From the moment I arrived in Ukraine, I knew everything would be different. It was my first time living outside of the US and I didn’t know much about the countries of the former Soviet Union, save Russia, and I can’t remember even having seen Cyrillic (which I managed to learn on the flight) much or at all in good ole Tennessee.
Of course, the well-ingrained stereotypes of Soviet culture were at the forefront of my mind and some of them stood true, but I did not expect such apathy toward gaining money. That’s not to say that post-Soviet people don’t like money, but you wouldn’t know it much from the attitudes of shop owners or restaurant managers. A great example of why I came to feel this way arose from the many interactions I had when purchasing a drink or snack at a sidewalk kiosk or small store in Kiev.
“Что!?” (What!?) said each and every worker with a grim, angry face as if I was bothering them when I approached the window or walked through the door, eager to give them my money for a delicious Western beverage. “That’s rude.” I would always think. In America, I’d be greeted with a smile and a friendly, “How can I help you today?”
Whether the smile or the willingness to help me was genuine or not is nearly irrelevant to their intentions—employees in America are taught that they must be friendly in order to gain repeat business and earn more money. The friendlier your employees are, then the more likely customers are to return or give your business a positive online or person-to-person review.
In my experience, restaurant service in the Ukrainian capital was generally abysmal. Waiters took forever to bring a menu, even longer to bring drinks, and longer still to bring food. The wait-staff never smiled, never gave their names, and usually served incorrect orders and then never returned to the table unless heavily flagged down for the bill.
With each returning visit, the shop owners would eventually recognize me and become friendlier while some even smiled, but the restaurant service consistently remained poor. Since I’ve transferred to Moscow, an even bigger city, I’ve found the customer service levels to be in the same fashion, but much worse for the most part.
Restaurants will deny you seating at empty restaurants at 5:00 PM because those tables are “Reserved” for 10:00 PM—as if I’d eat there for five hours or that they couldn’t simply ask me to move when the proper patrons arrived. When I order something, my desires are often met with a stark and careless “Нету“ (We don’t have it.) at least twice, making it easier to ask what they do have first. Waiters are slow with no apologies and of course, again there are no smiles.
Store employees stock shelves during the day when the building is full of patrons instead of at night, causing irritating and sometimes dangerous obstacles. Lines are long, cashiers are angry and no one is happy. Often times, you’ll find something you really like one day, and it’ll be completely gone the next day—out for weeks or never to return because obviously someone didn’t order it.
I could continue with endless examples, but the meat of this narrative lies in a certain case study derived from two of my experiences in a week.
I recently visited “Hermitage Gardens” for the Game of Thrones Food Festival and decided that while it was entertaining, I’d enjoy a more complete meal at a nearby restaurant, The Food Market, Foood Bazar (not to be confused with 21 Food Market). The waiter for our table was a rather friendly guy who spoke a small bit of English and already I was impressed.
I ordered a simple Margherita Pizza and a beer. The waiter served me the beer rather quickly and then I waited… and waited… and waited. Finally, after about 15 minutes he informed me that my pizza would arrive in about three minutes more and I grew hungrier. About five minutes passed and he returned to the table, stating that the first pizza had burned and they’d have to cook it again. Approximate wait time: 10 more minutes.
I wasn’t too upset because I wasn’t in any rush and hell, I’d been conditioned to expect such a situation in Moscow, but I knew that in America—this pizza would be free. Finally, my pizza arrived and surprisingly it tasted better than expected. After I paid the check, I stood up to grab my bag so we could be on our way and that’s when it happened…
I was shocked.
The waiter had returned to our table and presented me with a completely FREE dessert. The dessert wasn’t that tasty, but it was free and free always tastes better. I couldn’t believe it, decent customer service in Moscow. Who would’ve thought?
That same week, a friend of mine decided to celebrate her birthday at a rooftop bar near Vladykino metro station named Bar Krysha. It had been chosen for its rooftop location and karaoke goodness, aspects which both excited me enough.
Upon arrival, we were served with countless appetizers and the food was absolutely delicious. Three other party-goers and I all looked at the beer menu with haste and noticed to our disappointment that there was only a small selection of draft beer available.
No matter—they had Guinness for around 400 Rubles so we went that option (some with ginger, some with a kind of berry flavor). We waited forever for someone to take our beer order and then bring them to us. With my lips eagerly wanting to sip a tasty Guinness, I took my first gulp and noticed something was wrong. It tasted absolutely awful.
I thought it was just me so I took a few more sips and finally mentioned to a friend beside me that it tasted like watered down shit. Nothing like Guinness. He agreed, as did two other poor souls. We decided we couldn’t bear to drink it anymore and after waiting a while, my friend informed the waitress and she told us to wait and walked off for a bit.
After at least five minutes of waiting, my friend told the same waitress the problem once again as she walked by and asked if all of us could trade our disgusting excuses for Guinness in for the other beer they have on tap. She told us to wait and went to ask her manager.
After a bit, she returned and told us something along the lines of “No, we won’t change it. My manager said it is a good drink.”
Not surprised by the answer, but rather amused instead—we had no choice but to try to finish what we had and to not order another one. Three of us choked down the shit and the fourth couldn’t finish it—barely touched it even.
Later, another friend decided to try the other beer available and again to no surprise—it was described to resemble the taste of watered down piss.
Don’t go there, at least not for beer. Although the food was great, I’ll never return.
Like that, I can only assume that the bar manager at Bar Krysha hadn’t yet learned the value of treating your customers well. S/he doesn’t realize that other Moscow businesses are starting to catch on to new ideas and those that do will be much more successful in the long run.
These two contrasting situations seem to respectively represent the epitome of what the future of capitalism in Russia will become versus the old Soviet mentality towards customers. There is more than one distributor of your products whether they be forms of entertainment, services, or bread—and Muscovites will flock to the better value with better customer service.
Of that, I’m sure.
I know you’re still rather new to the table, so welcome to capitalism Mother Russia.