St Barths is usually known for being a French island in the Americas that brings the best of both worlds, such as delicious French food with American-style friendly and efficient service. Has it changed for the worst? Have restaurant staff gained some attitude that is disdainful and sometimes hostile to travelers, especially newcomers to the island who do not the island codes? One St Barths official thinks so: Nils Dufau, the well-known President of St Barths tourism bureau (aka ComitÃ© territorial du Tourisme – CTTSB). He’s complained about restaurant staff showing hostile attitudes and owners illegally adding expensive gratuities to the bill. We are talking about restaurants, not hotels and villas, and only 7 restaurants among the 70 on the island.
On January 18, 2022, Nils Dufau sent the following open letter to the St Barths restaurant association (Association des Restaurateurs de Saint BarthÃ©lemy), which created a lot of buzz on the island and beyond
Open letter: Are mockery and disrespect threatening St Barth’s travel industry?
The year 2021 has just ended with a particularly intense and active festive period.
In spite of the complications related to the health crisis around the world, Saint BarthÃ©lemy was fortunate to accomplish an almost normal year by operating its businesses and restaurants without too many restrictions, unlike establishments in mainland France.
Unfortunately, at this time of the year, which allows us to take stock of the season that has just passed, too many accommodators have informed us of serious complaints reported by their clients about the negative and arrogant conduct of a number of employees of certain restaurants:
- poor guest greeting
- lack of politeness at the restaurant
- disdain towards some customers in relation to their food consumption (order)
- insufficient quality of the food served
- mockery and disrespect of foreign customers who are not familiar with local customs
- lack of courtesy
As a reminder, in Metropolitan France, prices include taxes and service (about 15% of the total price). If the service has been particularly good, the client can leave a tip to show their satisfaction. It is illegal to put a tip on a bill and impose it on customers.
It is our duty to ensure that such repeated actions do not tarnish the positive image that St. Barts enjoys throughout the world, and for which our visitors return year after year.
The success of each and every one of us would not be possible without a consistent occupancy rate of the hotels and villa rental companies that regularly invest time, energy, and substantial funding to promote our beautiful destination.
We advise restaurants to motivate their staff to re-establish a professional and honest attitude. The French service and the quality of the food are one of the assets that the customers appreciate above all.
President of the Tourism Committee.
Tough love for the benefits of the travelers and the island’s long-term success
I’ve been asked on social media to react to this statement. First off, I quite like having an official make a public statement where they are not mincing their words. The St Barths population and tourism industry have spent decades taking the island to the incredible level where it is. Local officials know think long term, while 25-year-old staff people coming to work on the island for one season may think short-term.
Note that it is hotel owners and villa agents who have complained to the tourism bureau. They depend on restaurants to entertain their guests and they do not want bad experiences to lure tourists away. Makes sense.
The St Barths association of restaurant owners and operators has replied that, among the 70 restaurants of the island, there are indeed 7 among them that are well-known for illegally adding a 15% to 20% gratuity to the bill. To be clear, it is not happening at the most respected restaurants on the island.
Tipping and gratuities in St Barths: It’s complicated
How much to tip in St Barths is such a topic that I had to include it on my St Barths travel guide. First, this is a story of culture clash:
- St Barths is a French island, where French labor laws apply. When its comes to restaurants, in France, service is included in the bill because servers are paid a full wage.
- In the US, service is not included and tips will make a large portion of the staff income. Some US restaurants may add a “suggested tip” of 15 to 20% to the bill.
So, what can happen when Americans go on vacation in St Barths and hit a restaurant? They are accustomed to adding 15% to the restaurant bill. Also, a lot of St Barths travelers are affluent, so they may feel that they have to tip more than just a token â‚¬5. Hence, there is a lot of confusion.
That some restaurant owners are using this confusion to add an illegal 15 to 20% gratuity is terrible and illegal. It means that there is something wrong with the business culture at these few restaurants. Look at the owners, not at the staff.
As a French resident, it is easier for me to navigate the situation: At a local, simple restaurant, I think in absolute numbers (e.g. â‚¬5 for a simple meal). If I hit a luxury spot Ã la Bonito where you are served by several people, I think in %, as in 10%. I am a local and I have to balance my local wallet with the respect I owe to fellow islanders working at these restaurants.
Now, when I travel in South-East Asia, I do leave generous tips, as I know that my dollars or euros go much a long way for the local staff. If I owned a superyacht and came to a restaurant in St Barths, I may also think this way. See, it’s complicated, as it taps into our personal traits, upbringing, nationality, and mood of the moment (and actual service quality!).
The attitude: Differences in staff training are huge, yet cramped living conditions may explain a few things
St Barths is famous for having French people that go against French stereotypes: They are smiling and speak good English, for instance. If you think of 5-star hotels such as Cheval Blanc and Eden Rock, these are internationally-trained pros that have worked in palaces across the world. Their attitude is beyond reproach. Same things at the top restaurants on the island.
Now, at some restaurants, especially the party restaurants, the staff is often younger and much less qualified. They may come to the island for just one season to rake in some money. Restaurant owners often let them know about how good tippers the Americans are (which is true, nothing wrong here).
What has changed?
- It’s no secret that there is a shortage in hospitality staff in the US and Europe. Some thing on our tiny island. Where can you find the 5 extra staff you need for the 2 crazy weeks around Christmas and New Year’s Eve? Do you just fly them in from St Tropze or New York City? It means that some restaurants have to hire peole who may not have the same traning as at five-star hotels.
- A lot of hospitality staff live in cramped conditions in St Barths. The biggest and richest hotels either own or rent villas to house their staff. If you work at a restaurant, you are lucky if the owner can find you a place where to crash. Rents are insance in St Barths. You end up sharing your bedroom with another staff member and a house with 5 to 6 other people. If you are young and are promised fabulous tips, you can make do for one season ot two.
This is no excuse but may help explain the cranky attitude at some restaurants and the shenanigans around tipping
Tips for newcomers to the island: This is what our forum is for
While Europe has been closed to many Americans during the COVID pandemic, the St Barths scene has been booming. After the hard lockdown in May 2020, things have reopened and boomed again. Actually, Thanksgiving 20 was the busiest ever.
Some people have come to the island for the first time. Think about Jeff Bezos partying at Le Toiny for New Year’s Eve. These are not the island regulars, who come year after year and know what to expect. On my St Barths forum, I get a lot of people asking newbie questions to more seasoned travelers and this is completely OK. Our island is blessed with welcoming new guests every year, so I am happy to have created a community that can help.
Let’s be frank: A tiny minority among these guests is also coming with bad and arrogant attitudes of their own. Sometimes, I wonder who is sending the wrong message and getting what they deserve (#karma). Yet, if you are a hospitality pro, you know what you have to bend over backward, suck it up, and deliver your best.