The Trouble With Restaurants

Let’s talk for a sec about the restaurant industry, ok? I just got back from a corporate training and I’m a little fired up.

I have a lot of opinions about the restaurant industry and I will happily share them with you over many, many drinks. However, what I want to talk about today is the restaurant industry’s over-emphasis on accommodation. Having worked in restaurants for 3+ years now, I’m getting pretty sick of the mantras and slogans slung around by the general managers and corporate figureheads. Some of my favorites over the years have included “The answer is yes, now how can I help you?” Or the old classic “The customer is always right.”

I’m not here to complain about the restaurant industry, I’ve done that plenty of times in the past and I will probably continue to do so in the future. I do however want to propose the idea that the overemphasis on accommodation of the customer puts a de-emphasis on morale and in the long run, service. Yes, I’m talking to you restaurant mangers/owners/CEO’s, your emphasis on accommodating the customer is hurting your service overall.

I’m going to start by saying that I don’t have research or scientific studies to back this up. I just have personal experience from the front lines of the battlefield that is waiting tables. And it is a battlefield. Once, at a mandatory all-staff meeting, we went around and said what we enjoyed about the restaurant (this was requested by the boss, of course). One server spoke up and said “I like that we all work together in going to war every night.” Yes, war. You know, that thing where thousands of people die. It’s a little melodramatic, but I don’t disagree with her.

To say that the customer is always right is to say that the restaurant has no boundaries toward accommodation. If the restaurant has no boundaries, then the customer is king. If the customer is king, then the customer is the boss. If the customer is the boss, then the customer owns the restaurant. If the customer owns the restaurant then the server works for the customer. If the server works for the customer, the customer decides how to treat the server. Do you see the problem here?

I’ve been at many corporate trainings where figureheads try to hammer in the idea that “They are not customers, they are ‘guests.'” And I absolutely agree. However, we seem to have a cultural (corporate?) disagreement of what the word ‘guest’ means. Let’s look at two hypotheticals: If I invite you over for dinner to my private residence, you are a guest in my house. Likewise, if I own a restaurant and you come to eat at my restaurant, you are a guest in my restaurant. If you eat at my house and I serve you and the soup is cold or the main course takes too long, would you yell at me? Get agitated? Demand something else? No, probably not because you’re not paying for it. It is assumed we have a personal relationship because you are my guest. If you come to my restaurant would you likely to do the same in the same scenario? I don’t know you personally, but the chances are much, much higher that you might get upset with a server, bartender, busser, etc., and say something nasty to them or tip them terribly. And why is this different? You are still a guest in my restaurant. I believe it is strictly because of two things: You’re paying for the experience so you feel entitled to perfection, which by definition is unattainable. Secondly, because you don’t have a personal connection with the staff, you feel it is ok to treat them as if you have direct authority.

Look, I don’t care if it’s the person next door or the person on the street. That person is a human with a life and that life is good and bad and everything in between. That server might have a kid or three. That busser might be going through a terrible break-up. This might be your bartender’s first shift back to work after breaking their arm. And you act as if it is ok to treat them as if they are your personal butler that you can boss around? That’s unfortunate. In actuality, you don’t employ the people of that restaurant. Yes, you probably help pay their wages because the gratuity system is fucked and should be abolished, but that’s a topic for another day. You are just one customer, in a sea of customers, and if you hate it, please politely leave and go somewhere else. Chances are you probably don’t even tip that well anyways. It is never ok to treat another human being as less than, you are paying for service and food, not the opportunity to unleash your demons on another person.

And do you know how we fix this? It starts with the restaurants. If owners backed up their employees, if servers were able to stand their ground against a terrible customer within a reasonable limit, maybe we would have the beginnings of a better system. I think that maybe, just maybe, we’ve been training terrible customers…I’m sorry…’guests’ for years and years. Maybe the extra training and work doesn’t fall upon the servers. Perhaps, we start with training the customers. I almost got fired once for telling an angry customer that I thought the manner in which he was speaking to me was disrespectful. Servers should have the ability to stand up for themselves respectfully, without fear of getting fired or losing out on money they need to feed themselves. We have to, have to, have to stop breeding an atmosphere of submission to the every whim of the customer. If restaurants can’t start with that, then they’re going to have much, much bigger problems down the road as our economy moves more and more towards that of autonomy and self-direction.

I have met some really amazing people in my time as server. People who have seen me for the person I am and recognize that this job is a means to an end until I can pursue my creative endeavors full time and make a living doing so. I realize that if you’re reading this, you’re probably somebody who already treats servers as if they are real human beings (which they are). I applaud you for that. If you know of someone who acts poorly towards people in a service capacity, share this this with them. If you’re a server and you have a boss who insists that the customer is always right, even if it’s at your expense, articulate this idea to them.

Maybe then we can begin to breed a positive system where both the guest and *gasp* the server are satisfied.

That was a lot. I hope this makes sense. Let’s start an open discussion below. Post any comments below. Let’s get a conversation started.

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