How restaurant service in Spain has evolved
Gwendolyn Alston wonders if good and personalised service in Spanish restaurants is a thing of the past and attempts to explain the diverse service culture in Spain.One would think that in these difficult economic times, more attention would be paid to ensuring that restaurant and bar customers be coddled and cared for—no one can afford to lose a customer.
However, in my recent experience, this is not the case.
What I have seen lately in my incursions, even to some of my favorite places, is a downturn in customer attention. And in Spain, where the service ethic, compared to what we understand as service in the United States, is more often than not slipshod or even outright rude, this is saying something.
Don’t get me wrong. This is not an across-the-board statement.
In the time I have spent visiting and living in Spain, my experience of service in restaurants and bars has been quite diverse. From the classic Spanish waiter, cloth napkin hanging over his arm, who started working at the age of 17 and may continue in the same place, or neighborhood until he retires, to the wait staff on the coasts who are doing you a favor when they take your order. In between, I have enjoyed plenty of excellent service, especially in Madrid bars.
Good service vs bad service
The experience I most often cite when I talk about service here is my experience at the corner bar. I am not talking about a tavern or a pub where the lights are low and only alcoholic drinks are served.
I mean the type of bar you typically find three to a block on a Madrid street: plate-glass windows, high stools at the counter, some tables lining the windows, balled up paper napkins, olive pits and shrimp shells tossed on the floor. Once upon a time, there were cigarette butts there too.
This is where I have been served the best, once I learned to elbow my way to the counter, wiggle in a space for myself and build up the gumption to bellow out to the closest man on the wait staff that I wanted a coffee, beer or coke accompanied by a bocadillo or a plate of tapas.
The remarkable work that I saw was how these men (because they used to be only men) moved about with expediency and good humour, took orders without a pen and swiftly served up each plate, often with a friendly quip for the customer.
If I returned the next day, more often than not I would be remembered.
If it was for a morning break from work, the coffee I had ordered the day before (with hot milk, in a glass), was served up right away without my even asking for it.
These waiters seemed to make it a point of pride to memorise each customer and his or her special orders, to take even the most complex orders without writing down a word. And, above all, they were speedy in the delivery.
I write of this type of service in the past tense, but it can still be experienced in the old center of Madrid, for example in bars around the Cascorro, near the Rastro (the Sunday flea market), near the Plaza of Tirso de Molina, or even in and around the more touristy Plaza Mayor or Plaza Oriente.
The contrast is dramatic between this behavior and what I, and others, have encountered in Coastal towns in many chiringuitos (casual bars with terraces, often right on or next to the beach). Like everywhere, there are exceptions, but a not uncommon occurrence is that the service is incredibly slooooooow.
From the snappy comebacks and whoosh of plates in main cities such as Madrid and Barcelona, suddenly it takes ages even to get eye contact. When you’re on holiday, you might find this works well with your own laid back, laissez faire attitude.
However, when the slowness is accompanied by a snarl and drinks and plates are plunked down before you with boredom or, worse, disdain, you begin to wonder how tourism can actually be one of the country’s main sources of income.
Too fast too soon
It may well be that because it has been so easy and so fast – the tourism since the 50s expanded so rapidly; the money from the construction that resulted was abundant; the heavy spending of foreign tourists who populated the resort towns was so generous – Spaniards didn’t have to take the time to be especially attentive to their customers.
Also, many of the businesses were mom-and-pop family-run bars and restaurants, with informally trained staff, who felt a love-hate relationship to the tourists who purchased from them while changing the nature of their town.
During this time, Tourism and Hospitality has become a university level course of study. This means that, primarily, hotel and travel agency staff are knowledgeable and attentive, that high-end bars and restaurants have a staff that is fully trained and considerate. It is the regular restaurants that are still playing catch-up.
There may be several reasons for this slack in attention to customers. As mentioned above, a relaxation in the face of easy earnings; also, linguistic differences between service staff and visitors can make for misunderstandings and frustration; and, possibly, the expectation level was relatively low of those tourists who came exclusively seeking fun in the sun.
Take into account also that, unlike in the US, tipping is neither required nor especially generous, so incentive level to provide good service can be lower.
Despite these elements, the Spanish government was fast on the draw to bring the hospitality up to a certain standard, by ensuring that all restaurants and hotels were inspected, classified, and controlled by the ministry of transportation, tourism, and communications. Also, prices for meals were controlled, and establishments catering to tourists were required to maintain complaint books. This means, essentially, that basic good service is a requirement and you should make a point of demanding it.
Influx of immigrants: new face of wait staff
Then came the mid-90s and another interesting phenomenon came into play. There has been a rapid and heavy influx of immigrants, particularly from Latin American countries, and this has significantly changed the type of wait staff you will find attending you at many of the usual bars and restaurants.
Their view of their position may be quite different from that of the Spanish man of old, who used to work year after year at the same place. Now there can be temporary staff and split schedules. Working as a waiter is no longer a vocation, but truly just a job. And a temporary one at that.
Many of the immigrants, logically, are upwardly mobile—as soon as they save enough money, they’ll move on to something more rewarding or start their own business.
On the one hand, this attitude adds dynamism to the work culture, however it does change the type of service you might get.
Where once the tortilla or the jamón were sliced “just so”, from years of practice and training, now the different foods on the tapas menu can be as foreign to your waiter as they are to you.
This is not a slur on the new staff, rather an observation on the current state of affairs. Like all changes, this one involves a transition, from old, classic ways, to new adaptations.
Spain’s work force is changing, as, eventually, will its work schedule.
There will come a time when, like in the US, students will be able to work part-time at restaurants and bars during their summer break or even during the school year.
Then, restaurant managers should pay more attention to how they train their staff, and make a point of being present in the locale as often as possible so that the standard of attention is kept up.
There should also be more flexibility in labour payment, particularly in this sector. The taxes to be paid on employees are very high, discouraging many employers to have the appropriate number of staff for their business. This can lead to disgruntled, overworked waiters.
And I have learned that one shouldn’t have to go to a favorite location, as I did a few weeks ago, with some friends from out-of-town, only to be treated as if our questions and requests (to see more than one wine list; only two were available in the whole restaurant or to have coffee after the meal), were out of place.
My interpretation of the situation was that the restaurant, although not so large, was full and understaffed. Where once there had been three or four waiters, now there were only two.
This is no doubt due to the current economic climate, but seems to be a paradoxical choice—service should be better, to keep your customers and keep them happy. They’ll come more often and spend better.
29 October 2009
Gwendolyn Alston / Expatica
The writer is the founder and president of Moca Media, a marketing and video production company that manages the website mocaenboca.tv, and has lived in Spain for 20 years.