I've spent the last week travelling New Zealand eating at a different restaurant each night. This trip comes after a week in the US, where hospo workers get tips. They have a clear incentive to be helpful, knowledgeable and friendly. Ours don't.
Take the waitress we had at a Waikiki beach bar in Honolulu. Her name was Krystal and the service was a life-changer. Over the course of three long days she got to know us intimately. She became a friend. Secretly upgrading our bottles of champagne from Chandon to Veuve Cliquot. Offering relationship advice. Giving massages. Joining us at the table socially. She hugged us when we left. Cried real tears. I will never forget Krystal or was it Katey or maybe Katrina from Waikiki.
New Zealand is different. No tips means no direct reward for being exceptional. Sure we can get great service here. But that's only because good people love their jobs. Enjoy making people happy or own the place. Sadly most are underpaid and deliver average service because of it.
As a customer, I hate being ignored, I hate staff not knowing the menu and I hate being told off for breaking rules I don't know.
I walked into a nice Hamilton restaurant the other night and asked for a table for three. The waitress answered: "You'll have to take off your hats first."
It's fine that a place has a "no hats" rule. An establishment can have whatever rules they want. But being told off as soon as you walk in the door is a stink way to start a dining experience.
You're about to spend $300 and you're being treated like a naughty child. She could have waited till we were seated. Most people will take off their hats before they eat. I do. But if not. No biggie.
If you really care about hats explain why it's a problem. "It's a tradition we adhere to. So we would really appreciate it, I'd be happy to hang them up for you".
In the end the food at this place was great, the rest of the service was perfect.
But the hat thing made me mad. I will never go back. I will give it the finger when I drive past. I will curse its name till I die. But what does that waitress care?
I would never say that about the lovely Waikiki Kathy or was her name Karen or maybe Kassandra. In fact everyone over there was great.
They get paid a smaller base but can earn so much more if they impress.
One night we wandered down the beach and found a steak restaurant up some stairs. I had flown all night to get to Hawaii, then spent all day at the afore-mentioned beach bar. I got a bit sleepy at the table. Maybe it was the sun. Actually I got completely asleep, head face down asleep.
To lift service across the country maybe we should all start tipping. Rewarding excellence.
Instead of throwing me out, my waiter Jake got me a pillow and a blanky and left me to sleep while my friends joined an 81-year-old Canadian's party at an adjacent table.
I woke half an hour later fresh as a daisy just in time to join the old man in a sea shanty from his Navy days.
Yet at a Nelson restaurant the other night I was completely ignored. Seated and then forgotten. Left to die. No food. No drink. No love.
I get that places are busy. But surely some one can come and give a quick update. Kirsty from Waikiki would never leave me alone.
At this point I should mention some great NZ restaurants I've been to this week. Places that do everything right.
Great service, great people, great food. The Social Kitchen New Plymouth, Portlanders Wellington, Annam Wellington (great Pho) and The Beachfront Hotel Hokitika (what a rack of lamb).
Dining in America is amazing because staff get tips for great service.
Service here is patchy because staff get nothing more for being awesome.
The great service we get here comes from people who really care. Good on those people. Great New Zealanders. But to lift service across the country maybe we should all start tipping. Rewarding excellence.
Imagine an Aotearoa looked after by friendly Waikiki Katrinas or was it Kara. Good people making good money for doing good work. Service you remember.
The change starts with you. Not so much me. I'm skint.