The Hidden Cost of Hospitality

When restaurant people have grouchy fits about bad tables, our complaints usually fall on deaf ears. Everyone loves to remind us that we shouldn’t complain because taking care of people—even if they are difficult—is what we get paid to do. Somewhat surprisingly, though, it’s not just outsiders who revel in telling us to shut up and do our job, industry people are guilty of it too. The most orthodox hospitality professionals can be less forgiving than the entitled guests we serve. It’s just a bizarre reflex that kicks in for some of us when we talk about hospitality in unicorn terms and I, for one, am sick of it. I’m tired of people making excuses for guest’s improprieties when, undeniably, if the most felonious among them behaved this way in any setting other than a restaurant they wouldn’t be tolerated. It is not our “job” to facilitate people’s bad behavior.

Being mistreated by paying customers isn’t part of the job as much as it is our allowing them to mistreat us. Part of the problem is that, as an industry, we’ve convinced ourselves that unconditional love for the guest—even when it requires self-degradation—is the nexus of hospitality. We live for the glory of taking the high road and the promise of turning frowns upside down. But there is a hidden cost to our psychology—like NFL players who take too many blows to the head—not only in absorbing the trauma but also in believing that we shouldn’t have the right to stand up for ourselves to make it stop. It takes its toll on your self-image and also begs the question: How far should a restaurant staff be expected to go to please someone who doesn’t deserve it? Is there a threshold when a guest’s behavior should render them undeserving of accommodation?

The truth is that hospitality work shouldn’t have to include accommodating people who are undeserving. We shouldn’t have to “turn people around” when they are perfectly capable of turning themselves around without being coddled. Unfortunately, we’re still expected to be accommodating even in the worst cases of guests misbehaving. When someone shows up to a restaurant drunk and unruly, the staff treads lightly—careful not to bruise the person’s inebriated ego. We routinely pacify guests who throw tantrums about their food taking too long or being seated past their reservation time. We sidestep silencing noisy tables who are disrupting other guests because we fear we might offend the noisemakers. The list of ways that we’re forced to cower in the name of good service is endless.

Restaurant work often requires a firm hand, but because of these antiquated hospitality credos we struggle to use it authoritatively. When entitled VIPs or diva celebrities come in, kitchen and waitstaff are expected to break whatever rules necessary to make them happy because… well… that’s our job. In fine dining, we use the abbreviation “WTW” (whatever they want) and, in the wrong hands, it’s a blank check to satisfy the most sadistic impulses. When the dust settles, they leave happy but we leave physically and psychologically exhausted.

The exhaustion stems from giving up so much of yourself to please others that you end up depleting your own emotional resources. When you spend every night bending for other people, it’s only a matter of time before you break. But all of this is exacerbated by the fact that, as an industry, we don’t speak up when we’re asked to bend too much. If we complain about being mistreated, then we’ve committed the cardinal sin of putting our needs above the people we serve.

It’s not all the guest’s fault. We could take better care of ourselves in house, too. Combustible chefs could slow their roll. Managers could stop micro-managing. The staff could stop drinking themselves into oblivion after work every night. But who can blame us for needing an exhaust pipe for all this aggression? To decompress after a hard shift, sometimes it seems like only a dirty martini will make us feel human again. But no matter how much we self-medicate it doesn’t change the fact that the source of our psychic congestion is the inherent imbalance that good service demands. Over time, putting ourselves second has a way of making us feel second best. Even though the customer isn’t always right, they are most definitely always first.

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The Waiter’s Bill of Rights

Waiters are always taught to put the needs of guests above our own. It’s the most basic tenet of the service industry and it comes at a heavy psychological cost. Hospitality professionals are conditioned to efface ourselves so regularly that it sometimes feels as though we have no rights. People act disrespectfully toward us and we’re expected to turn the other cheek—even for the ones least deserving of our charity. But it’s about time for all Fronts of House to collectively stand up and assert our unalienable rights. At the Restaurant Manifesto, we hold the following truths to be self-evident. That all servers and guests should be treated equally. And if you don’t like it, eat somewhere else.

  1. You have the right to remain silent – Guests often ask questions that don’t have right answers. For example, if someone asks you “Is this supposed to be burnt like this?”—they’ll be aggravated whether you say yes or no. So, don’t answer. Silence can be disarming and irate customers will be no match for your Jedi mind tricks.

  2. You have the right to forgive yourself when you make mistakes – Until waiters are replaced by cyborgs, there will always be human error involved in restaurant service. Servers make mistakes. We spill things, we’re absentminded and, sometimes, we screw up your order. Big f*%ing deal. Forgetting a side of sautéed spinach may have completely ruined your table’s evening but it doesn’t have to ruin yours. We’re just serving food, people, not changing the world.

  3. You have the right to correct a guest who mispronounces something on the menu – There’s no need to be vindictive but if someone says something incorrectly you shouldn’t be expected to repeat it wrongly just to spare them the embarrassment. At the end of the day, it’s more hospitable to correct them now rather than letting them make the same mistake over and over again. ‘I’m sorry, sir… Caprice is a sports car, Caprese is a mozzarella and tomato salad.’

  4. You have the right to ignore the person summoning you with rude hand gestures – Waiters are human beings, not dogs or taxi cabs. Put your hand down. A simple finger gesture and/or eye contact will suffice. Waving your arms around like an air traffic controller, however, is an inappropriate way to indicate you need service. If someone flags you down this way, feel free to wave back with a smile or, if they do so repeatedly, you have our permission to flip them the bird.

  5. You have the right to make up a fake name for yourself if a guest asks you yours – People aren’t entitled to invade your personal space just because you’re serving them. If they ask you in a way that makes you feel uncomfortable, tell them your name is Gertrude or Jedediah. Who cares? Strippers don’t dance better just because you know their real names.

  6. You have the right not to tell guests coming out of the bathroom that they have toilet paper stuck to their feet – They’ll figure it out sooner or later.

  7. You have the right to not feel badly when you didn’t know someone had a food allergy and they order something that contains an ingredient they can’t eat – We’re not dietitians, nutritionists or mind-readers. Guests who want to protect themselves from allergens must alert the server before they order. People should never expect the waiter to extrapolate the intricacies of their diet based on the questions they’ve asked about the menu either. If a guest knowingly hides their dietary restrictions, the waiter does not share the blame when they send their food back.

  8. You have the right to drink a glass of water in view of guests – Servers are taught never to eat or drink anything in plain sight. Honestly, there’s nothing sadder than seeing servers or bartenders hiding in the shadows like street urchins trying to sneak a beverage or some sustenance. Most of us work ten hour shifts, so hydrating yourself mid-service in view of a guest (provided there isn’t a more discreet place to do it) shouldn’t be that big an issue.

  9. You have the right to say no to your coworker asking you to cover a shift when you know they closed the bar the night before – It’s always the same dude texting you at 1pm the same day when your call time is 4 o’ clock. He probably just woke up. It’s your day off, so just ignore the message for a few hours and text him at 4:05pm that your phone died and you just got the message. Sorry, buddy. No can do.

  10. You have the right to drop a check on someone who didn’t ask for it – Before you get too excited, we are not advocating prematurely dropping checks. Each situation is different. First of all, everything must be consumed and/or cleared from the table. You must ask if there’s anything else you can bring. If they decline, it’s perfectly acceptable to present the check. In fact, it’s a point of service. As long as you present the check with a smile and a thank you, you should not be expected to wait until the check is requested to deliver it.

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Why Restaurant People Are Always Broke

There is one universal truth about life in the restaurant business: No matter how many shifts we work, we’ll never have enough money. Most of us pray that there are thirty-one days this month because it gives us one extra day to make rent. We cancel plans with friends, eat ramen noodle for weeks and turn our socks inside out to save on laundry. Restaurant work depletes our natural resources—psychologically, emotionally and financially—leaving us barren. We bust our ass for every nickel and usually, after years in the business, don’t have a whole hell of a lot in the bank to show for it. Many restaurant jobs can be very lucrative—so why are we always so broke? There isn’t only one answer but here are a few of the biggest reasons:

We develop tastes for expensive things we can’t afford – Working in a restaurant deepens our appreciation for fine dining and good food. We’re exposed to delicacies that are way out of our price range like oysters, caviar and truffles. But we still want them. We taste vintage wines and craft cocktails as part of our jobs because it is our responsibility to educate guests. Once you become an expert it’s hard not to think why shouldn’t I have these things for myself when I go out? We spend so much time serving other people that we feel like we deserve it. No matter how broke we are, we’ll always splurge for a luxurious meal.

We spend everything we make on booze after work – Every night of restaurant service causes hospitality workers some degree of PTSD. The sacrifice that goes into effacing ourselves for other’s enjoyment takes a heavy toll on our bodies and our psyche. One of the ways we self-medicate is to decompress with alcoholic beverages after work—usually more than we need, always more than we can afford. If you’re ever thinking about opening a bar, find a location near a lot of other restaurants. Their staff will keep you in business for years to come.

Someone at work owes us money – Since pretty much everyone who works in a restaurant is broke all the time, invariably someone is asking someone else to borrow money. Family meal is inedible and someone needs ten bucks to get Chipotle. The hostess you have a crush on needs twenty bucks to buy weed. Everyone went out after work and someone didn’t have enough money to pay the bill. Someone will always cover someone else. Because we’re family. One big, broke-ass family who defaults on their loans.

We’re giant tippers – Restaurant people feel a kinship with each other and one of the ways we show solidarity is by tipping generously. We shouldn’t because we’re broke but we do anyway. We bring cases of beer for the kitchen (which we also can’t afford). Even if items are comped off our bill, we insist on leaving the total of what we would’ve paid so the overage can be applied toward gratuity. Industry people will drain their bank accounts for each other. Though the ship is often sinking, we go down together like a band of brothers.

We haven’t paid off culinary/hospitality school – And, guess what, we probably never will. Minimum wage as a line cook isn’t gonna pay our five-figure debt. It sure as hell isn’t gonna pay for this new Blue Carbon Steel Japanese Santoku knife we just bought either. Even an impoverished line cook understands the value of good cutlery. If we already owe $20K+ in student loans, a $200 knife isn’t going to kill us.

Lucrative restaurant jobs are located in areas with the highest cost of living – When you live in a big city like New York or San Francisco, you can make a boatload of money working in a high-end restaurant. Rents are also sky high in these urban areas for shoe-box sized apartments and the prices of common goods and services drain your finances. You may feel like you’re making a lot of money, until you go to the store and squander a full day’s pay buying toiletries.

We never save enough money to pay taxes every year – Declaring income on a tax form at the end of the year is always an adventure when you work in a restaurant. Waiters tips are often not taxed directly leaving a sizable gap between what was withheld and what is owed. Whatever the difference is, we probably drank it away already. The bottom line: If we were that financially savvy, we probably wouldn’t be working in a restaurant in the first place.

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