Restaurant Management in America vs. Europe: 3 Fundamental Differences

By: Charles Daly

14 Minute Read

Jun 11, 2019

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America vs Europe

American restaurateurs have often looked to the other side of the pond for culinary inspiration. But what if they adopted more than recipes from Europe?

Here are a three aspects of restaurant management that American restaurateurs can learn from Western European restaurant culture and business practices.

3 Restaurant Management Differences in America vs. Europe

1. Slow Down – There’s No Rush

American travel writers from Ernest Hemingway to Rick Steves have commented on the way European restaurants let you linger at your table. 

In recent years,  American food critics and bloggers have begun to complain about the way American servers rush customers out the door by clearing plates before everyone at the table has finished eating. The Washington Post calls this “The Most Annoying Restaurant Trend Happening Today.” The Huffington Post agrees. The New York Times put it on their list of “100 things Restaurant Staffers should Never do.”

In Europe, slow meals aren’t a trend but a way of life: Europeans go home or to restaurants for long lunches.

Spaniards often don’t start dinner until 9 or 10 P.M, while Italians enjoy coffee followed by a digestivo after a three-course dinner.  Meals are experiences in Europe; going out to eat isn’t just about eating and heading out the door. In French, the verb for “enjoy” (profiter) doesn’t need an object. You can say, “let’s enjoy” and leave it at that. You don’t have to be enjoying something in particular. 

This easygoing pace comes from a better work/life balance in general. In several countries, the maximum 40-hour workweek is a right under the law. French workers have the “right to disconnect” from work email at the end of the day. Meanwhile, 62% of American office workers eat lunch at their desks

While a cultural shift away from working lunches and in favor of leisurely lunches may not come about anytime soon, American restaurants could definitely be better about providing a space for people to get together and enjoy each other’s company on their own schedule without feeling rushed.

Vester is a fast casual restaurant in Boston’s Kendall Square that has managed to strike a balance with a model inspired by Copenhagen cafes. The owner, Nicole Liu, explains, “There’s no pressure. You can hang out and have wine with lunch or get your food to go. If lunch is the one time to breathe in your day, the café can be a place to regroup.” She says that any restaurant has to “cater to the culture.” In Boston, that culture is always on the go. Vester makes calm an option in the midst of the hustle and bustle without sacrificing speedy service.   

Vester was inspired by a trip to Europe; so was Starbucks. Food has always been about cultural exchange. As Americans travel more and restaurant culture becomes more global, many of us wish restaurants at home would adopt some of the customs as well as the cuisine we experience overseas.

American restaurants can’t just upend a business model based on turning over tables, but it is possible to follow basic etiquette so customers don’t feel like you’re shooing them out.

For a server who survives on tips, the rush is understandable. Turning over tables quickly can mean taking home more money at the end of the night. Slow tables—or “campers”—as servers call them, are a source of anxiety and annoyance. In some restaurants, campers get the polite hint from a server circling back to ask “can I get you anything else,” while in high volume restaurants, they might get more of a nudge out the door. 

Turning over tables might come as a culture shock to Europeans, but it makes sense when you realize that American staff need those tables to turn because their paychecks are based on tips. European staff work for a flat wage so turning tables isn't a priority. 

Read More: How to Improve Your Restaurant's Table Turnover Rate

How Can You Incorporate This European Approach? 

  • Don’t rush campers out the door – no matter how badly you may want to. As we’ve said before on the blog: handling campers is a fine art. Your staff run the risk of putting an entire meal’s worth of warmth and hospitality down the gutter by shooing campers out the door the minute they’ve signed the bill. 

  • Don’t bring the check unless it’s requested – nothing says “okay, now get out” quite like dropping the check before a guest has explicitly requested it. Not only are your staff missing out on the opportunity to deliver delight until the very end and ensure a second visit is in this guest’s future, but they’re also missing out on the opportunity to sell an additional drink or dessert. Make sure every server and bartender on staff asks their guests if they’d like anything else. Who knows? This could plant the seed in their head and encourage them to order another menu item when they may not have considered it previously. 

2. Treat Your Staff Like Hospitality Professionals 

The best way to take care of your customers is to take care of the people who take care of them. No place does this flawlessly, but Europe gets a few important things right.

While American servers often fight for the best shifts and best sections, their European counterparts focus on professional development. Moving up in the European restaurant scene requires experience, knowledge, and worldliness. The best servers often master multiple languages, travel broadly, and study wine and gastronomy.  

French servers can sign open or “lifetime” contracts, much like tenure in a university. A waiter on an open contract is “part of the house” and can’t be let go easily. A waiter named Sheppard who has worked in restaurants at all price points on both sides of the Atlantic describes this contract culture vs. a tipping culture as a choice between job security and fast but unpredictable money. 

Not surprisingly, turnover among servers is substantially lower on the other side of the pond. One 2010 study found Irish restaurant turnover to be 30%, and while that’s high compared to other industries, it’s less than half of the American restaurant industry’s shocking 73% annual employee turnover rate.

Lowering your turnover rate starts with addressing the reasons employees move on in the first place. One of the top reasons restaurant staff quit is to seek career advancement and training, so try to find ways to offer those opportunities to your employees before they quit. Think of how you can make their job as much about learning as earning. 

Read More: 7 Solutions on How to Battle Restaurant Turnover

Over the past few years, some American restaurants have experimented with no-tipping or “hospitality-included” pricing. They pay staff more and raise prices by up to 20%.

Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group has been an industry leader in this change, eliminating tipping from all of their restaurants. In a public statement, Meyer talks about fairness between the kitchen and the front of the house and professionalization of serving as reasons for this change.

The results have been mixed. Many of Meyer’s servers quit initially after USHG went hospitality-included, according to Grub Street. Other restaurants have tried doing away with gratuity only to bring it back. That’s what happened at Claus Meyer’s Agern. David Chang tried at Momofuku in January of 2016 and brought tipping back by that summer. Danny Meyer acknowledges that it takes a while for any restaurant to “get the math right.” 

Tipping is ingrained in the way American restaurants are run, and the way Americans budget a night out. From the customer’s perspective, studies have shown that customers perceive tip-included prices to be higher even if the actual cost is the same as what they would have paid anyway.

Ultimately, neither side of the Atlantic has the perfect business model that pleases managers, customers, and staff alike. What works for one restaurant or type of service might not work for another. The value of looking to how things are done elsewhere is that it allows you to consider that alternatives exist. 

Hospitality-included pricing is just one way of doing things. Other alternatives to the traditional tipping model include service charges, tip sharing, and hybrids that include things like “kitchen appreciation” charges. 

Read More: How to Be a Good Server: Tips for Servers to Up Their Game and Make More Money

How Can You Incorporate This European Approach? 

  • Stop treating working in a restaurant as ‘just a job’ - Sadly, in American culture we view working in a restaurant as just a job, a way to make money until a more promising career option comes along. This philosophy is not only perpetuated by the public, but by restaurant owners, operators, and managers as well, which trickles down into their staff. This is disrespectful to  hardworking restaurant employees who are turning their passion for hospitality and food into a career, and it also dissuades existing and would-be restaurant staff from pursuing a future in our industry.  We’re scaring off the next generation of cooks who could be the next Jose Andres or Leah Chase before they even have a chance to shine. To encourage restaurant staff to both stick with your restaurant and with the industry in general, you need to give them reasons to stay, mainly in the form of professional training, career advancement opportunities, and meaningful employee benefits. Check out our employee retention playbook for additional ideas. 

  •  Change up your employment model –  As Danny Meyer and other restaurant industry innovators have proven, a gratuity-based model is not the only way to run a restaurant. From open-book management to hospitality-included, there are a number of ways to successfully run a restaurant, pay staff higher than minimum-wages, while putting no additional responsibility on the customer.  If you’re interested in learning about gratuity free business models, here are some additional resources from Toast: 

3. Whatever You Are - Be A Real One

European restaurants excel at being themselves. It might sound obvious that Italian restaurants in Italy feel authentic, but that feeling is more than just a matter of geography.

Anyone who’s traveled in Europe knows the food is pretty great across the board, from Michelin Star restaurants to family dinner tables.

One Swiss chef I pressed on the matter put it like this, “Overall, the standard of cooking (in Europe) is high. It doesn’t matter where you are, at restaurants, or at your grandmother’s house. Quality and authenticity are part of the culture.”

But, at the end of the day, this comes down to a mindset and a way of approaching food and service by maintaining a keen focus on quality and authenticity. All restaurants, regardless of zip code, should focus on maintaining brand authenticity.

Consider your relationship to your ingredients and your process. Think about how you tell that story to your customers and what kind of experience you create for them.

At Tortoise Supper Club in Chicago, IL, management views visiting their restaurant as an experience; some say it’s like taking a walk back in time. As such, they train each and every front of house staff member to enhance that experience through storytelling. Whether it’s the steak or the 1950’s Chicago artifacts on the walls, staff are encouraged to connect with guests and share the stories behind the dishes and decor; management has found that guests are much more interested in knowing how and why a menu item made the cut, rather than its price or what it pairs best with. 

“Your job isn’t to sell a product; it's to tell the story, create an experience, and make sure they come see us again," says Shelby, the Marketing Coordinator at Tortoise Supper Club

This emphasis on authenticity and connecting over stories has established Tortoise Supper Club as a preeminent steakhouse in Chicago, and one of the top Yelp listings in the windy city.

French, Italian, and German all have specific words for different types of restaurants – bistros and brasseries in France, trattorias and ristorantes in Italy. Just by the name, patrons have some idea about the price, what’s on the menu, and the level of formality. 

It pays to make deliberate choices about what your restaurant is and what it isn’t. This is not to say you have to follow tradition. American food culture is eclectic, as big on originality as portions. The lesson from the bistro vs. brasserie example is that customers should pick up on your overall vibe before they sit down to eat. 

Being authentic in your ambiance starts with being genuine in your interactions with customers. One thing European customers notice in American restaurants is the way American servers introduce themselves by name – a habit that also appeared on the NYT’s 100 don’ts: “Do not announce your name. No jokes, no flirting, no cuteness.” 

If you do encourage your staff to introduce themselves to guests, make sure they’re doing it as they would if they were introducing themselves to a friend of a friend. That is the type of relationship your staff should be trying to build with guests. 

In Europe, if you know the server, the chef, or the owner’s name, it’s usually because you’ve built up a personal bond.  These bonds have a tremendous return on investment (if you want to think about it that way). It costs nothing to have a genuinely friendly attitude, and it can be the foundation of repeat business and customer loyalty.

As one Irish expat I met living in the south of France put it, “I’d rather eat at a place where the food is just okay but the staff is warm and welcoming and not all stuffy and full of their fluff.”

Read More: How to Measure the Effectiveness of Your Restaurant Branding Strategy

How Can You Incorporate This European Approach? 

  • Don’t be sales-y - The hospitality industry has earned that name for good reason: we’re in the business of showing warmth and hospitality to our guests for the short while they’ve decided to visit. They’re not customers paying a business for a good or product and we shouldn’t treat them as such. During the hustle and bustle of meal service, it’s all too easy to revert to the car salesman approach – where you ask guests what they want or and try to upsell them to something more expensive, you get it for them, and then you collect payment – because it’s quick and easy and you have a million things on your plate. This is killing your chances at building connections and turning these one-time guests into regular patrons, and hurting your bottom line; it’s also devoid of any hospitality. Incorporate regular hospitality skills training in your restaurant: Every staff member should be focused on helping guests enjoy the most connected, warm experience possible. Upselling should be regarded as a way to enhance the dining experience with something better, not just a way to pad the check. If you were to host a dinner party at your home, how would you treat the friends and family you invite? Extend the same treatment to every guest.

  • Stay True to Your Mission, Vision, and Purpose – You’re not going to be  everyone’s cup of tea nor should you try to be. Stay true to your restaurant’s mission, vision, and purpose and you’ll find more guests will come and support you than if you tried to make a broad, all-encompassing menu that aims to please everyone and every palate. Authenticity is paramount to Millennial and Gen Z consumers across all industries, this is especially true in restaurants.  From the way we pay our employees to what we put in the dishes we serve, we’re seeing an increased demand for transparency, sustainability, and ethical business practices from restaurant guests. Be genuine, be authentic, be you: again, you may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but you may just be someone’s glass of whiskey and that packs one hell of a punch. 

Bon Appetit

Not everything that works in Europe is going to work over here. Our restaurant culture has a lot going for it, and different doesn’t mean better or worse.

 I asked one restaurant owner what Americans could learn from European restaurants. He turned the question on its head and said he wished France had the kind of innovative trend-embracing food culture that America has. “We’re also less friendly,” he added. 

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