Today’s special: Angry diners. What’s a restaurant to do?

Caitlin Ochs/Reuters
People are served at a restaurant in Manhattan Aug. 3, 2021, after New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that proof of COVID-19 vaccination will be required for customers and staff at restaurants, gyms, and other indoor businesses.

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When out-of-control customers made staff cry at a Cape Cod eatery, the owners closed the restaurant for a day to give employees a mental health break.

Such conflicts are on the rise at America’s eateries. They are rooted, experts say, in a sense of consumer entitlement piqued by pandemic restrictions, and then riven by political discontent.

Why We Wrote This

Is the customer still always right? Restaurants are grappling with angry diners amid pandemic exhaustion, a labor shortage, and the redefinition of the value of service work.

“The fundamental shift and reckoning of the hospitality industry is happening because the pandemic actually changed the perception of those jobs” to something more valued and necessary, says Patricia Campos-Medina, a labor expert at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. “The consequences are right there in your neighborhood, your community, the people you see every day.”

The new reality has been exacerbated by supply chain hiccups and a mass shift in the labor pool that some labor analysts believe could lead to greater worker empowerment.

“For years, customers have been telling us in the restaurant industry to go get a real job,” says Darron Cardosa, a New York waiter who runs a blog about the restaurant scene. “Guess what? That is what has happened, and now they’re [mad] about it.”

Instead of waiters, America’s tables may need referees.

The restaurant – along with the airplane and grocery store – is becoming the site of angry confrontations between a patience-frayed public and overworked front-line workers, both looking for relief from the pandemic.

  • When customers in a burrito joint in central Maine tried to rearrange some tables amid pandemic restrictions and then began to film an employee’s demand to put them back, expletives flew – and the customer was banned.
  • In Ohio, a customer complained he couldn’t sit at the bar. When told it was to protect the safety of customers and staff, the man said, “Your safety? This isn’t about your safety at all. I’m sitting here.” The next day, the server quit the industry for good.
  • When out-of-control customers made staff cry at a Cape Cod eatery this summer, the owners closed the restaurant for a day to give employees a mental health break.

Such conflicts are rooted, experts say, in a sense of consumer entitlement piqued by pandemic restrictions, and then riven by political discontent. 

Why We Wrote This

Is the customer still always right? Restaurants are grappling with angry diners amid pandemic exhaustion, a labor shortage, and the redefinition of the value of service work.

Now, as labor shortages and supply chain hiccups only exacerbate shouting matches and even violence, the restaurant industry more broadly is reexamining core values around convenience, hospitality, wages – and even the humanity of the tipping class.

“The fundamental shift and reckoning of the hospitality industry is happening because the pandemic actually changed the perception of those jobs” to something more valued and necessary, says Patricia Campos-Medina, a labor expert at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. “The consequences are right there in your neighborhood, your community, the people you see every day.” 

In some ways, the restaurant is providing an up-close lens on broader economic and social upheaval. The place where people seek solace and communion has increasingly become a flashpoint for pent-up frustrations. And as concern rises about the coronavirus delta variant – and businesses and cities pass more mandates, often policed by hourly workers – tensions are rising anew.

The end result? “The customer is always right” refrain has been replaced by a different chorus: “You can’t always get what you want.” 

Even though some 96,000 restaurants have closed due to the pandemic, a rebounding hospitality industry is still understaffed. More than 380,000 jobs were added between June and July – the most of any sector. Some of the personnel shortage may be related to expanded unemployment benefits. But more broadly, experts say, the labor mismatch is a signal of empowerment for a working class that hadn’t seen the federal minimum wage budge since the Great Recession. Now, fast-food chains are offering $15 or more an hour, and neighborhood restaurants are offering signing bonuses and other incentives.

A confluence of relief checks, boosted unemployment benefits, and new opportunities created a situation “similar to the start of World War II when enormous amounts of money poured into new industries and shut down other kinds of work, which is exactly what we have here: a historical opening” for employee empowerment, says Nelson Lichtenstein, director of the Center for the Study of Work, Labor, and Democracy at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

As Darron Cardosa, a New York waiter, puts it: “For years, customers have been telling us in the restaurant industry to go get a real job. Guess what? That is what has happened, and now they’re [mad] about it.” 

The blowback in customer service jobs has been at times severe. National park employees have seen a record number of threats from campground visitors this year. A spike in reports on the Aviation Safety Reporting System describe a chaotic workplace, with flight attendants increasingly on the receiving end of abusive tirades.

Last week, the Federal Aviation Administration urged a crackdown on to-go drinks from airport vendors, saying alcohol misuse has played a role in record amounts of airborne strife, the most since the FAA mandated such reporting in 1995.

And Mr. Cardosa’s Facebook page, which sees 1 million visitors a month, is overrun with tales of rude customers and waitstaff using their breaks to cry on the back stairs. 

Mr. Cardosa says the number of complaints have gone through the roof in the past year, ranging from bad tipping to profanity-laced tirades. He says a big reason for people leaving the profession is how they are treated – instead of being appreciated for their hospitality, they have become targets, at least for some lashing out from a greater sense of injustice.

“Customers are going into restaurants looking for something to fail, and that’s not fair for the people busting their butts to give a good dining experience,” he says. “What I keep hearing is that people are losing their minds over the most tiny detail. ... It feels like we have forgotten how to navigate with other human beings.”

“I don’t deserve this”

Joshua Grubbs has noticed a similar phenomenon. The Bowling Green State University psychologist studies entitlement and its impact on society. 

“All of us feel like we have gone through something we don’t deserve: a multiyear period of injustice on a global scale,” says Professor Grubbs. “So people are likely to feel ‘I deserve some happiness, something good, I deserve to enjoy myself.’ Suffering promotes entitlement.” 

But even a small uptick in extreme behavior in public spaces has dramatic implications for everyone around them, he says. 

“That’s just the nature of extreme and dehumanizing behavior, and why that’s frowned on by society,” he adds. “It’s not amenable to having a functioning social world if everybody is being [a jerk] to each other all the time.” 

The situation could lead to deeper changes, says Professor Lichtenstein, co-editor of “Achieving Workers’ Rights in the Global Economy.” 

Among them: A rethinking of 24/7 convenience and a new focus on tipping reforms. Tipping especially plays to the moment, he says, given how the practice is a modern-day iteration of a servile relationship governed more by money than manners.

Restaurant owners have begun addressing those demands, in ways both large and small. For some, that means closing more days, offering paid time off, or just not opening after a busy day or week. A chef on Tybee Island regularly calls off midweek lunches if he senses his staff is getting too stressed. 

A sign on a pizza shop in Atlanta last week said simply, “We’re taking a few days off. We need a nap, y’all!”

“People have to practice patience”

David Basham says he has had about enough.

The Columbus, Ohio, native knows how to treat guests, because he’s a longtime hotel industry employee. But on vacation in early August here on the Georgia coast, he says he has issues with some of his fellow hospitality industry colleagues.

Long waits while tables sit empty. Annoyed glances from staff. A note of censure as they try to uphold public health mandates that Mr. Basham says he frankly finds unconscionable. He says he hasn’t made a scene, though he has come close. He admits that his political leanings infuse a larger frustration that disdainful waitstaff are a taste of what he believes “socialism” looks and feels like.

“What gets me is how so many servers are now, like, ‘Here is how it is going to be. And [too bad] if you don’t like it,’” he says.

But at Lisa’s Legit Burritos, managing owner Ehrin Sherman Simanski says the attitudes are simply the result of rising expectations running headlong into the limits of a laboring class under heavy social and economic strains.

“Frankly, the customer isn’t always right,” says Ms. Sherman Simanski. “I think a main reason why we haven’t struggled to find help is that I tell everybody the day they start: ‘I’ve got your back 100%, no matter what.’”

But as an owner, she says she also bears responsibility for how tensions are resolved, particularly in setting clear expectations for customers and staff.

“People have to learn to practice patience, including us,” she says. “Everybody is just so raw.” 

Indeed, such attitude shifts suggest that pandemic restaurants are becoming economic laboratories, where the ebbs and swells of labor will inform broader societal values.

“What’s interesting to me is there’s an opportunity here beyond wages and flexibility, which is to address: What is the value in being treated like a person?” says Ravi Dhar, director of the Center for Customer Insights at the Yale School of Management, in New Haven, Connecticut.

Dale Venturini and her staff at the Rhode Island Hospitality Association jumped into those issues this year after they began receiving calls from restaurateurs about a scourge of abusive behavior from customers.

Among their solutions: A “Please be kind” poster campaign that has caught on in restaurants around the state. To Ms. Venturini, it is a poignant reminder of a common desire by both staff and customers, heightened by the pandemic: to commune together, and leave elevated.

“One thing you don’t want to take away from us as an industry is our main job: to build community,” says Ms. Venturini, the association’s president and CEO.

To Mr. Cardosa, the New York waiter, the job is personal: “To know I was a part of something, that I was able to make that day even a little bit better for [somebody], it gives you a sense of accomplishment that translates into the rest of your life, and to how we treat people.”

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