Sunday, August 24, 2008

The Best Mexican Restaurant in Prague!

Several years ago I had the opportunity to present an address at WorldWorkplace Europe, IFMA’s annual conference on the continent. Naturally I took full advantage of the trip to get in as much sightseeing as I could. Prague is a marvelous place. St. Vitus’ Cathedral, the Charles Bridge, the Clock Tower, and the Old City are all reasons enough to make the trip. Imagine our surprise, however, when we discovered a prototypical Mexican restaurant. Actually, I think it discovered us. As we walked the old town square we were drawn to an old man dressed in complete Mexican attire, serape and all, advertising for the restaurant. My friend and I took the bait and walked a couple of side streets, finding it just as advertised. It would have looked perfectly at home here in southern California and beckoned to us with promises of the familiar. When we entered we found the right graphics on the walls, the right furniture and lighting, and trinkets everywhere that signaled this was for real. The menu bespoke familiar and beloved dishes. Our mouths began to water as we anticipated burritos, enchiladas and the like. But, remembering where we were we were careful to quiz the waiter. Was this really Mexican food in Prague? Tell me about the burrito, what is that like? And on and on. Finally we placed our orders…..and waited.

Our waiter proudly served our dishes to us. We looked at each other and then took our first tentative bites as our waiter stood waiting for our endorsement. Not wanting to seem like “the ugly American,” we told him just what he wanted to hear. It was wonderful! How did they pull this off? He beamed and then left, leaving us to figure out what to do next. The food wasn’t what we had expected at all, despite the earlier assurances. A burrito was an enchilada, an enchilada a torta. And the contents inside were nothing like we expected. Boiled meat, vegetables and potatoes in virtually everything, and we weren’t quite sure what they were boiled in. Needless to say, we did the graceful thing as quickly as we could and then left, laughing all the way (mostly at ourselves) and planning our next adventure.

OK, that may be a silly story, but it is also a metaphor for the experiences many have when doing business globally. Sometimes, it seems, nothing is as you expect. It looks good and all the signals are the right ones. You’ve done your validation checking and still….it isn’t what you expected it would be. When dining it may be okay to graciously look the other way and move on to the next restaurant, but when something goes sideways in a business venture it is another story. Now you have to find out what when wrong, redress the issue, and do so in a manner (hopefully) that restores the business relationship so that all can walk away from the experience looking forward to the next. Take a look at the restaurant story again. We were naïve and bought into the prospect that we would get something we liked and did not expect to get originally. We were excited because it was something common in our culture. We saw all the signals, thought we asked the right questions, and were still surprised at the outcome.

When dealing internationally understand that you are on someone else’s home turf. Their culture is different than yours. Words may have different meaning(s), culture may dictate a response you interpret incorrectly or naively. All of which add up to one piece of critical advice. Don’t assume anything, don’t take anything at face value. There is an old rule of thumb in the conduct of foreign relations between governments that applies directly in this circumstance. Trust, but verify. As any good project manager will tell you, “I know it’s true when I see it with my own eyes, smell it with my own nose, and touch it with my own fingers.”

If my friend and I had simply asked to see the kitchen we would have known. Take a lesson from us and make sure you don’t just talk to the cook. Watch him cook first and then decide.


  1. Ken, I hate to break it to you, but the secret is in the chips and salsa. If they didn't have decent looking chips and hot sauce, or God forbid, none at all, you know you're in the wrong place.

    But I too must admit, sheer curiousity would have pulled me in there too. But I think there was some sort of lesson about curiousity and a cat. I don't recall the lesson exactly, but I remember someone died. ;)

  2. Can't recall the chips and salsa, actually, but you make an excellent point. We lived, however. That has to be worth something....doesn't it?