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Op-Ed: Portland’s Bus-Your-Own-Table Culture Must Die

When you’re paying $30, $40, or $50 for a meal, should you be expected to bus your own table?

As the calendar ticks over, many of us ask, what will it take for us to become our best selves this year? There may not be much hope for improvement when it comes to my own waistline, but I have some notes for my new hometown of Portland, Oregon. My fervent desire is that in 2018, Portland abandons the system where diners bus their own table at restaurants. It’s a user-unfriendly, messy, passive-aggressive way to end a meal at any establishment that is neither fast nor casual. It is one of the worst aspects of Brand Portland™ to expand east of the Cascades and the time has come to abandon it. Won’t you join me in this quest to slay my bête noire?

For those of you not blessed with this style of service where you live, I refer to the system of dining wherein you order at a counter, take a number on a stick, sit down and your meal is brought to you when it’s ready. Sometimes drinks are delivered, sometimes you have to go get them yourself. Sometimes you get free refills (always shocking for an expatriate New Yorker) and sometimes you have to go back to the counter to get another round. Often, you’re expected to take your dishes and put them in a bus tub elsewhere in the restaurant after you finish eating.

Busing your own table, while imperfect, made a certain kind of sense in Portland’s early days. “When I opened Bollywood Theater I decided to go with a counter service model, with patrons bussing their own tables," says Troy MacLarty, chef and owner of Indian mainstay Bollywood Theater. "Counter service cut out the time before ordering and after eating. Contrary to popular theory, it doesn’t save on the amount of people you have working, but it does mean more customers per employee and more sales per hour.”

I’m not an absolutist, either. At a coffee shop or a sandwich joint, be my guest, and ask people to bus their own tables. The margins at a coffee shop are as thin as they come, and I am happy to do my part, even if my coffee does not magically become 25 cents cheaper than it would be otherwise. Sadly, it’s the norm here even at restaurants where the check can reach $30, $40, $50 a head. That’s where I take umbrage. Umbrage!

The bus-your-own system survives in Portland because it depends on everyone striving to be West Coast Nice above all else. My friends, there isn’t anything nice about a long look at other patron’s lipstick-stained cups and half-eaten food at the end of an expensive meal. All this going along to get along has painted us into a corner, and the only way out is by smashing this system. As a society, we are better than making diners feel guilty, forcing them to do work, and creating a culture of paranoia, all in the service of saving a few lousy shekels.

One thing I know for sure about 2018 is that savings aren’t passed on to anyone. Are you really being charged a lesser amount at Portland restaurants with $20 entrees because of the lack of bussers? Heck no. Instead it’s a firm grip on the filthy end of the stick, delivered right to your table. In a city where the choices people make about food are treated with intense scrutiny, this absence comes across as careless, a spectacular failure of user experience and hospitality.

In a glimmer of hope for me in the coming year, the marketplace agrees. MacLarty reports that Bollywood Theater switched away from their counter service model last year. “I wanted to elevate our level of service, and have a bit more personal connection with our customers, something that can be difficult in a high volume, counter service restaurant. It actually saves time and money if we clear the tables, and certain customers consider bussing to be the difference between service and no service, so we’ve found that it helps the staff greatly with tips.” There you have it. The only thing separating restaurant staff and better tips is a big honking bus tub.

Portland has a dining scene that punches far above its weight class. It’s the smallest city with a restaurant on the most recent Food + Wine Restaurants of the Year list, for example. Sadly, this one choice casts an irritating shadow over an otherwise exemplary food town. It should not be the default mode for restaurants that open here in the years to come. We may not be able to change everything we dislike about 2018, but we can rid the world of this scourge. Together, let us pledge to end the practice of bus-shaming for good.

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