A great restaurant experience helps filter out the anxieties of the outside world. It’s hard to imagine more than we need right now. After a long work day, the calming effects of a hard, dry martini (or a few), combined with some mindless babble with a chatty bartender, often feels better than a trip to the doctor’s office drug. Delicious food can be rejuvenating, and hospitality can lift our spirits in countless ways. Many of us have been deprived of these overall comforts over the past two years, and while the absence may have made our hearts more sympathetic, it has not necessarily made us all more compassionate .
Right now, the existential problems restaurants face are dire. The sacrifices required to entertain hungry guests are unprecedented. Inflation is running out of control, the workforce is shrinking, and wages are rising faster than menu prices. Meanwhile, government support has been inconsistent and clumsy. Thousands of independent restaurants have closed permanently, and each new Covid-19 variant threatens to further derail the recovery.
Despite the massive resistance, the dining public has not recalibrated its expectations accordingly. Given the catastrophic impact of the pandemic, the old chauvinist ideology surrounding the hospitality industry—for example, the customer is always right—is unsustainable. However, you won’t feel any different by reading Yelp reviews feature articles from writers who complain about slow service or have no restaurant background touting all the wrong lessons restaurants have learned from the pandemic.
Tom Sietsema, Chief Restaurant Critic Washington post, Recently wrote about the disturbing trend of his recent experience with poor service at restaurants. “Two years into the pandemic,” he wrote, “the patience of some diners has become thin as angel hair. Elephant in the room? Service, or lack thereof.” It’s understandable that service standards have suffered recently. Yes, and Sietsema’s grievances are likely justified, but his statement masks a deeper question of how outdated our thinking has become in terms of paying customers’ rights. If, as guests, we can’t show mercy as restaurants struggle through a once-in-a-lifetime public health crisis, when will we?
Managing hospitality always requires a certain level of sacrifice. But the pandemic has pushed the industry’s inherent selflessness to its limits, which in many cases has involved immeasurable human costs. Research shows that frontline cooks are at greater risk than any other occupation during the pandemic, a fact that seems to be underestimated as society tries to get back to normal. Kitchen workers, often disproportionately made up of people of color and immigrants, do not enjoy the luxury of staying home from get off work. Our privilege may help sustain local businesses when we eat out or order takeout, but it also puts lives at risk and disproportionately affects communities of color, the poor and the working class.
The restaurant workforce is still tight, working longer hours, and only getting a nominal raise (if any). Front desk workers were tasked with maintaining the requirement to wear masks and vaccinations, and at the same time, incomes fell and tipped staff’s personal earnings suffered. In some cases, workers had to endure verbal and physical assault from belligerent guests just to enforce government-mandated policies. Restaurant workers don’t have the luxury of making political statements on the job, but they are still vulnerable to misleading attacks from Covid-fatigued qualified customers.
At the same time, our expectations for diners have barely changed. People continue to not show up for reservations without warning, post contradicting online reviews on apps like Yelp, throw tantrums at QR code menus and anger employees over blocking policies.The media publishes letters about how the restaurant industry can do better, such as a recent article atlantic organization This shows that restaurants have learned nothing during the pandemic. This all begs the question: What have diners learned?
This is a great time to recalibrate how we think about the role restaurants play in society. The pandemic should have taught us a hard lesson about how important restaurants are to the social fabric of our communities. Many restaurants have become pillars of their city’s history in ways that go beyond their cuisine – iconic destinations like New Orleans’ Dooky Chase, Miami’s Versailles or Boston’s Union Oyster House, whose legacy is intertwined with American political and social change .
The existence of these institutions symbolizes the cumulative sacrifice of multigenerational families who shelter their neighbors. These spaces function more like churches, schools, and libraries, but we rarely treat restaurants with the same respect. We certainly don’t approach our restaurant visits with the same humility or charitable spirit. Currency exchange tilts the balance of power in favor of customers and breeds entitlement. Capitalism reduces our relationship with restaurants to a purely transactional one that is supposed to be symbiotic. We’re only as good as the restaurants around us, and right now, we’re turning into an overeat burrito.
Over the past two decades, the foodie zeitgeist has made us accustomed to looking to restaurants for inspiration, not comfort. There’s nothing inherently scary about wanting to be inspired by a unique dining experience, unless it causes customers to feel neglected when they don’t experience the necessary awe. However, the missteps of mocking restaurants during a global pandemic — as Sietsema put it in his recent column — confuses the sacrifices so many restaurants and their employees are making to provide people with the simple comfort of eating out of their homes. Approaching our dining experience with greater empathy will allow us to never feel neglected.
While working at an upscale steakhouse, I once had a table ordering a $300 wagyu rib eye for four people, so big it took over an hour to cook. When the delivery man finally arrived, he dropped the tray of food, ruining the luxurious entrecote. The manger approached the table in panic. He told them it would take another hour to re-sear the steak, so he offered other solutions (which of course the restaurant would pay for). The team welcomed the news. They expressed concern about the delivery man who dropped the tray, fearing he might lose his job (he didn’t).
There’s nothing particularly heroic about their behavior, but it’s refreshing to find customers who spend a lot of money on a meal and aren’t inspired by the power of their wallets. They just asked for a steak and enjoyed another hour of company. It wasn’t the most beautiful dinner ever, but something unexpected happened and both parties worked together to make the most of it.
I can tell you that having worked in restaurants for 20 years, customers are generally far less tolerant of more trivial mistakes. When there is a conflict, restaurant staff take the high road, as the low road is a closed private path reserved for guests. However, if diners don’t make more sacrifices and halfway through restaurants, we risk losing more of these precious restaurants that have contributed immeasurably to the character of our community. These restaurants now need better guests, not customers need better restaurants. If you love eating out, my advice is: don’t ask what the restaurant can do for you, ask what you can do for the restaurant.
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