The Language Barrier
Sitting in a unnamed downtown Mexican restaurant, staring at a diet Pepsi, a thought came to me about the importance of communication in the food service industry. Let me start out by saying that I don't believe that the government should be involved in forcing people to speak one language or another. Instead, I believe, economic forces will decide the language that people speak in the public square. When you purchase a meal, you put trust in the person who is taking your order and the people making your food. Things can go wrong without a common language if you ask for your food to be prepared a certain way. We've all had that awkward experience trying to explain to a server what you want and they leave before you're fully confident that they understood you. You have this feeling like you're in for an awful meal and you're going to either ask the server to take the food back or just deal with it and eat it. That's how I felt as I sipped the diet Pepsi knowing that I ordered a regular Pepsi. The waitress spoke very little English and when I ordered the daily special she gave me a puzzled look. I asked her if it came with chips and salsa she didn't nod or say no, she just walked away. Next, a server, I think it was a busboy, brought me a glass of water. I told him that I thought the daily special came with a soda. He said "Pepsi," that may have been one of the few words he knew that we both understood. I nodded and said yes. He left and came back with the diet. If it wasn't for the language barrier I might have found this insulting. One thing I learned in many years waiting tables, if you forget someone's drink order and you want to take a 50/50 chance, always bring out the regular. Handing someone a diet is like saying you need a diet. Not wanting to hassle this poor busboy again I just settled with the diet and waited for the meal. This must be how it is for almost every English speaking customer in this place. That's got to be terrible for getting return business. My suggestion to this restaurant and others is to hire bilingual servers. The waiter or waitress is the spokesperson for your restaurant to the customer. A downtown Salem restaurant, even a Mexican restaurant, has a large amount of English speaking customers such as myself. If these customers suffer the same food anxieties that I had as I waited for my tacos I can tell you they're less likely to come back. Another thing to do, is to have numbers for each item on the menu. Many ethnic restaurants like Japanese and Thai have a number next to each entree when the names are difficult to pronounce. Oregon has a large Hispanic population and there are places that I've eaten where I know that the majority of customers speak Spanish. I do expect when I go into these places that I should adapt and use as much of my limited Spanish as I know. So, the chips and salsa arrived at my table without problem and so did the tacos. When the bill came, I did notice that it was written in either short hand or chicken scratch. I wondered how a person who reads English or Spanish could figure out what it said.