In my past Californian life, I co-owned and managed a successful Argentine restaurant in San Francisco’s North Beach with my husband for over 6 years. I quickly learned from experience that all customers are different. They each brought their own personal experiences and cultural customs that I took into account with every interaction at the restaurant.
Bloggers like Splendor in the Lemongrass have written about cultural differences in dining. But managing a restaurant certainly involves a lot of “juego de cintura” or dance to a new rhythm/flexibility to adapt to new situations. I’ve compiled a list of dining customs of different cultures to keep in mind from the management’s perspective:
Americans value speed over quality
American clients don’t like to wait. The average wait time for a table could never exceed 15 minutes. After being seated, they liked to order and get their food fast. It would not matter if their order involved preparing fresh, homemade farm-to-table food, which takes a long time to cook. Somehow the “speed is everything” culture is imprinted in them.
Most Latinos and Europeans, on the other hand, consider food sacred. They understand that fresh food takes time and don’t mind waiting at the bar for their table for over 30 minutes. But they will park themselves at the table for over 2 hours! In restaurant terms, that means the table cannot be turned to accommodate another waiting party. Sometimes we’d have to coax them to move to the bar area with free champagne so we could finally “turn” the table.
Business lunches differ depending on the culture
Americans usually drink water or sodas for lunch. They eat fast (mostly alone), look at their phones or laptops, and run back to their office ASAP. I call it “efficient lunching.”
Latinos and Europeans, on the other hand, like to take their time. Lunch is a much needed break to catch up with friends, chat and laugh. Beer or wine usually come with lunch. There’s no real hurry to go back to work. Sometimes, the biggest business deals are closed at festive luncheons versus formal offices. And when everyone goes back to work, it’s usually time for siesta behind closed doors.
Sharing is caring in Latin culture
The way people eat and order their food differs enormously depending on their cultural background. Americans are individualists: They like to delimit their space… one that cannot be trespassed or invaded. Americans like to order their food in individual sizes, which isn’t usually shared with others. I assumed the doggie bag custom was born out of this practice of ordering food for oneself and saving whatever is not eaten for later.
Latinos and Europeans on the other hand like big messes. They share every plate, enjoy switching and swapping plates, and never leave anything uneaten. One time, a group of Latino friends ordered one of each dessert we had in the menu. We placed the desserts at the center of the table with 20 coffee spoons so that everyone could get a taste of everything. The doggie bag concept doesn’t translate or exist. Food is shared, eaten and enjoyed by everyone at the table.
Splitting the check and leaving a tip
Americans are always generous and go out of their way to pay for the check. I remember guests would fight over who would pay the check. Some would secretly give me their credit cards at the beginning of a meal so that they could treat their friends to lunch or dinner at the end. They would even play a game of credit card shuffling, which randomly picked the “lucky winner” who would pay for the whole check. Yes, they even did that for a table of 30 guests. The tips were always fair and generous.
In contrast, Latinos and Europeans swiftly hid their credit cards. They would always have me divide the check (even with 25 different credit cards) and would even ask me to divide the check by food and drinks ordered per guest and not in equal parts. It was a nightmare! At one time, our staff had to chase down a French guy three blocks asking if the service was bad. He didn’t leave a tip. It turns out that in France, the tip is always included in the check. Somehow they always assume the tip is included (the tax is, but not the tip!).
Running the restaurant was an awesome experience and it was an eye opener. One thing I found true: The customer is always right (in the United States) no matter what country you are from!