you’re dead.

After writing up the bill the bartender scoops ice like a Latin bartender, very deliberately, getting one or two cubes per scoop as if the idea is not to damage the ice. He cuts the limes deliberately, pours the pisco shots into a little measuring glass one-by-one deliberately (don’t spill a drop!) and cracks eggs deliberately. My wife, who was at least 15 minutes behind us, arrived before we finally get the drinks.

Wife used to work there, which is one of the reasons I don’t want to put them on blast. The bar manager comes out to say hello and they catch up, Wife getting married and all. Then she orders some kind of Bailey’s frappe drink, which I assume requires a little work (like a pisco sour) because the manager makes a fucking face! She makes an annoyed face like she doesn’t want to be bothered with that.

So Wife drops the order. She doesn’t order anything. Chuck and I are drinking the pisco sours as I decide we’re splitting after that one round. We finish them and ask for the check. The bar manager retrieves it from the bartender, who has done nothing since preparing the pisco sours, and sees a grand total of like 20 soles. Three people in the bar for 45 minutes and the grand total is 20 soles or whatever, and she has this look of disappointment on her face … Like, what happened? And I’m unrepentant with my intention to get out of there. I leave money with no tip and we’re out to a bar where we can do some drinking.

That wasn’t an isolated incident at Montreal. Most times I’ve been there it’s hell getting a drink. They have live music and draft beer so it’s a popular hotspot. But the service is just dreadful.

Expat Restaurateur Weighs In

Chris Benway is the owner and manager of Café Andino in Huaraz, Peru. Having arrived in the 90s, he is not only an expat veteran down here, but a veteran in the hospitality industry down here. Here are his reactions to this piece.

Growing up in the States, it’s easy to get accustomed to customer service that’s designed to separate you from your money: energetic attention to your needs, suggestive selling, upselling and of course smiles all around. In Peru, the relationship between server and customer is all about rituals and expectations.

As the customer, you are not important. You are a distraction from gossip and social media. Minimize your impact by having one member of your group organize the entire order and all communications with the server.

It’s OK to get up and get what you need if you see it. Menus, napkins, drinks, glasses or silverware. Bottle opener. If the WiFi is slow, get up and reset the modem. If you believe you might get sick from the breeze of an open door or window, get up and close it. You can change the channel or the volume on the TV too.

In the unfortunate case you need to speak with your server, don’t be subtle. Snap your fingers loudly and repeatedly. Clapping can also work for the less coordinated. If you or a member of your group can whistle, the louder the better. Or just wave your arm like Colin.

Experienced diners know to order things everybody will like, because nothing will arrive at the same time. Sharing whatever comes out as soon as it arrives is polite. It can elevate the standard “menu” or set lunch to a five-course meal, as plate after plate of the “tasting menu” are set down for the group over the course of 40 minutes to an hour.

Best of all, you don’t have to tip! Tipping is a capitalist tool of enslavement, and in Peru they recognize this. Servers feel free to take phone calls, clip their nails or pick their noses unmolested by the amount of the gratuity they earn. Servers are well paid in Peru, and tipping makes them uncomfortable.

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4 comments

  1. Up here in the North, generally had decent service, big posh place or front room diner. [Exception: garden restaurant where I usually go silly for something like ribs. Learnt my lesson: always go for lomo saltado in such places.]

    Slow service: big parillada restaurant down in Av Larco where the 500g colitas takes a lot of cooking so you need to spread out the conversation a bit. Fish speciality houses tend to be quicker, you know because fish cooks quicker “DUH”.

    No point rushing….

    Never had to tip. My wife tells me not to.

    Chifas disappointing. Water chestnuts, Bamboo shoots ¿WHAT?

    Lunchtime, get there well before 1 for a relaxing meal or after that for the crowds.

    Peruvians eat out for a family get together so the venue can be modest. Fastest food is the polleria. Then if you need a drink go to a bodega and drink outside standing up. While you can…

    Just a few notes. Enjoy.
    D

    Like

  2. Not sure if the Benway addition was intended as comedy, but that is exactly how I got things done in Peru when I was there. I learned quickly that treating people badly and sometimes being belligerent was the only way to get what I wanted (to pay for). I’m kind of surprised after all your years there now you don’t act accordingly. Helluva thing waiting for a drink when you need one.

    And “pituca”… never heard that before. Thanks.

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  3. Colombians seem to think that fast food constitutes hamburgers and hot dogs: that just because a restaurant serves hamburgers and dogs, that it serves fast food! Well, it ain’t fast food if it doesn’t come out fast!

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