Self-service catering

Self-service in catering facilities, to get drinks or food,  is a well-known phenomenon in many countries. The advantage for the customer is usually a lower price, the disadvantage most of the times a modest quality of the products (with exceptions of course). But the form in which it comes differs from country to country, depending on culture and traditions.

Worldwide the best known suppliers come from the United States. Chains of suppliers selling hamburgers or fried chicken have brought fast food, and with it  self-service catering, to all corners of the world. In their wake lots of other chains conquered worldwide food markets with abundant, cheap and greasy food as their primary product.

In the Netherlands the concept is known as well. It is known from the pubs, where it is common to pick up your own beer at the bar, and for eating out self-service has a rich tradition. Common denominator of most of these eateries is that price is more important than quality, and there has to be a lot of food for the price you have to pay. Roadside restaurants, eating facilities in shopping centres and the “snackbar” (where you eat fries with a deep-fried variety of meat) all made self-service part or core of their concept. Recently the so-called “wokrestaurants” are popping up. Generally big establishments where you can choose your raw food from big piles, hand it over to the cook, wait until it’s ready and take it to your table yourself. Great for a dinner with kids that are not able to sit through a meal, but not exactly a nice recipe for good conversation. Hugely popular with a lot of people.

Japanese do it differently. They like technique and machines, and you can recognise that preference in catering as well. Vending machines are omnipresent, even if their use isn’t exactly enhancing efficiency. A restaurant where you make your choice of dishes by pressing a button on a vending machine, get a receipt out of it and then have to hand that paper to the person behind the counter to actually order and pay your food? The superlative degree of this kind of self-service is the catering facility where there  is no human presence at all and literally everything comes out of a vending machine. The best machine was located at a picknick spot in the middle of a forest. Of course filled with the normal chocolate bars and sodas, but also containing noodlesoup (hot!) and cold and hot tea or coffee. Optionally with or without sugar and/or milk.

cross countryLast week I discovered an even more extreme variety of self-service in Norway. Restaurants around ski-slopes there are self-service anyway, whether it’s the variety with a counter where you pass and order or the one with the lunchbuffets (great food!), but Norwegians prefer to picnic along the slopes or cross-country trails. Nice, but not when the temperature reaches minus 20 degrees. They did find a solution for it though. All restaurants in the ski-area have a “varmestue”, a warm room. And that’s exactly what it is, a heated but undecorated room with a few tables and chairs where you can eat the food you brought from home. Most rooms contain a vending machine for coffee and hot chocolate, and for the persons who do want to buy something from the restaurant, there is an inside passage. Those rooms are packed with people throughout the day.

South Sudanese  wouldn’t understand anything of these formulas. They like to be served. Picking up their own tea during the break in a meeting, well, if they have to. Getting their own food during the midday-break is only possible if the attendants live in a city and regularly attend meetings with international organisations. In the rural areas self-service catering is impossible, attendants to meetings sit down and wait till the food is brought to them. A training for local chiefs? They will only eat and drink what is brought to them by a woman. The fact that these same women are the trainers doesn’t matter. My reaction was a simple:  “Well, if they don’t want to get it,  then they don’t eat and drink”, but that was a step too far for the South Sudanese. And no, fast food chains have not reached this country yet!


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