If there is one thing you learn quickly living in Germany, it’s that customer service is not their forte. While you may be expecting a happy, smiling waiter to greet you with a pitcher of cold water, you will really recieve begrudging glares if you so much as dare to ask for “Leitungswasser” i.e. tap water. And Germans won’t be afraid to let you know how they feel about your request!
This may have a lot to do with the fact that this society is not based on earning tips, or customer loyalty, but they take pride in their product and assume if anything is not “right” about, it really must be something wrong with YOU. And they won’t hesitate to let you know, even if it costs them a steady contribution of approximately 3 EUR a day, (that’s almost 800 EUR a year, people!)
A perfect example of this is something that happened to me earlier today. Well, let me give you a bit of the back story first. I work on a busy government street in Central Berlin – a.k.a. Mitte. There are tons of cafes and restaurants nearby, but literally in the downstairs portion of our building there is “The Espresso Bar”. I stop in most mornings for an Obstsalat mit Joghurt, (Fruit salad with Yogurt,) on my way to work. This is usually quite a delicious treat filled with greek yogurt, sweet granola, and deliciously ripe mangoes and kiwi, among other seasonal favorites, (in Germany you very often won’t find someone serving a fruit or vegetable out of season – since that would mean they had to import from somewhere far far away, which is not eco-friendly!)
So on this particular day, actually two days in a row, the fruit was underripe and sour. I tried to eat it, but every bite made me cringe and I finally decided it was ridiculous to force myself to eat something that didn’t taste good. Since I’m a regular customer, I thought it would be worthwhile to let the owner of the cafe know that the fruit was particularly sour, in case she wasn’t already aware.
I arrived at the cafe and explained to the woman working there (not the owner) that the fruit was really too sour to eat, and I thought they should know. She offered me another and I told her that was really fine, I didn’t want to try the same thing with another since it was just not good. So she gave me my money back, which I was surprised by, and I thanked her.
I went in a couple days later and again asked for the fruit salad, to which the same worker informed me that it would still be sour and I might like to choose something else. I thanked her for her honesty and picked a sandwich instead.
This brings us to today. I stopped in this morning for a croissant on my way to a meeting, (knowledgeably avoiding the fruit salad,) and then again at lunch to get a quiche. Now you see just how loyal of a customer I really am! While they heated the quiche I went quickly next door to buy a sandwich for my colleague, and upon returning to the Espresso Bar was somewhat hostily accosted by the owner of the shop.
Given this was all taking place in German, and while I can hold basic conversations auf Deutsch I was not prepared to have an argument, or defend myself to someone in my 3rd language, must less the owner of a cafe I visit regularly. She told me that had she been at the cafe the day I brought back the fruit salad that she would not have given me my money back. She saw the container, and since I had eaten some of it it wasn’t fair that I would try to return it, (because I am clearly hurting for the 3.50 EUR it cost to buy and desperately wanted to eat for free, of course!) She said something about me being a regular customer and knowing better, (my language skills were a bit hazy during this part of her rant.) She then proceeded to lecture me that since I work for WWF I should know that in the wintertime fruit and vegetables are not always sweet and I couldn’t expect them to carry “un-sour” (i.e. ripe) fruit during these months, that kiwi would always be a bit sour and it didn’t justify returning the meal.
I was completely floored. I have never been spoken to that way by a virtual stranger, in a language I can just barely get by in, who is the owner of a cafe I visit multiple times a week, sometimes multiple times a day! I tried to explain, in my broken German, that the fruit was sour, I didn’t enjoy it, and I thought she should know it wasn’t good so she could be aware for future customers. I said that my intention was not to ask for my money back, but to let them be aware that the fruit they were selling was not ready and perhaps they should reconsider selling it.
She then proceeded to defend the quality of the fruit and her vendor and to explain that she couldn’t open up every container and try the fruit herself so they had to serve it as it was delivered, (good to know they don’t actually make the salads on the premise itself, but order it “fresh” every day.) I asked if she could maybe speak in English so I could better explain myself, but both her and the waitress did not speak my language and so my efforts were futile.
Since I had already ordered my quiche and was waiting to pay when she began her tirade, I debated just walking out the door, or paying up and leaving. Without so much as an apology or kind word, I don’t know – something as simple as, “I understand you weren’t happy with the fruit salad, just know that in the future I won’t accept food back,” I decided withhold my ‘danke schon’ while paying for the quiche, and walked out. Never to return again.
It just makes it a little bit clearer why so many restaurants in Berlin don’t last long. Customers have no reason to stay loyal to one place over another, their business is not any more appreciated if they always frequent the same place or try out a new place every day, and rather than taking criticism or feedback positively as a way to help improve their business, they would rather point the finger at you for being in the wrong. So long, farewell, Espresso Bar!