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The tastes – and customer service – of Mechelen

Mechelen chocolates

I was recently invited by Mechelen Tourism to try out their Sense-Sations. This is a book of six coupons that you can buy (for 5 EUR), which enables you to visit six different shops in the centre of Mechelen and sample their local wares. Never one to turn down the kind offer of free food, and keen to explore more of this attractive city, I was quick to accept. Here’s a report of my experiences.

First up was Café Sava on the Grote Markt:

P1050972Here I could get a “Sweet Sin”, an apple pie spiked with Gouden Carolus Beer:

Mechelen Grote Markt Cafe Sava
Verdict: tasty. Bit on the small side (it looks bigger in the photo), but it was a good start to the day. And the café is ideally located on the Grote Markt, from where you can sit and watch the world pass by. Thankfully it was a gorgeous August day when I did my tour of Mechelen

Next step was Bakery Vanderbeek & Godiva in the Steenweg:

MechelenThey had a super display of magnificent chocolates and my mouth was watering as to which of these I would be receiving:

P1050982Unfortunately, none of them! I was taken to another counter and given these:

Maneblussers chocolate
Verdict: Well, not quite what I was expecting, but delicious nevertheless. I thought the shop assistant might have explained the meaning behind the moon shape (residents of Mechelen are called maneblussers or moon extinguishers after someone mistook the moon shining on St. Rumbold’s Tower for a fire), but she didn’t.

Port of call number 3 was Schockaert’s Cheese Shop, Ijzerenlaan 28:

Schockaerts Cheese shopAgain, the displays of cheeses were impressive:

CheesesBut I was beginning to realise that my coupon wasn’t likely to allow me to do much in the way of cheese tasting. You can see from the grapes that the slices were not very large:

Cheese in Mechelen
Verdict: Disappointing. The shop assistant clearly thought I was in the way, and rather hastily cut a couple of slices of cheese and handed them to me with no explanation of what cheese I was eating and why it might have been a local Mechelen speciality.

By this time it was approaching lunch, so I made my way to Chip Shop Korenmarkt:

Chip shop Korenmarktand guess what I got:

Belgian frites
Verdict: You can’t go far wrong with a pakje of Belgian frites!

Then it was time to walk off my lunch (!) with a stroll over to Sint-Katelijnestraat to pay a visit to Bakery Matthys:

Bakkerij MatthysMy booklet said I could sample six typical Mechelen biscuits, which turned out to be:

Mechelen biscuits
Verdict: Well, that’s what I was promised so I can’t complain. Again, I was just handed them by the shop assistant, without any explanation of what makes them typical Mechelen biscuits. (And it wasn’t because she was busy; the shop was deserted. Nor was it because she couldn’t speak English, because I was speaking Dutch)

After eating all those dry biscuits I was feeling rather thirsty so was glad that the final step on the Sense-Sations tour was Het Anker Brewery’s Brasserie:

Het Anker MechelenHere I could enjoy a 15 cl draught beer:

Mechelen beer
Verdict: I think I had realised by now that for the Mechelen shop-owners, Sense-Sations isn’t that much fun. Here again there was no interest shown in me as a tourist exploring Mechelen for the first time. It was very much “what do you want?” and “here you are.”

So there you are. I had completed the Sense-Sations tour, handed in my six vouchers and received my six free samples of the best of Mechelen’s local specialities.

To be honest, I am none the wiser what I have consumed. No-one explained anything to me, showed any interest in me as a tourist, nor even as a potential buyer of more of their food and drinks.

Now, for 5 EUR you can’t expect a lot – so I have no problem with small portions. What I can’t understand is how no-one interacted with me, even though I could have been a potential customer of more of what I was sampling.

If this had been my first day in Belgium, and was looking forward to learning something about their local food & drink, I would have been disappointed. As it happens, I have lived in this country for 28 years so have grown well accustomed to a poor level of customer service.

You see, there’s nothing unusual or unique about this to Mechelen. It’s a Belgian disease. Customer service levels in shops, cafés and restaurants generally hover between non-existent and poor. There are notable exceptions of course; places where you are warmly welcomed, appreciated and informed. Once you’ve found such a place, you’ll want to visit it time and again. But generally, customers are given the impression that they are performing a great service to the shopkeeper or café owner by being allowed to purchase something from them.

I also find it quite amusing to read in the local press of the winners of “Friendliest Bar Tender” or “Most Customer-Oriented Shopkeeper” awards. I’ve been in some of these places, and notice that these award-winners are extremely friendly to their friends, their regular customers, and the people they know. But to strangers or infrequent visitors, they often give the appearance of being aloof, unfriendly and uninterested.

I would be interested in any comments on this topic.

Oh, by the way, I have a free set of Sense-Sations coupons to give to someone who is interested in doing the tour. Just drop me a line. You might have a different experience to me.

13 thoughts on “The tastes – and customer service – of Mechelen”

  1. Ha Ha! I thought the amount of goodies was about right. Just a taste to see what the shops have to offer. Do the shop owners of Belgium go on vacation like the people of other countries do in August? I see you were there then. It is either a good time to visit Europe, the crowds are down, or awful because the shops are closed and everyone has gone on vacationor wants to be on vacation. By August Europe is sick of tourists and ready to Vaca! They are probably inundated with Americans all summer who get their coupon goodies and then walk right out the door complaining! But, these coupon sellers are trying to get the folks in, the assistants are disgruntled to be there.

    1. I guess the service is markedly inferior to what you experience in the States Judy, where all the assistants and servers are extremely friendly and helpful

      1. Well, I wouldn’t say that are all that way but the folks that work in retail do recognize that we have choices and if we don’t get service at one coffee shop, we will probably not be back and will move along to the next one. We are also a vocal group so there’s that piece of it. 🙂

  2. I can’t really remember having poor service except for when we wanted to do a guided tour of the Belgian Parliament and the lady flatly refused to take us because she thought we were English. It was only when I said we were Australians that she suddenly changed her attitude completely and then we were her new best friends. It turned out that there had just been a federal election in Australia and one of the newly appointed government ministers was Belgian in origin and from her home town.

      1. Ha ha! Seriously though, it was just plain rude! It doesn’t matter who she thought we were. They offer guided tours so she should have been prepared to take us. She asked me if we spoke any other language than English and when I said no we were Australians it was like Jekyll and Hyde. She changed instantly. That’s terrible service.

  3. Unfortunately, I can confirm what you say about the unfriendly service to strangers or people they don’t know. I wouldn’t say it’s a Belgian thing (we’ve had far worse experiences in France!), but the difference with service in eg the US or UK is striking.
    But (not to be cynical – just an observation): over there they rely heavily on tips as an income, while service fees are included in the price in Belgian pubs and restos. Maybe that has something to do with it?
    Anyway, we ourselves often complain about the unfriendly and poor service, I think some waiters in Bruges don’t even know how to smile! 🙂

    PS: I wouldn’t mind those coupons, but I guess my request for vegan samples wouldn’t make them any happier 😉

    1. Ha I would like to see them rise to the challenge of providing vegan products! I still have a free ticket to the St Rumbold’s Tower though if you are interested!

  4. Perhaps you should have tried your best Australian accent but then again it sounds like the shop staff would not have been interested anyway. Pity as it is always good to know the story behind the local specialities as that’s what makes their shop special.

    1. That’s bonzer cobber! I’ll let you know how I get on. Probably think I’m right dinky-di. If not I’ll tell them to rack off and I’ll go and crack a tinnie.

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