As someone who gets paid to prepare coffee to persnickety expectations, I couldn’t help but watch the interactions between customer and server in restaurants and cafés. Pubs were my favorite. I admired how efficiently the bartenders took care of business. It reminded me of this little Mexican restaurant in Kirkesville, MO. In that restaurant, all of the tables were serviced by 3 Mexican men. They cleaned dishes, filled drinks, took orders, brought out food and ran the register. It was one of the most well-run places I’d ever been to. My sisters and I joked that part of what made it work was that the customers ignored the servers. Since they couldn’t tell them apart they weren’t weirded out by a medley of people approaching their table.

That is one of the icons of American food service – the aura of intimacy that the server is supposed to create for the table. By introducing themselves, filling and refilling water glasses, and repeatedly checking up on the food, the servers work to make you feel cared for. However, after eating for a month in the U.K. it became apparent that this care is nothing more than a façade; we seem to want only the façade, and that waitresses are expected to act like the mothers of two year olds.

The day after our flight got in I went with my dad and sister to The Blue Moose (a fairly classy bar and grill) for appetizers. After being seated, we were assaulted by our waitress’s smile. She was a cute girl, so it was a very nice smile, but the smile felt like a 100 watt light bulb she’d donned for work and turned on every time she walked up to the table and turned off as soon as she started walking away. I had no way of measuring her, all I could read from that face is she was willing to play the eager puppy in order to get her treat.

I know that this restaurant by no means typifies restaurants in America, but it definitely fits with the Johnson County area where restaurants survive by catering to the middle and upper class. It caters to people who like to be served. That sentence gave me the shivers. It’s scary to consider how this concept of how to run restaurants causes many of the great ideals of this country to ring hollow.

I can understand wanting to eat out because you’ve decided it’s worth paying someone to cook your food. Creating a meal is a lot of work, and it’s nice to take advantage of the variety of foods offered in restaurants. However, our country seems to also enjoy taking advantage of being catered to. We get angry when the waitress doesn’t have her light bulb smile or our water hasn’t been refilled for 10 minutes. We love being able to take a moral high ground and judge whether the server has earned $5 instead of $4.

What got me on this line of thought was the question—what results from paying servers regular wages?—that started tickling my thoughts when I discovered that you don’t tip bartenders while servers only expect 10% in the U.K. For one thing, you’re not engaging in two separate exchanges like in America; you’re not paying for the food as well as paying for the show – I mean service. Unfortunately for servers, most Americans don’t realize that they should be paying for two distinct transactions. Personally, not having to pay for two separate exchanges makes for a better restaurant experience. I loved the relaxed atmosphere in all the restaurants I attended. One of the highlights of the trip was spending almost 2 hours at dinner, poring over the newspaper. There was no subtle passive aggressive behavior trying to get me out the door while at the same time trying to get the most out of my wallet. I got checked on just enough that my meal went smoothly but was left alone to enjoy my meal in peace.

When the restaurant is paying the server to do a good job, you’re going to get a better quality of service. Their boss can keep a better tab on the server’s work, compared to the customer who judges them based on one interaction. Of course, this depends on what “better job” means, which I believe should mean the customer enjoys the experience without a heavy hand from the server. Servers shouldn’t be forced to become salespersons, trying to get the customer to spend more on food so that they can get better tips.

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