Sunday, 15 April 2007

Service. What Service?

Anyone coming to Australia from North America can't fail to notice how little the concept of service has entered the retail and restaurant trade here. Finding a cheerful and helpful employee in a shop is a rare delight, while in restaurants service ranges from indifferent to downright rude. In the latter case, perhaps it's because the custom of tipping is only just entering the Australian consciousness. In most restaurants, the average Australian, if he tips at all, rounds up the bill to the next dollar. In high-end establishments, this might be extended to the next number ending in zero. In casual eateries, the most a server could expect is a dollar coin left on the table. Thus, there's no reason to make an effort unless you take pride in your job, and few employees seem to do that. The prevailing attitude suggests that if you don't get a financial reward for taking care of your customers, why bother?
We recently spent an evening at one of Katoomba's expensive brasseries. The food was good. The service was friendly, and our particular requests were promptly attended to. It was the unrequested detail that was lacking. No-one checked back with us to find out how we liked our meals; no-one noticed when the wine or water glasses needed refilling. Perhaps I'm being fussy because we don't like fawning service either, but we missed the discreet cruising by of a waiter, just checking things over from time to time, that would be a given in a well-run Vancouver restaurant, say. When the bill is well over a hundred dollars, there's a quality of attention that should go with the quality of the food.
Perhaps we should be more appreciative of what we got. In this weekend's newspaper, a review of Sydney's revolving restaurant atop a space-needle type of downtown tower described the waitress as monosyllabic and dismissive to the point of surliness. Neither the revolving mechanism nor the air-conditioning was functioning on the evening the reviewer was there, so you'd expect that the staff would be trying to make up for these deficiencies, especially in a restaurant where starters are priced in the high twenties and main dishes in the mid-forties. Apparently not. Notes at the end of the article included the total of the bill: over $200 for two. Ah well, at least they didn't have to tip!


stanislav said...

I think it all comes down to what you're used to, y'know. Maybe I'm just being a defensive Aussie, but I always thought Australian employees rated reasonably well when it came to cheerfulness and helpfulness, compared to some of the countries I've been to (none of which include Canada or the US, admittedly). As for the notion that service may improve once the custom of tipping takes off: I sincerely hope this doesn't happen. Tips are meant to supplement pay in Australia, not be a substitute for it. In my experience, excessive tipping just encourages servility - marginally preferable to indifferent service, but still not something that I think makes for an enjoyable meal.

(And also, seeing as how I'm wearing my true-blue Aussie hat tonight - it's time for some badmouth-your-neighbour parochialism: of course your dining experience was sub-par - it was in NSW! You've got to go to Victoria to have a proper dining experience! Sheesh!)

Anonymous said...

Hi Christine. Was thinking about you today when I was pitching a couple dozen roses, to make room for more trial beds, and decided to send you an email. Was I surprised to find you down under. Did you abandon your lovely gardens in Vancouver?
The Epimedium breeding on the Island is going great, and I wanted to let you know that I have recently named one, you guessed it, Christine.
formerly(dappled shade nursery)