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Opinion

Pete Brown: The pleasures of the great Northwest

By Pete Brown , 18-Oct-2016

The pleasures of the great Northwest

Beer writer Pete Brown offers his opinion on Oregon and Washington in the US, including why the British attitude to customer service is a self-defeating stance

I’m just back from two weeks in the United States, and not just any states: Oregon and Washington are my favourites.

The Pacific Northwest is not like the rest of America. Some of the brewers and cider makers there talk half-jokingly about their own version of Brexit, taking Canada’s British Columbia with them to form the independent Republic of Cascadia, named after the mountain range that separates the fertile coastal valleys from the high desert of the interior. Cascadia grows a lot of hops, apples and grapes. The wines aren’t as famous as those from California to the south, but they’re more interesting, just like the people. The hops grown here fuelled the growth of craft beer in the States and are now sought after around the world.

Food and Drink

Cascadia is all about food and drink. In Portland, the street carts gather on any vacant parking lot, selling cuisines from around the world, and hot-housing the next generation of restaurants. Up in Seattle, Pike Place market is thronged every morning with people gazing in wonder at the freshly caught Sockeye and King Salmon, which any tourist can arranged to have air-freighted home if they get there quicker than the city’s many excellent sushi restaurants.

Eating and drinking here is a joyful experience. As soon as you’re through the door of a decent restaurant or bar, the staff are immediately attentive. It’s nice to not only have your existence acknowledged, but to feel actively welcomed.
In restaurants, the servers can tell you in detail about the day’s specials, what they contain and how they’re cooked. If you’re struggling to make up your mind between the locally caught clams and the Korean fried chicken, they’ll tell you frankly, and honestly, which they prefer and why.

Craft beer bars

Go to a bar and… well OK, some of the newest, hippest craft beer bars have the same ‘too cool for school’ snottiness as craft beer bars anywhere else. But in the regular bars, pubs and even restaurants, your server will likely have a working knowledge of the beer list, will invariably push you in the direction of local brews, and will proactively offer samplers or a tasting flight if you can’t make up your mind. When your glass is empty, they’ll be there asking if you want another before you’ve even thought about trying to catch anyone’s attention.

There’s something about the chirpy, grinning American approach to service that instinctively makes many British people feel uncomfortable and defensive. It’s insincere and fake, we insist. And then we get the bill, with its suggested tip of 15% to 20%, and our suspicions are confirmed: they’re not really that nice after all. They’re only doing it for the tips. If they got paid a decent wage in the first place and didn’t have to rely on tips to make a living, they’d be just as rude or indifferent as we’re used to at home. And so we walk away feeling morally superior, even slightly resentful that the amazing service we just received was a bit of a con.

After this trip, I’d like to suggest a slightly different logic flow.

Tip Big

Yes, you have to tip big. And yes, if you didn’t tip, bar staff and waiting staff wouldn’t make a sufficient living.

But to get those tips, the staff have to be really good at what they do. In every transaction, I knew the staff were hoping to get a good tip, but never once did their service feel insincere or forced. If you’re not charming, interested in talking to people and genuinely interested in the food and drink you’re serving, you’re not going to be very good at the job. That means you’re not going to make enough tips, so you’re not going to be able to make a living at this. For the customer, the tipping culture ensures that you’re only being served by people who are good at serving you, and in turn, that means the tips are deserved by the time the bill comes.

You get what you pay for. Coming back to pubs where you can be served a drink with no eye contact, no greeting, no please or thank you, sometimes even no words at all, I’d take chirpy Americanisms over this any day.

There are, of course, some pubs where you get active, friendly, knowledgeable engagement without the tipping culture. If only there were more.