Wednesday, 21 October 2020

Table disservice

My local pub was built in 1939 and its fabric remains little altered since then. Around the walls of the lounge are a series of little push-buttons that once were used to summon waiter service. They have not been operational since I first started going in there 35 years ago, but show that this is something once commonplace in pubs. It had pretty much entirely died out by the time I started drinking, although I believe it lingered on into the 1980s in a few pubs. Presumably, increasing labour costs were the reasons for phasing it out. To some extent, the provision of waiter service justified the charging of higher prices in the lounge, something else that has pretty much entirely disappeared.

Since the middle of September, all pubs in England have been required to operate table service for drinks. I’ve mentioned on several occasions how this is proving problematic, but I thought it was worth its own post to explain why it just doesn’t work.

Of course table service is the norm in restaurants, but there is a significant difference there in that the customer experience follows a predictable pattern. They come in, are given a menu, place their order, are served with starter, then main course, then are given the opportunity to order a dessert and coffee, and eventually are presented with a bill which they proceed to pay. As long as the staff keep an eye on where diners are up to, it shouldn’t be too difficult to move them smoothly on from one stage to the next. It should be a touchstone of good service that the customer is always approached before they actually feel the need to summon a waiter.

Despite this, over the years I’ve had numerous experiences of utterly execrable service in restaurants and dining pubs, either forgetting the order entirely or being totally ignored once a particular stage had been completed. This cannot be blamed on simply being busy, as often it has happened when the place is virtually empty. If I had infinite reserves of both time and patience, I’m sure I could have qualified for quite a few free or discounted meals – indeed I have received one or two.

The main responsibility must lie with the restaurants themselves, in failing to recruit, train and motivate their staff properly. However, it has to be said that some of the staff come across as lackadaisical and unobservant. I’ve never worked as a waiter, and to be honest wouldn’t be cut out for it, but I’m sure I would understand the basic requirements of the job, especially keeping an eye on where the various tables you are looking after are up to.

However, the situation for drinks service is very different, in that the predictability is lost. The waiter does not know how long a group will be staying, how fast they will be drinking, or when they will want refills. Hence they are much more likely to need to call for service, which is why pubs used to be fitted with service bells. To be reliant on hailing a passing waiter introduces an element of stress and uncertainty into the simple process of getting another drink.

This isn’t, at present, the pubs’ fault, as they have been placed against their wishes in a very difficult situation at the same time as being put against the wall financially. In a small pub where all the seats can be viewed from the bar, it may not cause too much of a problem, especially considering the reduced customer numbers. However, in a large venue, with various nooks and crannies and remote areas, being able to summon service could become quite a challenge. My limited experience of using table service in Wetherspoon’s without using the app suggests that ordering a second drink can be something of a hopeless quest. One solution would be to actually ring the pub up on their public number, but that might not go down too well! If the only way to obtain service is to accost a passing member of staff who is in the middle of doing something else, then the system has failed.

Using an app for ordering alleviates this problem to some extent but, as I have discussed, it creates issues of social and digital exclusion, and still does not deal with the question of how to summon staff if you don’t actually want to order anything, such as my problem with a cloudy pint.

It appears that the current restrictions are going to be with us for some time, and so pubs, assuming they are allowed to remain open at all, will no doubt learn and adapt to cope with the situation better. But there is no getting away from the fact that table service is much more labour-intensive than bar service, and this is only covered up at present by the limits on customer numbers. If revenues have been slashed, pubs are in no position to pay for the extra staff they need.

It’s often said that bar work should be valued more highly, but the only way to reflect that value is to charge higher prices. In Continental countries where table service is the norm, bar prices for alcoholic drinks are often markedly higher than in this country despite the lower rates of alcohol duty that apply. It is a completely different model of operation that British pubs are ill-placed to adapt to in the middle of an existential crisis. As Glynn Davis says in this article:

I’d argue they are very much geared up to this in terms of service and also their customers are used to this method of operation. Also the economic model has been built around it. At my local pub, sales levels had rather healthily increased by 50% quickly after lock-down but I understand staff numbers had doubled in order to deal with the extra effort of table service. This suggests a lot more work for the same levels of profitability.
And, for drinks service, unless your venue is absolutely teeming with staff, it is going to require one or both of a modern equivalent of a service bell, or some other means of calling someone to your table.

23 comments:

  1. I couldn't understand why I had to keep going to the bar to get their attention. The person who took the order delivered it too. I'm sure if a small commission (10p) would encourage them to be more pro-active.

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    1. A tipping culture is essential for table service to work well, but you still need to have the staff numbers, and app ordering obviously militates against it.

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  2. Were the service bells more of a northern thing? I've been drinking in pubs around the same length of pubs as you and don't recall seeing them, I can imagine them being a thing in London but maybe just never noticed them. I have had some dire table service but also good, prefer the bar though.

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    1. Yes, I think the service bells were largely a Northern thing, although, as I say, their use predates even my legnthy drinking career. Not sure how general weiter service was, though. I might ask on Twitter.

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    2. Wolverhampton had at least one town-centre pub which had table service - Banks's Wheatsheaf on Market Street. But the last time I visited there was in the mid/late 1980s!

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    3. The Stafford Mudgie22 October 2020 at 22:26

      Citra,
      Yes, service bells were common from the Midlands northwards but very rare in the South, the Forester in Ealing being the only London pub I've heard of with them.

      Paul,
      Yes, the Wheatsheaf then was undoubtedly Banks's's most traditional Wolverhampton town centre pub but I was there lasyt year and it's changed a lot.

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  3. When I worked in central Manchester in 1970-1 we used to visit a pub on Friday nights which still had the bells. They used to summon a wizened ancient in a white jacket carrying a silver tray :-)

    Would it be possible to combine British and Continental practice by charging extra for table service? There are many times I would happily pay a pound not to have to leave some really good craik and stand at the bar for fifteen minutes.

    And the concept of split pricing is not alien to the pub trade. It used to be common to pay more for your beer in the "best room" than in the public bar. It was a great solecism to take your drink from the public to the best just because you wanted to talk to someone there.

    And a final point: for a country that has moved from an industrial economy to a service economy we really are lousy at service. But we were not too good at industry either in the later days.

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    1. Knocking through of different rooms was probably a major contributor to ending split pricing.

      I don't like the idea of charging more for table service and don't recall this in, say, Germany - although I'm not so sure about France. In Germany there is often the opportunity to sit at the bar and sometimes to stand at 'posing' tables near the bar, but I think prices are usually all the same. If sat at the bar, you may still be served by a waiter rather than the barman.

      Perhaps the real issue is that, especially later in the evening, a lot of British pubs just try to cram too many people in (even if keeping within fire regulations) for a visit to be a comfortable experience, at least for me if not for a bunch of rugby teamers. There are just too many for the available table spaces and getting though a crowd with a tray of drinks cannot be easy. But, insistence on seating would cut sales and make more pubs unviable.

      A factor in table service in Germany is that most people seem to order the 'house beer' and often just say how many they want. The large ranges of drinks offered in Britain would have to be cut back to make a pub-wide system work efficiently, but that is not necessarily a bad thing, in my view at least.

      Just some thoughts.

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  4. I know I can't, but I would happily pay a pound more to not have table service as I don't want to have multiple interactions with staff when I pop in for a pint.

    Having to attract the attention of someone to pay for a beer is a pain. That may be the "European" model but it's not one I want here.

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    1. You have to attract the attention of someone behind the bar to get and pay for a beer and that can take forever. And with table service you can pay when you get each drink. Or, if you are running a tab, just leave the money on the table.
      At least whilst waiting to pay at the table you can carry on talking with your mates. And avoid being jostled about. I absolutely hate it when it is my round. Partly because it means showing my wallet the light of day :-|), but mainly because it means leaving the craik which is a major reason for going to the pub

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    2. I'd rather have amiable interactions with staff giving me their undivided attention, than sullen ones with bar flies.

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    3. But that's comparing bar service at its worst with table service at its best, which is completely unrealistic.

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    4. The table service works fine at our local in the garden. Staff pop out often to see who needs a refill. When you want to go you just wave your card by the reader on the way out - they keep careful note of who has had what, so no tiresome trying to get their attention.

      Yes, it's perhaps among the better that we have found.

      It's a pity that the good weather is behind us for this year.

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    5. What about those who want to pay with cash? And I'm not sure I'd want to wave a card in front of a card reader on my way out without seeing an itemised bill.

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  5. In my limited experience, you're doing the bar staff a disservice by saying it doesn't work. In the few pubs I now visit regularly it does, where the staff are diligent, fast, spot new customers and those emptying glasses quickly and by using the restaurant system of checks with servers collecting orders over the pass (the bar) by other staff pouring the drinks. Yes, you might wait a little longer, but you get used to timing your drinking and catching someone's eye. It also helps when said staff are young, enthusiastic and you treat them well - and the odd pint for them doesn't go amiss. We can moan about it until the cows come home, but many pubs are doing a fair job under pressure from both limited staff and turnover, and occasional council jobsworths visiting to check up on social distancing.

    The last working bell I know off was in the skippers and owners room in the Low Lights Tavern, North Shields. The button is still there but annoying people forced a previous owner to disconnect it.

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    1. I'm not saying there aren't some pubs making a reasonable fist of it, but they're probably smaller pubs where the number of customers has fallen but the number of staff hasn't. It still doesn't work in bigger pubs and undermines the whole accepted way British pubs function.

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    2. No, decent sized pubs which are busy and still have plenty of staff. I completely agree about the effect on how pubs function, but most are just trying to make the best of a bad job now.

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    3. No doubt the old timers thought that introducing beer pumps instead of getting the beer from the barrel via a jug was undermining the way British pubs function.
      And introducing 24 hour opening certainly did.
      Both for the bertter

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  6. I've seen the occasional old pub round table that has a (still working) bell set into the centre of the table top. These were not linked to a central system, just stand-alone tables. They wouldn't be heard in a busy Wethespoons!

    Also, I remember, back in the mists of time round about when I started going in pubs, the Ash in Heaton Chapel had a waiter in a white jacket. It was a grand pub back then, big and roomy with lots of dos in the back room. It used to have a huge hoarding in the grounds advertising the beer prices to the main road; probably trying to attract the Poco a Poco crowd.

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    1. There used to be a couple of tables like that in the back snug of the Arden Arms in Stockport - not sure if they're still there.

      The Ash is currently being redeveloped for housing - I don't know if the actual pub building is going to be retained. It's a handsome building, but probably not listed.

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  7. The Stafford Mudgie22 October 2020 at 23:07

    Mention of "the charging of higher prices in the lounge, something else that has pretty much entirely disappeared" reminds me that when I started using pubs in 1971 virtually all of those I used, except a few modern ones in Birmingham city centre, charged a penny more for a pint in the Lounge than in the Bar.
    That might have completely died out now as Geoff Brandwood thirteen years ago knew of differential pricing only at the Cricketers, Woodford Green, London.

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  8. Cheaper drinks in the public bar was still a thing when I started drinking in the late 80s/early 90s; as was the white-coated waiter in the multi-roomed Red Lion in Withington - "Has anyone got a thirst?" he'd say.
    AP

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  9. We just shout out to the landlord, he sticks a couple of pints on the bar and we collect them. Autotable service. Works fine. If he has the barmaid on she often does bring drinks to the table. The joys of happy hour. Will be popping in on Wednesday to offer moral and monetary support. It is a crying shame that pubs are being shut again. One I know of simply reduced its prices last week to sell as much draft beer as it could before Thursday. BTW cheaper beer in the public bar and more expensive beer in the posher lounge was a feature of many pubs back in the 1970s when I first started real drinking.

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