March 2, 2008

Restaurant experiences in La Ceiba

Snake bar, La Ceiba, Honduras
In the restaurant business, you gotta have something: Good food, good service, nice atmosphere − preferably two out of three. Annoying service really ruins a restaurant experience for me. We don't expect fast service, even if we are the only customers in the restaurant. We don't even expect particularly friendly service anymore. What I really dislike is when we are treated as if our being there is just a nuisance.

Applebee's, La Ceiba, HondurasOne of my favorite stories is the time that we spent almost two hours in Applebee's (where the waiters are trained to be friendly) and never heard the sound of our waitress's voice. She walked up to our table with a glum look on her face, pencil in hand, and
dejectedly stood there waiting for us to say what we wanted. She brought the drinks and later barely slowed down to plop the food in front of us without a word.

Afterward we waved her down to order dessert. She gave us an annoyed look and walked away without even a nod as an acknowledgment that she heard us. The check was similarly handled with sour looks and without speaking, by which point I couldn't help but giggle. She was behaving like a small child who had just been given a time-out. She was going through the motions but
clearly wanted to let someone know that she wasn't happy about it.

Being a really good waiter is a talent, but I believe that being an adequate waiter only takes a little common sense. I realize that most waiters in La Ceiba probably don't often or maybe ever go to a quality restaurant and haven't been exposed to excellent service, but I look at it as just treating a customer the way you would treat a guest in your home. That should get you by. A little common sense and a simple smile goes a long way with us.

In our 6 1/2 years in La Ceiba, here are some of the experiences that we've had. Sadly, some of these experiences are the rule more than the exception. Sometimes it's the cook's fault, sometimes it is the manager's policy, but most often it is just the waiter:

The waiter serves the main course and takes everyone's empty glasses away. Then he rushes off out of sight before anyone can order another drink, much less asks if the guests want another. (Mango Tango, Applebee's)

La Palapa Mexicana, La Ceiba, HondurasIn a slight variation, waiter picks up everyone's empty glasses, takes a drink order from one person at the table, and immediately leaves without asking if anyone else wants to order a drink, too. (Expatriates, La Palapa Mexicana, Gallo Pinto, to name a few)

The menu states that a certain item is included with a meal but NEVER serves it, tells you that they are out, or that it's too expensive, and doesn't substitute or reduce the price. Prints new menus months later and STILL includes the items that they are NEVER going to serve you. Hey, if you can tape over the prices when you raise them, you can tape over the items that you aren't ever going to serve to the customers. (La Palapa Mexicana, Luna Gaucha)

Waiter serves one or two people at the table and brings the food for the rest 20-30 minutes later. (La Plancha, La Palapa Mexicana)

Pupusa Universitaria, La Ceiba, HondurasWaiters serve the main course and never returns to the table until you flag them down to get the check. Never asks if you want another drink or dessert. Never ever asks if everything is okay, how is the food?, can I get you anything? (Well, just about every restaurant falls into this category!)

Waiters bring the appetizers and the main course at the same time. (Applebee's, La Palapa Mexicana, Expatriates, Quinta Real Hotel) Tip: Order the appetizer, keep the menu and don't order the main course until the appetizer is served.

Will take 20 minutes (no exaggeration) for a drink to be served; an hour and half for soup. (La Palapa)

Serves side dishes or main courses family style with no utensils for the guests to dish them out at the table. Yuck! (Arrecife's, Snake Bar)

While you are busy talking with someone, maybe even with your fork still in your hand, the waiter comes by unnoticed and removes your unfinished plate of food or half empty drink without saying a word or asking if you are finished. (Applebee's, La Palapa Mexicana)

Snake bar, La Ceiba, HondurasWaiters continually reports "no hay" on everything you select from the menu without checking. Later on, you'll sometimes see someone else served the thing that they told you they didn't have! (Snake Bar and too many others to mention)

Waiter acts like you are trying to get away with something for nothing if you ask for a little mustard for your hamburger instead of the ketchup, mayo, onions, etc. (Expatriates − but then brings a bowl of mustard that is big enough for 12 people; all the fast food restaurants)

Waiter gets your order wrong and then argues with you that they did not make a mistake. Not only will they not ever just say that they are sorry but will argue about it at length! (La Palapa Mexicana, most of the fast food places)

Menu, La Palapa Mexicana, La Ceiba, HondurasWaiter doesn't serve everything that is supposed to accompany your meal. Argues with you that, no, you aren't supposed to get "xxxx," you cheapskate! Concedes and serves it to you only after being shown the menu. (La Palapa Mexicana, Applebee's)

The cook serves bad (as in old, wilted, burned, or spoiled) food and then the waiter argues with you that it is really fine and that's the way it is supposed to be. (Long list here, too.)

Waiter serves ice cold meat on the nachos − not cooled down to room temperature, but ICE COLD like directly from the refrigerator − and then argues that that could not have possibly happened. Since the waiter disappeared in the back for 30 minutes after serving it, we finally had to go ahead and eat the evidence. (Applebee's)

Most restaurants will serve cocktails with or without alcohol for the same price. Sometimes will serve cocktails without alcohol and will insist that there really is alcohol in them. (La Palapa Mexicana)

La Palapa Mexicana, La Ceiba, HondurasIn an empty restaurant (except for unimportant you), the waiters turn up the television or music so loud that you cannot converse with your guests. (Quinta Real Hotel, Arrecife's; these are restaurants that don't have blaring music all the time)

The manager calls a 45-minute long staff meeting of ALL of the waiters at 8 p.m. on a Saturday night! What the heck was he thinking! (Applebee's)

The restaurants mentioned are some of the nicer restaurants in town. I don't expect any more than to have the food plopped down in front of me at the hole-in-the-wall places, but I do expect better at these restaurants. We have dumbed down our service expectations to an incredibly low level, but still things happen which continue to surprise us.

We've just stopped going to some of these restaurants as a result of the aggravation. If El Jefe wants to argue with someone at dinner, he always has me and he doesn't have to leave a tip! ;-D

Cesar at Playa Taty's Restaurant, La Ceiba, HondurasI blame the poor service on the fact that most La Ceiba restaurants now automatically add a 10% tip (the traditional tip rate in Honduras) to the bill and from what I hear, that entire 10% is rarely given to the waiter so they have no incentive to do better or "sell" more. We give an extra tip when the service is good, but it is rare except at Playa Taty's Restaurant.

Restaurant owners: Are you listening? Your help needs some training and supervision! You may have trained them, but while you are at home or hiding in your office, they aren't doing what you told them to do. And speaking of hiding, why don't the managers or owners EVER come around to check on the customers? It could be very enlightening. A little bit of your time might help you to spot the employees who are driving away your customers.

I've read a long time ago that the tourist association in La Ceiba was planning training classes for waiters and others who deal with tourists. Some tourist business owners recognize the problem but don't always know what is going on when they aren't looking or just don't know how to motivate their employees. I don't know if the classes were ever held but it definitely sounded like a good idea to me and something that should be done regularly because of the high turnover.

People don't come to La Ceiba expecting 5-star service, but on the other hand, most people do expect that their patronage will be appreciated at least a little. All that marketing of La Ceiba as a tourist town and the friendliest city in Honduras where everyone smiles is being tarnished.

PS: I've heard that La Palapa Mexicana, which you read mentioned so many times above, is closing down. Could it be that the good food and nice atmosphere just couldn't compensate for the bad service?

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