Shirt, Shoes, but No Service

Restaurant service sucks in South Florida (see Opium review). It's a given, almost part of the Miami mystique: Our restaurants are so hospitality-poor we're darn near proud of it. At least some of us are -- those who hate the tourists. Don't like the way we treat you? Good. Don't come back.

The rest of us, however, are concerned enough to make bad service our number-one gripe. The places where we can anticipate polite, proper service are decreasing as rapidly as dew on a 90-degree day. Forget about taking out-of-town guests to dinner. Though not all anecdotes will reach the media-frenzied epic proportions of a Thai Toni experience, no one leaves (or lives in) South Florida without a war story to tell.

What I've discovered, though, is that it's useless to whine and moan, even in print. I've taken individual restaurants to task for eight years now and nothing's changed. The truth is, fixing the problem is impossible if we don't understand what causes it in the first place.

Jeremy Eaton

These days almost everyone points to poor attitude as a factor. “Most employees have a transient mentality,” explains Jonathan Eismann of Pacific Time and Westside Diner. “They act like the guest is never coming back. And that trickles down from the top. If it's not the staff that's stupid and lazy, it's the restaurateurs who are.” Blame this one on the tourists, then. Waitstaff and proprietors who seldom see the same faces twice have difficulty distinguishing the locals who just might return.

But that's a cheap distinction, since all restaurant patrons should be treated to the same welcoming behavior. As a matter of fact, notes a recent Restaurants & Industries survey, consumers all over the nation value courteous service, citing it as the third most important reason to return to a restaurant (behind cleanliness and food quality). Why, then, is civility such a high-priced commodity, down here in particular?

The peripatetic nature of Miami could be at fault. Folks move here to party for a few months to a year and then leave. Indeed that club scene plays another role, keeping employees from their jobs the next day, whether the difficulty stems from hangovers or something slightly more serious. Eismann admits that last weekend he had three employees in jail, one of whom was about to get sent down for one to five. “But mostly they get put away for DUIs and things like that,” he says.

Language barriers, resulting from waves of immigration and tourists, are another big issue, argue many restaurateurs. Multiethnic customers can't communicate their wants to multiethnic waitstaff, who in turn may not be able to explain things properly to the diner. I can see it. I've had dissatisfactory service in restaurants where the first language is Spanish, and I don't speak it; on the flip side, Spanish speakers, and Hispanics in general, regularly receive terrible treatment in our more “American” eateries. In many of these cases the perceived rudeness is the result of a misunderstanding or a translation problem. But on the other hand, proprietors may be the ones constructing the barriers all by themselves. Eismann claims the primary reason a restaurant has an unworkable employee is because the boss didn't hire the right one in the first place. In other words when you're in Miami, try bilingual staff.

Staff shortages, though, are the biggest rock slides blocking the way to better service. There's simply no one out there. “The tightest labor market in 30 years combined with a surge of new restaurants in South Florida has made many restaurant owners ... desperate to find good help,” reports the South Florida Business Journal. Of course most of those restaurateurs run big operations and need tons of help. Chef-proprietor Pascal Oudin, of the newly opened Pascal's on Ponce, says he had more qualified applicants than he could hire.

But Joe Wood, general manager of the much larger Armadillo Cafe in Davie, agrees with the findings in South Florida Business Journal. “There's a gazillion more restaurants looking for people, but there's not the staff out there,” he comments. And it's not just that the labor pool is shallow or that the collective lack of experience could sink the best-run restaurant in town. Potential employees don't even know how to dress for an interview. The last time Wood interviewed candidates for waitstaff positions, he says he dismissed 90 percent of them based on first impressions alone. “You want to be an equal-opportunity employer,” he offers. “But these applicants were coming in wearing jeans and tank tops, chewing gum and with tattoos on their fingers.” Biker fashions may be in today, but in upscale-restaurant dining rooms, they're as taboo as serving a glass of wine with your finger on the rim.

Wood points out that conversely, “you find more of an explosion of better kitchen help” thanks to culinary schools like Johnson & Wales. But would-be servers don't have the advantage of formal academic training. On top of that, no one aspires to be a waiter anymore, unless you're talking to a 25-year Joe's Stone Crab veteran, who makes enough money to take off an entire summer.

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