Living to serve

Anglos are often disappointed by their eating-out experience in Jerusalem. We take a look at service in the capital’s restaurants.

Behind the scenes at Crave restaurant (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Behind the scenes at Crave restaurant
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
As an Anglo living in Jerusalem, I often find that my expectations are not met when it comes to receiving good service in restaurants. Of course this is not always the case, but I am struck by the seeming indifference of some establishments to the old adage, “The customer is always right.” Here in Jerusalem, it can feel more like, “The customer is always a nuisance.”
While conducting interviews for this article, I set out to determine what comprises good restaurant service, what the cultural differences are that cause Anglos to feel that their standards for service are higher and which establishments in Jerusalem are actually getting it right.
“I’ve always worked in very service-oriented places,” Bracha Arnold, a personal chef with many years of experience in Jerusalem’s restaurant kitchens, says.
“It was really drilled into the wait staff as well. When I worked at Beer Bazaar, every night before closing, the shift managers would send a detailed report of everyone’s performances that night. It was taken really seriously and I think that came from the top. The service can’t be perfect all the time, especially in a place as popular as that, but they make a concerted effort to ensure that the service is really good. It’s important that the customer has a really good experience.
“At Crave as well, where I worked afterwards, they are pretty much all Americans and I think it’s about the manager’s understanding that good service is going to make or break your restaurant. It’s a new and emerging concept in Israel, it would seem. It’s hard to pinpoint why and there are so many psychological theories as to why service is not prioritized here the way it is in America, but I think in America it comes from capitalism.
They know they need to provide good service to make money. Here, the business owners think that they are just as important as the customers and the customer’s opinion might not matter as much. But at the end of the day, if you want the customers to have a pleasant experience and come back again to give you money, you need to treat them well.”
IT’S AMAZING that with such a large population of Anglos in Jerusalem who love to spend their money going out to eat and may even frequent the higher-end places more that their needs are often not being met.
Anglos and other olim living in Jerusalem also have families that come to visit them and don’t mind opening up their wallets for a night out at a restaurant. Perhaps the biggest difference is that Anglos feel entitled to good service more than Israelis do because there is a frame of reference from growing up.
Ideally, good restaurant service would be there for everyone, not just for Anglos and not only at certain establishments. But change is slow to take hold across any industry. It would seem in this case, if the change isn’t coming from the top down, then it must start from the bottom up; the customers have to make their voices heard and demand better service. One of the most efficient platforms in that regard is social media.
“I moved to Jerusalem and had a food blog, and was constantly being asked by people where they should eat,” Debbie Kandel, founder of the Restaurant Club Jerusalem Facebook group states.
“I thought why not put the answers in one place.
Also, my personal preference might not be someone else’s, so with the group, you can get a selection of opinions. It started out with 30 people who I knew were interested in the Jerusalem culinary scene in 2013. It’s very much a community that now has about 3,500 people in it. It’s not only kosher places; it’s everything.
If someone works at a particular place, I don’t allow them to post a review that looks unbiased, they have to say they work there. I try to protect the integrity of the group.”
Kandel has written many restaurant reviews for the Jerusalem Post. She also has food intolerances that prohibit her from eating onion and garlic. Over the years, this has proved to be an indicator of how tolerant a restaurant is of its customers. Kandel has certainly noticed the difference in how staff approach the issue.
“I’ve had chefs in Tel Aviv come out to tell me that they won’t accommodate my allergies, but the food will be tasty anyway,” she adds. “Here in Jerusalem it’s better. A few times the chefs here have said it’s not a problem, maybe they see it as a challenge. So it’s how they handle it. I pay a lot of attention to that. I’m a particularly discerning customer.”
For Kandel, the best service in Jerusalem is found at Jacko’s Street near the Mahaneh Yehuda market.
She is not shy to rave about the kosher steakhouse and recommend it to Jews and non-Jews alike. Kandel admits that at this point, she knows the owners well and receives VIP treatment, but her admiration for them began a couple of years ago when someone posted in her Facebook group that they were unhappy with their experience at Jacko’s. One of the owners saw the poor review and called Kandel to ask her what she thought they should do. He then called the person and offered them a free meal if they would return, which they did. The subsequent experience was a much more positive one.
“Jacko’s knows that 50% of their customer base is Anglo,” Kandel says. “There are some places who don’t care about their Anglo customers because maybe the majority is Israeli. The other place that really gets it right is Mahaneh Yehuda restaurant. The experience begins the minute you walk in the door. If for any reason, you’re kept waiting, they bring you something.
It’s seamless. They know that the experience is not just about the food and very few restaurants here understand that.”
One restaurant that does understand this is Crave.
At Crave, everybody; customers and staff alike, seems to be having a genuinely great time. They actually enjoy being there, and that energy is not something you can fake. It permeates the customer experience. When you walk into Crave, there are no tablecloths or flowers; it’s a different kind of energy and yet you don’t sacrifice on the quality of service.
“One of the most important things that we did was eliminate tipping,” James Oppenheim, co-owner of Crave, shares. “It enhances the professionalism. The staff know what they’re getting paid and it gives us the ability to evaluate who’s doing great work based on feedback. It’s not about being mercenary about tipping. It’s about executing our mission of including hospitality in the experience.
“When people come to Crave, they should feel at home. It ends that oftentimes antagonistic relationship between the customer and the server. The customers should see the servers as their advocates. If your food is average or below average, it’s much harder to be creative in how the front of the house works. When we started Crave a little over a year ago, it was not just to build a successful business, but to up the game of competitors. If we create an environment where other businesses feel they need to step up in order to compete, then I think that we’ve succeeded.”
In Oppenheim’s opinion, customer service in Israel does exist, but requires a readjustment of expectations as an Anglo. Anglos are the outliers here and as with any new culture, a period of re-calibration is necessary.
“If you walk into one of the burger places here and the person behind the cash register is on their phone, you might go complain to the manager and they’re also on their phone,” Oppenheim relates. “If you were to go anywhere in the states, like Chipotle for example, that would never happen. But if you’ve ever waited in line at the bank or at the post office here, it’s the same idea. Things start to shift when you give people different experiences that are irresistible. Once people have that exposure to a different way of being, from a marketing perspective, you have a unique selling proposition.
Crave is a marketing-driven business. I would urge any competitor out there to analyze their business and figure out how to be unique.”
OPPENHEIM ALSO emphasizes the importance of perspective.
In Israel, as in America, many servers are in their early 20s. In America, that means they’ve just finished college. In Israel, it means they’ve just finished the army, where they gave years of their lives, sometimes putting themselves at great risk, in order to keep the country safe. This could be a factor psychologically as to why they are sometimes cold rather than overly accommodating, or why the knee-jerk reaction is often defensiveness rather than openness. Having empathy does not excuse poor service when it occurs, but it can help in understanding the mentality of young servers in Jerusalem.
“Israeli culture is one of pressure,” Arnold adds.
“You’re constantly scared that someone is trying to rip you off or even kill you, so Israelis are always on the defensive, always looking over their shoulders. I think that translates both to thinking that your waiter is screwing you over and also that the waiter will have a defensive response to criticism. That’s been my experience. You can see it very clearly that this is a stressed-out people and they don’t know how to reconcile that with others around them. Also good service is not taught; it’s just not the modus operandi. This is just my theory. I don’t want to disparage an entire people, but I think that a lot of the Israeli aggressiveness comes from wanting to get ahead before someone steps on you.”
According to many sources, waitstaff are paid particularly low wages in Israel and tips are also low, so there is not a huge incentive to work harder.
“That’s a big part of it,” Joel Habar, a tour guide who gives tasting tours of the Mahaneh Yehuda market, says. “Israelis don’t really understand customer service.
Because of that, it’s cyclical. Israelis don’t expect particularly good service and owners don’t feel the need to provide it. You might make a special request and instead of saying we don’t have that, they’ll respond by telling you what a ridiculous request that is.
That’s part of the overall attitude.
“As a tour guide, I’ve noticed that there has been an improvement in customer service in hotels. It may come from international companies getting more involved, but I’ve noticed that hotels are starting to provide better service. Maybe that will trickle down to restaurants eventually. We’re about 30 years into a gradual growth of real culinary culture here on a more sophisticated level. That also may have an effect.”
For Haber, the best restaurant service in Jerusalem comes from Crave, Cafe Nadi, Beer Bazaar and Hatch.
In Arnold’s opinion, Anna is the place with the most consistent, quality service. She also names La Regence at the King David Hotel as one of the best, albeit in a higher price range. The new Harvey’s Smokehouse in the city center is also at the top of Arnold’s list, with attentive and pleasant waitstaff.
“Cafe Nadi is great, too. One time I was eating there and found a little piece of wood in my salad. They were so nice about it. They brought me a new salad on the house and gave me free chocolates at the end as well.
I think the smaller places that really care and are passionate about what they’re doing; they’re excited to share that with the customer. Places like Urbun and Power Coffeeworks in the Mahaneh Yehuda area are like that; they’re dedicated.”
ONE ISRAELI restaurant owner with whom I spoke, Yankale Turjeman, understands customer service and runs his three establishments with the highest standards.
Turjeman owns 1868, Zuta, and the newer JLM Local Sushi. He maintains that service has to be part of the concept. You don’t wake up one day and decide to give good service; it must be in the business DNA. “All three of my establishments are different, but it’s about the experience and the concept; good ambience, good service, well-presented and good food. It’s about the quality of the staff.
My staff goes through hard training and we put a lot of hours into it to make sure they know about their wines, spirits, food and service. I also believe that the atmosphere within the business, among the employees and between them and me, keeps them working for me for many years.”
At the end of the day, the recipe for quality restaurant service calls for the following ingredients: owners who maintain a high standard and impart that to their staff through rigorous training, competent managers who can see that things run smoothly even and especially when the owners are not physically present, and waitstaff who are treated well, paid decently, and happy to come to work every day. If any one of these elements is missing, it’s probable that the service will be sub-par.
“Americans who come to Israel have the benefit of coming from a place where details matter,” Avi Moskowitz, owner of Beer Bazaar, states. “Israel is a small and young country. The people who are providing the services here didn’t grow up having any kind of a wow experience. Israelis believe that 96% is exactly the same as 100% and they’re surprised when you say it isn’t.
“As a service provider, we have a challenge because it starts with how we get our people to behave. It starts with recruiting and the age of the people we hire; that’s critical. Even if you have a very mature 18- or 20-year-old, someone who is 25 to 30 is going to have the maturity and experience to appreciate the customer differently.
We really focus and emphasize the training. People who want to join our team have to be willing to invest time into learning about what customer service means. At the end of the day, the major distinction between restaurants and other service providers is that we don’t sell products as much as we sell an experience.
“When I get someone who has a less than good experience, I seek them out because it helps us raise the bar. The lines of communication for us are really important, whether it’s through Facebook, Trip Advisor, Google, or via the phone. We are very responsive to people. I take the time personally to read the review and understand where it came from. We are not afraid of it, we embrace it.”