Getting Served, Georgian Style
Georgians are famed for their hospitality. Scarcely will a foreigner traveling through this quirky country meet a friendly local and not be invited to a supra (“feast”), where they will then be lavished with homemade wine and an assortment of traditional dishes. A resident of Tbilisi once remarked: “tourists often see Georgia as a big restaurant. And maybe they have a point.”
Seen through a certain lens, Georgia is a big restaurant. But what of the country’s actual restaurants, the places people literally sit down for a hefty, hearty meal? It goes without saying that the food is excellent and almost always affordable. But the service? Too often, that’s where the legendary Georgian hospitality stops.
Tbilisi doesn’t have the world’s worst customer service – Moscow can claim that proud distinction, and even “western” cities such as Budapest and Prague are legendary for the lengths servers will go to make customers feel unwelcome. But at many restaurants in Tbilisi, anyone coming through the door is still considered a burden.
For example, consider that popular chain of Georgian restaurants which won’t be named (hint: it starts with “M” and ends with “achakhela”). Everyone and their mother eats at this restaurant. And most likely, you and your mother were both treated like crap. Maybe you got lucky and were assigned a polite server (by “polite” I mean not blatantly rude). But most likely you received the standard fare: menu dumped in front of you, dirty look if you ordered something inexpensive, literally had to scour the restaurant to pay the bill.
One visitor saw a waitress remove his breadbasket before he’d finished eating the bread. Granted, this restaurant is relatively cheap and red carpet treatment shouldn’t be expected. But all customers deserve to be treated with a bit of dignity. And it’s not just there. Larger restaurants usually have service that is inattentive at best, hostile at worst. Tipping is optional, and some servers seem adamant that the absolute last thing they want is a tip.
The good news is that service is usually a lot better in small establishments. In fact, it’s often downright warm. That’s where Georgian hospitality reenters the picture. At a neighborhood bakery or humble restaurant, staff members tend to view customers as guests rather than clients. These small pockets of hospitality appear to be driven by age-old codes of hospitality, however, and not any kind of professional service ethic. The concept of professional customer service doesn’t seem to exist in Georgia. Here are some possible explanations why:
Culture: in many European countries, service-sector work is seen as degrading – in contrast to North America, where waiting tables or manning the counter at the post office is viewed as a job like any other. This has to do with the continent’s history of feudalism, social turmoil and left-wing political movements that viewed service work as dehumanizing. For obvious reasons, that sentiment goes extra for the countries of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.
In Georgia, being a waiter is not seen as particularly dignified. Customers sometimes treat staff in an arrogant, even abusive, manner. Under such circumstances, it isn’t shocking to see that service doesn’t come with a smile.
Communism: a popular narrative goes that Georgia and other post-communist countries are still suffering from a 20-plus year hangover. Decades of central planning, in which waiters were untipped employees of state monopoly restaurants, made service culture irrelevant. Communism is over but the mentality lives on. There is obviously some merit to this idea, but it seems overstated. Tbilisi has literally hundreds of for-profit eating establishments competing for slices of a fairly limited pie and staffed by people barely old enough to remember communism. Maybe the Grumpy Gus bringing your mtsvadi doesn’t feel like being nice, but his/her employer certainly has an interest in you coming back.
Tipping in Tbilisi: maybe Georgian customer service is poor because there is literally no reason for it to be good. Tipping isn’t required and most customers don’t have the generosity to pony up, even if the service is stellar. Contrast that with America, the citadel of tipping. Waiters literally rely on tips to survive. That isn’t necessary good for society, but it does mean servers have a direct interest in taking care of customers. It shouldn’t be a surprise that worldwide, quality of service correlates with tipping culture.
Again, Georgian service isn’t grotesquely bad (that means you, Moscow!) but on a scale of one to bad, it’s still bad. Locals claim that it’s getting better by the day, and in some places it’s already pretty good. Advice? The next time you go out and receive truly top-notch service, leave a generous tip. The best way to promote a service ethic is to reward it.
(Note: It’s important to bear in mind that in different cultures people have different ideas of what constitutes “good” service. Europeans often criticize American service culture, with the terms “creepy” and “intrusive” often used. A visit to an Apple store in Minneapolis convinced me that they have a point.)