February 8, 2011

Commentary on the International Service Industry (aka America has a lot to learn)

Yes, Tedford does like to travel too.
Again, life got in the way of this blog and it's been awhile since I have posted. However, I have some free time and a lot of posts to catch up on.

Over my nearing a quarter century of life, I have been able to travel internationally quite a bit.  To my count, seventeen countries covering most of Western Europe, North America and a handful of Asia. I have yet to make it to the southern hemisphere but I'm working on it. In those travels I have made it a point to not just be a tourist and see the sites - I much prefer being immersed in the culture, with the locals, ideally not speaking any English and experiencing all the country has to offer.

Especially the food.*

*Note: see that nice transition to related this post to the blog. Clever eh? No? Well, moving on then...

During those travels I have begun to notice something fairly significant: America, to put it frankly, sucks when it comes to the service industry. There's a reason people think American travelers are rude and pig-heated...

After the jump I will continue on how America has a lot to learn.


In that time I have been to a lot of places that have served food and I do my best to actually eat something culturally significant rather than one of the 31,000+ McDonald's worldwide. Think along the lines of Bourdain's "No Reservations" but without the financial backing of a production company. I go where I can and will pretty much try anything at least once.

My close friends and family will know this hasn't always been true. There was a time when I wouldn't eat anything but pizza and ice cream but hey, I've grown up and have now developed a pretty open-minded approach to food: if someone else is eating it, it probably wont kill me, so why not?

This approach has paid off. I have tried some pretty amazing things that I wouldn't have had otherwise. Keep in mind, there are also those things I'd never touch again but the tasty far outweigh the nasty.

The Comparison

This brings me to my commentary at hand. America sucks compared to the rest of the world when it comes to service. In America, you have to pay for good service. You have to pay a lot. And you have to add a tip on top of that.

For those that haven't had a chance to travel, you don't really notice how that standard is not the norm. Tipping is a very American thing to do. It's expected in the ballpark of 15%. And it's seen as an insult if you do not tip. But let's think about what exactly a tip is for...

According to Webster's definition a tip (or gratuity) is "something given voluntarily or beyond obligation usually for some service."

Hmm. Voluntary. Have you ever not left a tip and have been followed to your car by the server to inquire where the tip was? I have. That doesn't sound so voluntary to me.*

A tip is meant to be a sign of a good job done. If you do a crappy job, then you shouldn't deserve one. If you do a great job then you do. It's as simple as that. It should not be expected.

Tipping has started to spread to Europe but it's still not as common practice as the United States. As you go more and more away from a Western culture, tipping can almost be insulting to some.

Why? Because a good job should be performed regardless of the potential for financial reward. Pride to do a job well done. It's that simple.

That is what leads me into my broader comparison commentary. The service in the Asian countries I have been to has been extraordinary. I truly mean it. The hospitality in countries like Japan, Taiwan, and Korea (places I have been and can make a comment on) is just unbelievable. For example, I stayed at a hotel where the staff was given your picture (they scan your passport when you check in) and learned your face and name so as you recognize you when you are milling about in the hotel. For those of us who are not filthy rich and famous, it's pretty shocking to have hotel staff calling you by name when you know you haven't seen them before. How much would that cost in the US? I'm thinking at least a record deal with royalties.

The service is not just isolated to Asia. I have been to restaurants in Europe very obviously not frequented by tourists. No English spoken, just very entertaining pantomimes but the service is exquisite. Dining like this can be fun and a lifelong memory. You meat local people, hear their stories, learn how they live life.

For example, here is a story about this restaurant in Corfu, Greece: Cafe Kritikos. While the rest of the tour group went to an over-the-top touristy "traditional Greek dinner and dancing" that cost somewhere in the ballpark of 100 euros (as later explained by those who went), Nikki and I went here and paid about a third of that. We didn't even know if it was open at first. Upstairs was a family of three: mom, dad and daughter playing Jenga. Turned out, they were the proprietors of the restaurant. It also turned out that they made one of the best racks of lamb I have ever eaten. We were the only people there the entire three hour meal. It was one of the better experiences of the trip. For those of you traveling on those group tours, don't buy into the excursion packages for all the gimmicky tourist crap, just explore and you'll get a better experience regardless of what happens. It's worth it.

In summation, America you offer a lot but you also have a lot to learn. Take a cue from everyone else in the world and take a little pride in providing excellent service unconditionally, not just because you are in it for the payoff.

*Note: I am aware that servers are assumed to make a substantial portion of their income in tips and therefore can actually get paid sub-minimum wage. That's bogus and I understand the expectations for tips, it's their livelihood. This post was meant as a culture comparison rather than a criticism of those hardworking people who I do reward with good tips for good service.


  1. Pizza? More like steal all the breadsticks.

  2. I have no recollection of the said breadsticks you are talking about.

  3. My favorite was the restaurant in some tunnel in Venice where no one spoke English, but they gave us some of the best service I've ever received. The whole restaurant was friendly and laughing and I had the best caprese pizza ever.

    Oh, and my personal travel tip - go somewhere out of the way! Those were our favorite places in Europe!

  4. Regarding your *, tip credits are only legal in certain states. Tip credits are very illegal in California. However, it is perfectly legal to require servers to pool their tips to tip out the other service staff.