Expecting more from Austin's institutions
In this town where professionalism is seen as capitulation, there are plenty of occasions where I am tempted to use the bully pulpit. But bad (or more precisely not good) service is so pervasive in Austin that it hardly seems noteworthy. It doesn't even seem to have much bearing on the total experience. Two drinks in and you are talking about how hot your server is, not that he forgot to bring you a glass of water.
But sometimes a bad experience is more difficult to shake – as it was today when I was waiting for a drink at a popular counter-service spot (I'll decline to mention it by name if only because public shaming is not exactly the point). I suppose the incident wasn't that dramatic, just a disagreement the owners were having with an employee over some sort of error. It was easy to hear, but not exactly loud. But it was exceedingly unpleasant when standing next to it.
The owners didn't seem to care that their conversation was public or even that it was delaying customers getting their drinks and food. From the level of hostility on display, it seemed as if the employee had just poisoned a guest. I seriously doubt that was the case. As far as anecdotal evidence proves, she has always done her job well. And certainly, my bad customer experience today had nothing to do with her and everything to do with higher-ups who too vehemently believe that they are higher up.
But why shouldn't they? The two owners have a reputation for public bickering and still have people lining up out the door. It would take some far more flamboyant incident to get people to change their minds. And they are by no means shocking exceptions to the local hospitality. There are plenty of other wildly successful local haunts that have found a niche offering neighborhood convenience, meh food, and surly service. We may have nothing to recommend about any of these places, but we keep coming back. Heck, just last week I swore I would never return to today's offending restaurant when one of the employees refused to budge when I said, "Excuse me, can I reach for a straw?"
More often than not, those spots sell coffee. And maybe that's why we give them a pass. Few Americanos are worth traveling across town for. And there is comfort and community in seeing the same faces day in and day out. These are, after all, the hallmarks of the "old Austin" everyone keeps hearing about, that mystical land where everyone smiled on their brother.
Generally, I agree that the former Austin was friendlier than the harried, congested Austin of now, but – perhaps in response – a new generation of coffee shops and fast-casual eateries (I will name some of those: Figure 8, Seventh Flag, Fleet Coffee) has popped up that has flipped the Austin expectation that your burger should be delivered with a sneer – the generation that often gets maligned as the domain of hipsters and yuppies because they are decorated with succulents instead of with terrible art. Say what you will about those business owners, but they expect more than a blank stare from their employees. And I would be shocked if any of them would discipline their employees center stage.
Why should we expect less from our institutions?