Sunday, January 27, 2013

Croatian service: Keeping it real, really real.

The waiters and waitresses in Croatia keep it real. And by keeping it real I mean they maintain authenticity, and by that I mean they do things like finish their cigarette or magazine article before taking your order, approach your table with almost total indifference and sometimes do everything in their power NOT TO NOTICE YOU! For my American readers it may sound strange, but I prefer this kind of “service” to what we have in the US. As it is with lots of things in Croatia, once you go through the looking glass, there’s no going back.

They say you can’t go home again. They’re right. I had this realization when I tried to eat in a restaurant in Washington D.C. on a trip back to the states. It went a little like this:

“Hi! Welcome To Wherevers! How can I help you?” The perky hostess greeted me. Little did I know, but this was just the opening salvo in a barrage of questions.
“Uh, we’d like a table.”
“GREAT! Do you want to sit inside or outside?”
“GREAT!! At the bar, the lounge, the nook or the-other-silly-named-place?”
“Uh... I guess in the nook.”
“GREEEAT!!! Follow me.”

When our waitress came to take our orders, she too was really friendly and really enthusiastic about the fact that WE were sitting in HER section and that SHE was going to get to wait on US. WOWEEE! Smiles all around. Living in Croatia had taught me to be skeptical of... well... everything. What’s the catch? I wondered. I looked around to see if there were any signs some happy-friendly-girl-Zombie plague ravaging the Washington D.C. area.

Then the interrogation began: “Would you like to know our specials? Would you like a margarita? Flavored? Salt? Large? Small? Do you want french fries, coleslaw, queso, salsa, rice, or beans with that? Flour or corn tortillas? Would you like any starters? Buffalo wings, guacamole, chips-n-dips?” By the end of my order I was exhausted. After she asked my friend the EXACT same questions she reminded us that her name was Tiffany or whatever, and AGAIN told us to “just holler” if need anything. (Giggles. Smiles. Ponytail-flip). Five minutes later she brought our drinks, five minutes after that she asked how we liked our drinks, then she brought us our food, asked how we liked our food, then asked us if we wanted dessert, asked us how we liked our dessert? AARGH! Was she conducting a survey? ENOUGH already! Between each question about our food, drinks, and fried ice cream, she would prance by and ask a more generally: “Everything ‘kay?”

I realized that evening that no, everything was not ‘kay. I’ve changed. I prefer Croatian “service” to what we get in America.

One of the first times I stepped into a cafe in Croatia, I had to wait until the waiter was done reading a magazine and having a cigarette before he took my order. Customer service in Croatia is a lot like dealing with the afterlife. After eventually taking your order and bringing you your drink, your waiter disappears like a ghost. As if serving you had been the one task keeping him bound to the mortal world. Delivered, he fades into the beyond.

Or sometimes you, the customer, are the ghost. In Split, this impossible to miss big, beefy, muscular waiter came to take our order and didn’t even say anything. Or look at us. He actually did everything in his power NOT TO LOOK at us. He just sort of grunted when I ordered, hardly acknowledging that he and we existed on the same dimensional plane (see, just like we were ghosts!).

But now, I prefer to be ignored over being harassed. I prefer the honesty of the Croatian customer/waiter relationship. I am here to drink coffee. You are here because it's a job. Let’s not pretend we LOVE it!

Everything at Wherevers was predicated on one thing: money. The friendly attitude, enthusiasm, and concern were only there because our hostess and waitress wanted us to leave them a decent tip. I’m sure Tiff (I don’t think she’ll mind if I call her Tiff) is a nice person, but she’s not THAT nice. I doubt she walks down the street going: NICE TO SEE YOU! I’m GLAD YOU’RE HERE! WOOHOO to every person she sees. Don’t forget, back at Wherevers we were complete and total strangers with unlikely odds that we would ever see each other again! She told me her name and was really nice so that I would be sure to give her money (and she probably also has a manager who makes her act that nice as a result of some corporate policy call “smiletistics” or some crap).

Then there’s the harassment of hospitality. (And the only person really authorized to harass you with heavy-handed kindness when you’re eating is your Croatian-mother-in-law! Fact.) OK, fine, check on me once, but for the love of GOD leave me ALONE and LET ME EAT. After the first few times of Tiff prancing by to see how things were, I stopped actually hearing her questions. Instead I just heard: Money? How is everything, tip? Tip get you anything else? Would you tip-ta-tip-tip tip? AAARGH! Stop begging!

It's not necessarily Tiff’s fault. It's the system. She makes a low wage and is dependent on the tip customers leave her. While it's not like it’s this everywhere in the US, but I’m sure if you compared an American-Croatian waiter’s question ratio: it would be something like 10:1. In Croatia your waiter usually just says: Izvolite, best translated as: what would you like? That’s it. Nothing else.

The difference in tipping is the clearest explanation for the difference between service in Croatia and America (20% in the US versus 1-5% in Croatia), but I'm not sure if it accounts entirely for the lack of happy familiarity among Croatian waiters and waitresses. Before I lived in Croatia I thought the American way was “normal” and that Croatian waiters were just rude. Now, I see it as completely the opposite. My waiter’s indifference in Croatia is actually respectful.

What’s more, in many cases I’ve gone to a cafe regularly and eventually the wait staffs’ icy indifference fades. We start to talk, come to casually know each other. Best of all, I know that these conversations are genuine, no one is being nice in hopes of getting a bigger tip, because, like I said: waiters in Croatia, they keep it real.
Note: If you're a foreigner on vacation in Croatia TIP! In touristy places it's expected. In general, if someone is good at waiting (but not overly good) I tip them more than what's standard.

I have to mention that the wait staff at Tituš, in Zagreb's upper town, are awesome. They defy everything I said in here about Croatian service. They are extremely efficient, fast and friendly. They are the best in Croatia!!! I tip the crap out of them and so should you!

Also, I’ve had all kinds of service sector jobs, so I know what its like from both sides.

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  1. Read all of your posts and have to congratulate you. A couple of hours well spent. As a Croat that lived for half a year in the US I noticed most of the things you are writing about. This one especially, and even though the smiles were a nice change to see on the waiters, it got exhausting, and then harassment-ish very fast :)

    But I have to say that when it comes to people that you have to speak for only a couple of sentences, like bus drivers, public officials, policemen etc. it is nicer to see a US fake smile then the Croatian honest "what the hell do YOU want" frown.

    Oh yeah, Titus is great :)


  2. I'm totally with you on this one. Although I generally appreciate US-style kindness (and I spent most of my time in the South) it can be too much sometimes. I remember a waiter in TGI Fridays that harassed me so much that I didn't have the strength to have dessert (and I wanted a brownie really bad).
    On the other hand, Croatian-style waiting can also be just plain rude. The art is in the balance. If I am out with friends I want to talk to them without being interrupted constantly. But still, if I want extra bread, I should get it in under 20 minutes. It is tough to strike the right balance. :D

  3. P.S. If big, beefy, muscular waiter was at Žbirac on Bačvice... I know exactly who you are talking about :D I was there many times and after a while he will look at you, even talk to you! And it's not at all tip-related, he must approve of you and people you come with, then he'll eventually consider you worthy of a conversation :D Crazy, but true. :D

  4. Cody, each time I think that you have covered most of the major, let's call them (cultural) differences, that usually we talk about - you write a new one and it is equally good. Propuh, coffee, waiting tables, economic policy... The only thing I want to add this time is that I prefer American style for waiting tables. I consider it a form of art, although at the begging it looked like harassment, but after a while, you get used to it and finally at the end, after you get back (to Croatia), you start missing it.

  5. love your blog, some of those thoughts on propuh and similar cultural references literally had me crying with laughter today :) as a part-time waitress in zagreb, this article embodies our attitude towards service perfectly. when i first started working in a bar, i was quite jazzed up and wanted to impress my customers with speed and smiles, but then my boss who owns the place asked me to slow down and try a more relaxed approach. and he's dalmatian of course :) but it def works because it makes work more fun for me and my colleagues and sipping coffee a more relaxing activity for my customers.

    on a side note, and in keeping with croatian hospitality, if you're ever in the mood for some jazz, stop by bacchus and ask for lana, i feel like i should reciprocate all this laughter from today with a few rakija shots on the house :) oh, and you should write about the phenomenon of rakija as well :)

  6. I also miss American-style service. I think Josip makes a great point – serving can be an art. Servers in America are expected to answer any and every question about the food on the menu, make suggestions, and ensure that their customers are happy. They don't just serve, they accommodate. While this is no doubt a result of the system (servers in America must work for tips), I think it also has to do with the culture of dining out, which is quite different in Croatia. I like going out to eat, and I do love the event of eating out. And if I'm going to spend my money at a restaurant, I want to have choices, be able to make requests, and ask for suggestions. I appreciate being taken care of.

    That said, no one likes being interrupted every five minutes by overbubbly servers. Again, serving is something of an art, and it sounds like Tiff simply hasn't mastered it.

  7. Brilliant! I laughed reading this - the first time I went to an American restaurant I was almost reduced to tears of bewilderment with all the choices. I also prefer European service. British pubs are great - order at the bar, they bring your food, no one bothers you, you can sit as long as you like.
    One thing America wins on though (I have to note these things to preserve my sanity since I still live here) is large free cups of water. Now when I go to a restaurant in the UK I embarrass my family by asking for tap water.

  8.'s really cool to read about my country from a different perspective...keep it up! :D

  9. LOL, man you got me laughing. You really nailed this one to the core. :) I love it. "Croatian waiters keep it real". That is awesome new way of looking at it. :)

  10. I just want to thank everyone for the comments and kind words. I'm really happy so many people are enjoying zablogreb.

  11. Hilarious! And spot-on. I, too, learned to appreciate Croatian-style service while I lived there. This post covers American service well, but there is an even bigger offense that goes unmentioned: when your server plops down in the booth with you to "chat" about the specials and take your order. I'm all for friendliness, but when you have to crunch in extra tight with your dining companions to make room for the server, that's just weird.

  12. Hilarious and so true, I was almost crying from laughter as I was reading your blog. Keep it up. :)

  13. ...or when you enter with briefcase in your favourite bar during lunch break, just to have a coffee, and waiter says "sorry, not buying anything"...
    ...or you enter at evening and waiter ironically says in front of some girls "yeah, we were just waiting for you"...
    ...or you get your parents to have coffee on Sunday morning. He asks them what will they have, they answer coffee. Then he turns to you and says "Vodka as usual?" leaving you embarrassed...

  14. I'm a Croatian who lived in the US for couple of years, and my POV is completely opposite of yours. :) I LOVED the service in the US - in bars, restaurants, shops... yes, I do realize they all work on commission, but it's still nice to hear a greeting when getting your groceries. I found it quite subtle, even with all the perkiness in the pubs you described.

    Ever since I got back to Zagreb (which was almost 6 years ago!) I have internal battle whenever I come across a clerk or a waiter who consider rolling their eyes too heavy an activity, but are FORCED to do it, because, I - the evil of all evils dared to enter their realm (pub) and dared to spend money on some evil "gusti" or, god forbid, coffee. My local tiny Konzum store is my favorite place of all, if you need a place to get yelled at, snorted at, get a daily dose of eye rolling, huffing, puffing, that's where you go. I usually visit it before a long run, it gives me quite a boost in energy.

    My favorite memory - It was mid-summer, midday, the asphalt outside was melting, a small island, a small cafe, a waiter, and the two of us as his only guests. I will never forget the moment my friend asked the waiter if there was a cold beer. The waiter answered "yes" and left. 30 mins later my friend asked again if he could get that cold beer. The waiter explained, "oh no, the cold beer is for me, I'll get you a normal beer". Priceless!

  15. I prefer something inbetween like in Canada. I love self serve concept in coffee shops and in restaurant I just like someone to take my order, refill glass with water, ask once if everything is ok - all else is annoying. I just like to call them for a bill or pack food for take out if I can't finish it. When some places have american training for staff to be pushy towards customers, I get embarrassed and have no idea what to say, just nod my head. We had a very bad experience in such a pizzeria over here in Toronto once so we avoid that place. The less pushy they are, the more chance they'll get a normal tip.

  16. I worked in many cafes and bars so I'll try to elaborate.

    If the customer is a stranger you never seen before you are reserved and you observe. You don't know him, you don't know how his day was, why he decided to come to this cafe, you don't know anything, so you keep your distance and give him what he want's, no more and no less.

    If the customer starts a conversation with you of course you reply, yet still not like you know him all your life. After you get to know him better you can relax and open up to him if he does the same.

    Bothering someone who is eating or reading a paper is considered to be very rude so you just go with the flow and let the situation develop on it's own.