How Forgivable Is Bad Service During A Pandemic?

Last week, the tenured restaurant critic of The Washington Post, Tom Sietsema, popped off in a cringeworthy column about how service has been especially lackluster in restaurants lately. “Two years into the pandemic, some diners’ patience has grown thin as angel-hair,” Sietsema writes. “The elephant in the room? Service, or the lack thereof.” Without explicitly saying it, the title of the article should have been: “Can we start complaining in restaurants again?”

From my vantage point, the elephant in the room is an out-of-touch food critic. I don’t doubt there’s merit to what Sietsema’s reporting. Service standards are likely slipping, which is understandable given that the industry has been stuck in a deep, muddy ditch for two years since the onslaught of Coronavirus. Has the pandemic dust settled enough that it’s safe to start airing our grievances? Sietsema apparently thinks so. He conveys a detailed anecdote of having dined out on Christmas in Santa Fe where he felt the service was so indefensibly bad that he had to leave a note for the manager.

Sietsema neglects to mention that Omicron was peaking in December, Covid-19 cases in the U.S. at the time were hovering near record territory, on average over 400,000 daily cases. But he was determined not to let the spirit of Christmas destroy his primordial need to criticize restaurants. “Am I Grinch? Or a diner looking out for others?” he queried his Twitter followers. “You’re not a Grinch, you’re a douchebag,” another account flippantly replied.

Sietsema assured his social media followers that he left his server a very generous tip. (Which of course always absolves anyone from being a total asshole in a restaurant because, money.) He also insisted that his feedback was “civil and specific,” acknowledging the difficult circumstances and it being Jesus’ birthday and all. Aside from sharing opinions about food and restaurants, the critic also appears to fashion himself a guardian of the public’s dining interests. Alerting management, he concluded, was worth it—despite his misgivings—because it might protect future guests from suffering the same fate.

Putting aside his petty grievances for a moment, Sietsema’s article turns its focus on how restaurants can fix things despite all these impediments. His framing is very telling. In order to figure out how to remedy the pandemic-related problems, he interviews the people who are the suffering the most to find out what they can do to fix it. All citizens must cope with the ill effects of the pandemic, but when you dine in a restaurant the servers are expected to pick up the slack and provide comfort for the served. That’s the way it is and always will be—no matter how bad things get—and that’s why so many of us left the industry for good. We’re tired of shouldering the burden of having to make ambivalent people happy.

Among other shortcomings, Sietsema complained that his server didn’t ask why so much food was left on his plate, as though he couldn’t just tell the server he didn’t like the dish. His mask is off, the server’s on, yet he expects the server to be the one speaking up? Once again, it’s up to the server to fix the problem, to extract information from an otherwise silent subject. Was he worried that confronting the server or a manager in the moment would somehow make things worse? I’d argue that approaching it passive-aggressively with a written statement is more insulting. Why not give the staff the opportunity to make it right? I guess then he wouldn’t have fodder for his next column.

He heralds the manager contacting him to make amends as affirming his belief that he’d acted prudently. But what else is the manager supposed to do? Trust me: Every restaurant manager on the planet, if they could, would love to tell Tom Sietsema to go fly a kite after receiving a Christmas card like this. But, in real life, they have to smooth things over. Restaurant managers have only two options when they field a complaint: ignore it or apologize. Sietsema assuming the apology is genuine is terribly naive, almost laughable.

Is bad service forgivable?

Like many of America’s long-tenured restaurant critics (mostly white men), Sietsema may be getting a little long in the tooth. This is his twenty-second year as restaurant critic for The Washington Post. Two decades is an awfully long time to trust one person’s palate and hospitality ideals. Whether Sietsema realizes it or not, there’s a measure of white privilege embedded in his hyperbolic disappointment caused by one meal in Santa Fe. (He even uses the phrase “willing to pay for the privilege” in opening of his article.)

Sietsema’s column helped crystallize my belief that restaurant critics should have term limits. The New York Times, for one, has never had a person of color as the chief restaurant critic. I’m guessing the lineage of Washington Post food critics isn’t any more distinguished in this regard. According to an article by Laura Hayes in the Washington City Paper from 2019, the D.C. region is only 41% white and yet has no critics of color in any of its major news outlets. (Hayes is herself white but does not write reviews for WCP.)

I’m guessing that Sietsema is aware that a healthy percentage (if not the wide majority) of the people cooking, serving, and cleaning up after him when he dines out on the company dime are people of color. Most of these people are invisible to him. Like the dishwasher who has to scrape all the wasted food off his plate that he concluded wasn’t up to snuff and the porter who takes out his garbage at the end of the night. The menial wages of these workers help subsidize the price of Sietsema’s meal, even though he’ll likely still gripe about the escalating cost of dining out in his next review to show solidarity with his fellow entitled diners. It makes me wonder if a non-white critic would ever approach a delicate issue like this with such haughtiness.

Sietsema ignores the fact that kitchen workers, more so than any other profession, have died in alarming numbers since the onset of Covid-19. In many cases it’s because restaurant workers can’t afford to put their work lives on hold. We should be showing our appreciation for that sacrifice and being thankful we still have restaurants to convene in, not writing think pieces that scrutinize service lapses and patting ourselves on the back for nitpicking.

Aside from his nebulous critique, Sietsema seems to have a poor fundamental understanding of how restaurants function. He writes about being denied a banquette table because it was reserved for a larger party (he arrived as a party of two). After being seated somewhere less desirable, he bristles when a host later gives the banquette to another couple. An experienced restaurant professional (which Tom is not) would know that the host or maitre’d likely had a plan based on the reservation manifest to seat a larger party at that table. Those plans change frequently throughout the course of the night when reservations cancel last-minute or parties unexpectedly no-show without warning. Sadly, it’s quite common for guests like Sietsema to be annoyed that they can’t have the table of their choice without making any effort to understand the mechanics behind the decision. It’s “me first” no matter what.

Before Tom pontificates about declining service, he should mask up and work a shift with the maitre’d of one the busiest restaurants in town. Go witness the Tetris puzzle they deal with up close every night, and how difficult it is to seat everyone on time and at a comfortable table for their party size. See how well it works if you let everyone pick their furniture. Write an article about that. His readers, who apparently agree that the quality of service is declining lately, could certainly benefit from a deeper understanding about how difficult it is for restaurants to maintain service standards when so many guests put their needs above others, especially during a pandemic. (See: Guests who physically assaulted a hostess in a New York City restaurant for asking for proof of vaccination.)

Look, Covid fatigue is real. I get it. But two years into the pandemic, servers are still expected to put themselves at risk of getting sick and wear protective gear when guests often don’t extend the same courtesy. Most front of house staff do this five nights a week, at least eight hours a day. Their tips go down every time there’s a new variant, yet they’re expected to perform at the highest level. Staff across the country are still stretched thin which means people are forced to work double shifts that can often last over twelve hours just to keep the doors open.

Sietsema’s pandemic Christmas fiasco highlights the inherent imbalance of power that exists when care is exchanged for money. Many guests wield that power recklessly, and servers have no weapons in their arsenal to fight back. The customer may not always be right, but the customer almost always wins. Instead of recognizing the turbulent conditions and laying down his arms, Sietsema decided to drop a hand grenade on the way out.

It’s irresponsible for restaurant critics to use their platforms to reinforce tired tropes around customer entitlement. Restaurants don’t owe us anything. Excellence is a bonus, and we can vote with our dollars when it’s lacking, but hiccups in service should be eminently forgivable, especially under such duress. Often when customers are unwilling to forgive disappointing service, they’re blaming the staff for their miserable time when their misery started in the parking lot. Guests like this project the image of their own failings onto the restaurant. I’ve seen it a million times. But regardless of whether there’s merit to Sietsema’s or anyone’s grievances about bad service right now, the climate for restaurant businesses is drastically different today.

The effects of the pandemic should temper our expectations of restaurants and encourage us to think about how we can better support them beyond our purchasing power. Money isn’t enough. The restaurant industry needs better guests right now more than guests need better restaurants. We need patience, empathy, and forgiveness. There are so many ways we can support restaurants that don’t involve criticizing them.

The restaurant industry needs better guests right now more than guests need better restaurants.

The last two years have taught us that restaurants have no safety net. You wouldn’t walk into a theater that just had a massive fire and expect to see an entertaining show. The restaurant industry has just undergone an extinction-level event, and a majority of the public is behaving as though nothing’s changed—continuing to flake on reservations, confronting staff over masking or vaccination policies, and deriding higher prices even though inflation is a global problem.

I’m not saying that all critics, or guests for that matter, should have to be cheerleaders for restaurants. But all of us should have some measure of discretion when the economic headwinds are so strong not to pile on. We don’t need critics to tell us about everything we deserve when we spend money somewhere or framing their criticisms around lofty expectations. Restaurants cannot provide unconditional love to everyone right now—understandably so—and we need to stop pretending that they should.

But there’s something deeper going on here beneath the surface, an ingrained sense among diners that we’re owed excellence, if not perfection, when we dine out. By exercising his right to speak out on Christmas of all days, Sietsema seems to be testing his own level of depravity as an entitled guest. My question is: If we can’t put aside that sense of entitlement now as diners, when will we ever? My advice to you (and to Mr. Sietsema) is if you have a bad restaurant experience right now: Take the high road. Count your blessings. There’s no shame in letting a bad service experience slide. You’ll have plenty of opportunity to share constructive feedback when the staff isn’t taking PCR tests before every shift and management isn’t struggling to find warm bodies to field a team at full strength every night.

The whole thing reminds me of a time I was working as a server in an upscale restaurant in lower Manhattan shortly after 9/11. With rescue efforts still ongoing less than a mile away at Ground Zero, I can remember a guest complaining that his $500 bottle of wine was taking too long to reach the table. This person’s ability to remove himself from the horrors of the outside world to clear the way for his diaper-wetting tantrum was a stunning spectacle. Privilege is a powerful, blinding force. What did I do? Apologized, of course. Because when you work in a restaurant, you have little choice. If I could’ve spoken out at the time, the message would’ve been very simple: “It’s not about you right now.”

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Restaurant Life

Is There Life After Restaurants?

I’ve worked in restaurants longer than Tom Brady’s played professional football. I’ve certainly contemplated retirement over the years more seriously than Brady, but now we’re both retired (Update: Tom already un-retired). I can remember countless conversations with coworkers exchanging fantasies about getting out of the industry. Restaurant work is quicksand for some of us, and a resume with only restaurant experience can make it challenging to liberate yourself.

For the greater part of two decades, I’ve tried desperately to nurture my creative self while soldiering through the grind of putting food and drinks on strangers’ tables. Working full-time in a restaurant, even when it was lucrative, has often deflated these ambitions.

I could never have predicted my restaurant career would end in forced retirement. The pandemic cost me my job, but I was already feeling disenfranchised from the industry. Like many others, my time away from restaurant work over the past two years—however impoverishing—has restored my sanity. As a newly sane person, I could never return to working in restaurants if it means accepting the old onerous terms.

Is there life After Restaurants?

While it’s hard to blame every owner for mass lay-offs, the relationships that many service industry professionals had with their former employers were already tenuous before we were let go. It was almost comical that we were expected to return to our jobs no questions asked after being disposed of so unceremoniously. The “nobody wants to work anymore” narrative trumpeted on financial news and political media was a fabrication promulgated by greedy owners. Most of us would’ve returned to our jobs if there’d been sufficient outreach by our former employers. The longer the pandemic lingered, the harder it became to plan our lives around an uncertain return.

I do miss parts of the job. The adrenaline rush of a busy restaurant is invigorating. Early on in the pandemic, I experienced debilitating fatigue everyday around 4-5 pm, the time an average dinner shift would’ve started. My internal clock was conditioned to slam an espresso and gird my loins for a hectic night. Now my engine is kaput, and I feel like taking naps every evening. As someone who once thrived on the chaos, my featureless life now is both pathetic and wonderful.

Kitchen staff often describe the rapture of being in the weeds. Most cooks prefer busy over slow; they’d rather work harder and faster than languish behind the line. Battling through the elements and weathering the storm is how cooks earn their stripes. It can become addicting. Restaurant people need constant stimulation to stay fueled. We thrive off the kinetic energy.

I miss the camaraderie of a staff, the sense of common purpose. The way it forces you to never be lonely. Restaurant work teaches you to coexist and be productive with people even when you have nothing in common. You forge deep bonds through shared endurance. Even when team members despise each other, they still have each other’s backs when the first table is seated. We put our vendettas aside in service of a smooth and lucrative shift.

What I don’t miss? Having to overcompensate for the gracelessness of guests. A party that’s impossible to please—whether they’re sending food back, complaining about the music, or demanding a different table—always makes it harder to keep the deserving people happy. I’ve so often struggled to adequately care for a full section of tables because one group among them is behaving boorishly. The apprehensiveness toward enforcing common decency makes staff unduly timid, especially in fine dining settings where entitled guests think that spending exorbitant sums excuses lack of social graces.

Restaurants focus on miscues because they strive for perfection. But if failures are scrutinized, successes must also be celebrated. Sadly, praise is scant. A restaurant staff is too often judged by its least satisfied customers, when the least satisfied people in your restaurant are often the most miserable people to begin with. It’s ridiculous to expect a staff of trained hospitality professionals to shoulder the burden of other people’s misery. Under constant duress and unable to rebuke ornery guests, a restaurant staff often takes out its frustration on each other.

Two years into a once-in-a-generation public health crisis, the job has never been more difficult. Even before the masks and vaccine checks, making people happy was already more challenging than ever. Great hospitality is to welcome people and show them a good time, not to counteract their proclivity for disliking things, including masks and vaccines. I’ve taken care of so many tables in my career where I’m certain that nothing I or my teammates could’ve done would’ve made them happy. Nothing. Many of us learn to predict the meritless complaints before they happen, but that doesn’t always mean we can forgive ourselves when guests leave disappointed. The industry needs to change this mindset.

Leaving restaurants has made me have second thoughts about its existential purpose. Especially the fine dining sector which has become an oligarchy, contributing virtually nothing to society other than to make affluent people feel more important than they are. The pandemic has put a chokehold on independent restaurant businesses, and the public seems ambivalent to the casualties piling up, including treasured fixtures of their communities. It speaks to how desensitized we’ve become to the decay in the dining landscape and to how much our appreciation for great restaurants has eroded over the years. The idea of a “ghost kitchen” alone should be Freddy Kruger-style horrifying, but it isn’t because we’ve spent years becoming further and further removed from the people that cook our our food.

We’ve become more selfish patrons, approaching restaurant visits as pure hedonism. But restaurants don’t exist purely to please us. They stand as pillars of the community—no different than churches, schools, and park districts. But so little is expected of restaurant customers besides their money. Our relationship with restaurants has become increasingly platonic, leaving businesses feeling unsupported and struggling for survival. As a restaurant owner, if you pivot your business enough times, you end up going around in a circle. Meanwhile, restaurant food has become just another convenience like dropping off the dry cleaning or hiring a dog-walker.

This is why I can’t participate anymore. If the pandemic has shown us anything, it’s how much the social fabric of our communities is torn when we lose access restaurants. Absence should make the heart grow fonder. But it hasn’t. Independent restaurants are closing at alarming rates, Congress is still dragging its feet on desperately needed aid, and the market caps of multinational restaurant companies like the parents of Applebee’s and Olive Garden are trading at all time highs. Is this the dystopian future people want? I honestly have no idea who these people are, but I definitely know I don’t want to serve them anymore.

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