Restaurants Need To Stop “Killing With Kindness”

Talking back to guests is a cardinal sin in the service industry. Even in the face of the most meritless grievances, we’re trained to show deference. We’re taught to “kill them with kindness,” no matter how entitled they behave or how ungrateful they may be of our accommodation. But no one ever explains why the aggrieved parties need to “die” at the hands of our elevated concern, or why this bloodless, psychological warfare always inflicts more damage on the servers than the served. Our silence always hides the pain.

It’s arguably the hardest part of the job: You’re required to be nice to people who don’t deserve it. Kitchen staff notoriously resent servers for making more money, but most cooks still relish in never having to interact face-to-face with slovenly guests. By definition, front-of-house are pacifists. “It comes with the territory,” they’ll say—imperialist territory settled long ago where working class people are powerless to defend themselves against the privileged.

These social constructs—rooted in colonialism, misogyny, and racism—have always plagued service jobs, making it unacceptable for a server to challenge a paying guest’s authority. One thing that will never change about restaurant work: If you’re unable to remain stoic in the face of disrespectful guests, then your employment in the service industry is untenable. That’s just a fact.

I’ve written about these kerfuffles before—including one story where I followed a table of businessman outside of the restaurant after they didn’t tip me. Over the course of two hours, I’d guided them through the menu and offered erudite recommendations; service was seamless. When I dropped the check, they asked me to summon the attractive young hostess at the door (their words) to minister their game of credit card roulette, where everyone puts their credit cards into a pile, and someone selects one at random to pay the check. “I’m the guy to talk to about bringing food and drinks not pretty girls,” I joked awkwardly. They continued to press the issue, and I refused to be complicit. They left unhappy, feeling spurned, because I wasn’t willing to play along with their silly game and decided unanimously to leave me no tip on an $800 dollar check, split evenly on four corporate cards.


I decided to speak up for myself, something I was trained not to do. When I confronted them on the street, I asked if they were disappointed with my service. They said yes. I asked if it was because I didn’t summon the pretty hostess for them. Yes again. I told them I found it offensive that they thought brokering female attention was part of my job. They grumbled off and climbed into their Uber black car. I stood on the street, still without a tip, but feeling like at least I’d recovered some shred of dignity.

As expected, my manger’s primary concern was how the owner would react to news of a staff member offending guests by questioning a tip, no concern about the fact that his staff had been disrespected. Difficult guests are always treated like collateral damage, like statistical outliers that must be tolerated regardless of the extent of the damage they inflict. People are dicks, and sometimes the dicks sit in your section.

What I’ve learned through these confrontations—the majority of which I’ve walked away from peacefully—is that some guests enjoy taking advantage of a tipped worker’s impotence when it comes to questioning authority. I vividly remember another protracted argument with a guest who insisted that his well done filet mignon should have been juicier. After delivering an impassioned dissertation on how to properly cook a well done steak, he demanded that the chef come to the table to examine his arid beef, as if the chef had nothing better to do in the middle of service than attend his Masterclass on meat temperatures.

When a situation spirals out of control, the server is expected to call for managerial support. It’s something that’s never settled right with me about resolving conflict in restaurants. Why should waiters have to run and tell mommy and daddy every time a guest mistreats them? Bullies exploit their victims’ weaknesses, and they don’t respect tattletales. Restaurant staff are trained that the moment you lose your cool, you’ve let the guest win. But what if we didn’t think about it in terms of winning or losing but instead as a matter of dignity over degradation? There is no honor in allowing people to disrespect you.

The evolution of this hospitality dogma, rooted in unicorn ideology like the “enlightened” brand peddled by the Danny Meyer School and its disciples, equates service with salvation. But restaurants exist in a different world today, and continuing to obsess about making every guest experience “soigné” is not only unrealistic, but it’s also taking its toll on the mental health of our workforce. Too many restaurants allow themselves to be held hostage by their own piety.

In the aftermath of the pandemic, we need to shift toward a more mindful paradigm of what defines great service, one that values the well-being of the people providing it as much as it does the guest experience. This necessitates a more authoritative approach toward policing guests’ behavior, like enforcing masking or vaccination mandates, for example. The industry should normalize staff speaking up for themselves calmly and constructively, even when guest interactions become turbulent. Killing these guests with kindness only incentivizes bad behavior.

Every restaurant has a handful of difficult guests, serial perpetrators of mischief that are universally reviled; they send food back, complain about the music, make absurd requests of the kitchen, and condescend to the staff. Even when those people are repeatedly untoward, management will still decide that accommodating them is worth the anguish its causes the staff every time they visit.

If management refused to accommodate unappreciative or abusive guests, it would send a strong message to the staff that it needn’t be a punching bag for inconsiderate customers. Sadly, workers are more often treated like children by management, in the same way that some parents never let their children speak for themselves. Restaurant owners have historically regarded staff welfare as a secondary concern. If a staff member offends someone by speaking up for him or herself, management is more likely to punish that employee than audit the conduct of the guest.

This past year has been filled with epiphanies, but one I’ve had recently is that we need to start empowering restaurant workers to resolve their own conflicts with guests, management, and even owners. Working in a restaurant shouldn’t necessitate powerlessness. Staff are expected never to criticize the owners, even when they institute unfair policies or treat staff inhumanely. We can never engage in confrontation with guests, even if provoked. Silence is part of the job. But maybe that explains, at least in part, why the industry is having trouble recruiting staff. A year of autonomy has made a lot of people reconsider whether the terms of working in a restaurant are agreeable anymore. Many of us have determined we’d rather work in an environment where we don’t feel bridled, where we can comfortably speak up ourselves, and where kindness doesn’t involve having to kill anyone.

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Restaurants Requiring Vaccinations Isn’t Controversial, It’s Hospitable

In 2018, the Supreme Court ruled in the case of Masterpiece Cakeshop vs. Colorado Civil Rights Commission that a small business had a Constitutional right to refuse custom cake-decorating services for gay couples based on the religious beliefs of its owners. This ruling is one of many sent down by contemporary American judges that demonstrate a proclivity for defending the rights of private businesses to speak freely and/or assert religious expression with the same legal protections afforded to individuals. If judges can defend a business owner’s right to discriminate against customers based on their sexual orientation, then surely the same legal arguments should offer ample protection for allowing restaurant owners to protect customers by requiring vaccinations—not only to ward away the virus but to shield them from the carelessness of their fellow citizens.

Hospitality professionals are merchants of comfort. The pandemic has thrown us off our center, creating unthinkable challenges to existing templates for welcoming guests and making people happy. It’s becoming impossible to ignore how dangerous and destabilizing it is to invite unvaccinated people into our dining rooms. As with any other sanitary issue, if our spaces are unfit for welcoming the public, then we don’t open them until they’ve been sanitized. Providing a safe haven for guests is the most basic fundamental responsibility we have in hospitality.

Requiring vaccinations isn’t an arbitrary rule like seating incomplete parties or forbidding menu substitutions. Aside from the obvious threat to human life, it wouldn’t be hospitable to leave any guests vulnerable because a gaggle of defiant, conspiracy-minded people perceive vaccination mandates to be invasions of privacy. Restaurants cannot knowingly allow themselves to be vectors for transmitting disease. A study done recently in Los Angeles showed that restaurants accounted for half of the city’s most serious outbreaks. The data suggests overwhelmingly that restaurant spaces should continue to exercise an abundance of caution.

The country as a whole has taken a step backward in the fight against Covid-19 as the resurgent virus feasts on our population’s nutritious cynicism toward science. The restaurant industry—already decimated by over a year of lockdowns and restrictions—can’t afford another blow to consumer confidence. Yet here we are. Case counts have returned to levels not seen since last summer, and vaccine-curious states like Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana and Nevada have become hot spots again. Florida recently surpassed its record number of hospitalizations since the pandemic began with 10,207 Covid-19 patients admitted in one day surpassing the previous record set in July 2020.

The Delta variant has forced the medical community to confront the sobering possibility that our current arsenal of vaccines may not provide bulletproof protection from the shapeshifting virus. Although breakthrough cases are still a fraction of the total infections and few have resulted in severe disease or death, they’re becoming alarmingly more common. Mask mandates are being reconsidered or reinstated, and, of course, restaurants are always at the top of the list of businesses that are expected to adjust their protocols to protect the public from itself. We are expected to police your behavior, but who is protecting us?

The health of the restaurant business, like most sectors in the service industry, is predicated on public trust. As much as the virus itself is a threat to our solvency, the bigger threat is the public perception of how dangerous it is to go out. Whether or not you believe in their efficacy, vaccines help moderate the public’s anxiety about getting sick.

Restaurants Requiring Vaccinations

The pandemic year has forced restaurants to think differently about how our communal spaces provide sanctuary. It’s exposed how vulnerable restaurants are not only as commercial endeavors, but also as nervous centers of our communities. But restaurants aren’t churches either. They’re designed to turn accommodation into profit, and welcoming the public unconditionally requires forfeiting control over the experience. If anything, restaurants operate more like hospitals, where money is exchanged for care in a safe, sterile environment. No hospital should ever refuse someone care, but, when you’re admitted to one, you’re expected to adhere to a set of rules that are laid out in the best interests of keeping everyone, including the medical staff, healthy.

Restaurants everywhere have gone to great lengths to allay guests’ fears about the pandemic—retrofitting their dining rooms with plexiglass dividers, adding new ventilation and air purification systems, developing digital menus, and installing portals for contactless payments. At the same time, getting the public to agree on the nature of the threat we face is a war of attrition, not coincidentally, the same quandary that hospitals and public health professionals have been facing since the pandemic began.

Some restaurant owners in areas with lower vaccination rates will shy away from mandating stricter protocols. If they perceive that guests will be irritated by their requiring proof of vaccination, they’ll probably skirt the issue with toothless recommendations over firm policy. Some owners simply can’t afford to alienate a large portion of their clientele base if they serve a community with a higher percentage of Covid truthers.

Even though it shouldn’t be, vaccination requirements have already become highly politicized. The growing number of restaurants that have come out publicly with their plans to verify vaccination status have had their businesses slandered on review sites like Yelp and Trip Advisor by people who never dined with them. But as with most pejorative online reviews, their authors have it all wrong. These restaurants deserve praise for implementing safety measures to protect their staff and guests. It’s good service.

All of this begs the question: What is the guest’s responsibility in helping to keep restaurants safe from the spread of the Coronavirus? There’s an implied passivity to being a restaurant guest that for many people is part of the charm of dining out. But this is no time for complacency. We all desperately missed restaurants while they were gone, and having lost them, even temporarily, should deepen our appreciation for the challenges they’ve faced over the course of this devastating year. Want to show your local restaurants how much you missed them? Present your vaccination card first thing when you walk through the doors, even if they don’t ask for it. Trust me, it’s like showing up with a bouquet of flowers.

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