One of the things I’m reminded of when I travel south of the border is how rigid and sterile some aspects of life can be in the states. Last winter, returning from 10 days in Mexico, my first errand was to Target to restock the fridge. It struck me how antiseptic everything in the grocery area was, even some of the produce: portioned, pre-wrapped and entombed in plastic and styrofoam. All the cheese varieties I enjoyed sampling at the Rizo Market in Vallarta were now reduced to Kraft brand “cheddar” or “sharp cheddar,” held firm in perfect little shrink wrapped rectangles – while the only other fancy cheese option being an wallet busting trip to Whole Foods. Compare that a local market down south where you can pick and choose samples of all sorts – including this small block for under $3.
That’s not to say you can’t find locally grown fruits and veggies in the U.S., or that the similar big box processes aren’t found in a Mexican Super Walmart or Gigante, but coming from a local market where eggs are so fresh they don’t need to be refrigerated, it’s a change. If I’m staying somewhere for more than a couple nights I always prefer to rent an apartment or hostel with a kitchen – and make my first stop is to a local market. It’s cost effective, fun and doesn’t force you to eat every meal at a restaurant.
At local markets you notice the differences. Last fall in Argentina I saw box delivery truck with a fully stripped cow hanging by its legs in the back, stopped in front of a restaurant early morning. While it was surprising to see I realized and appreciated this meat was probably on a farm just days ago, and after being processed was now being delivered to butchers and restaurants, rather than being stripped down in a factory and hauled across the country on a refrigerated semi truck.
Meanwhile back in the states we have seven step placards on how to wash our hands.
In April I had just spent a week in and around Puerto Vallarta. (I somehow wound up going here three times in 11 months with different people.) I tip well and am not a high maintenance diner, but I do have one habit in restaurants: I like to pick where I sit. I certainly won’t hog a huge table for two people, but if I spot a quiet table back in the corner versus being seated in the center or middle of traffic flow I don’t hesitate to ask to me moved. Friends with server experience have told me this is annoying since they attempt to evenly spread patrons to each person’s section. That’s completely understandable, but if I’m spending my hard earned money on a nice dinner I want the best possible experience.
In Mexico, or in any local restaurant who’s appreciative of your business, should you say “That table looks perfect,” the host will usher you over, pull out your chair and say “Enjoy your meal.” A meal is an event, and it’s understood that the ambiance is part of that meal. That’s exactly what happens every time at the Espresso Ristorante, a favorite Italian place pictured above in Vallarta.
Jump back to my last return to the U.S., when in less than 20 minutes after clearing customs I was reminded of the glaring corporate lifestyle. We had a few hours to kill in Phoenix before connecting to our respective cities, and I walked us down to the Chili’s (US Airways terminal) to relax and have a beer.
My Mom wanted to sit on the faux “patio,” or the quiet area looking into the mall like terminal. I told the host we were going to grab the small table and an extra chair. “No No,” he said. “The two seat tables must remain only two so servers and patrons can pass through.” Understanding that, I told him the table was at the end of the aisle and there were no other customers in that area. He gave us a pained look, so not wanting to be “that guy” I acquiesced and followed him to a booth in the noisy interior, where I learned the names of toy dinosaurs from a rambunctious five year old on the other side of the half wall.
It certainly didn’t ruin my evening, or make me hate Chili’s, but abruptly transitioning from a relaxed less rigid atmosphere to an establishment governed by well meaning rules is a stark and noticeable contrast. While a schematic of rules and operational methods benefit the greater good of corporate continuity it often creates obstacles to simple enjoyment when applied in a non-logical manner…
I believe a good response to customer service is “If that makes you happy, doesn’t bother anyone else, we’ll be happy to oblige!” More companies should make their their mantra.