The Customer Is Not Always Right

This story is part of The New Rules of Dining Out. Read the rest here.

Chef Angie Mar was in no rush to re-open indoor dining at her upscale New York City steakhouse, the Beatrice Inn.

"I didn't feel super comfortable with it yet," says Mar, explaining that she had yet to purchase the necessary air filtration system and figure out protocols to ensure the safety of her staff and guests. It was an early fall day and the weather was still pleasant, so she stuck to the 12 tables she could comfortably seat outside. A woman showed up for dinner with her boyfriend in tow, demanding a table indoors. When Mar explained the situation to the customer, offering her a table on the sidewalk instead, she was met with extreme vexation.

"I can't sit outside! I am wearing Gucci," huffed the woman.

It's a revealing interaction, one of thousands, that displays just how deep customer entitlement runs in the hospitality industry—and restaurant workers are at a breaking point.

The COVID-19 pandemic has ravaged the industry, decimated wages, and sent restaurants into a tailspin of closures, reopenings, and ever-changing guidelines, all while exposing workers to health risks. And there is no real end, or government assistance, in sight. To make matters worse, customer entitlement is at an all-time high, according to the numerous servers, maitre'ds, managers, and owners that I spoke to across the country. "It's obscene to me the way people are acting," says Mar.

Customer entitlement, or what customers believe they are owed, has long been an issue in the hospitality industry. Restaurant workers swap stories like war veterans about ridiculous demands, difficult customers, and bad tippers. But the pandemic, and the terrible customer behavior that has come with it—impatience regarding wait times, name-calling, frustration over limited seating and menu options, and disregard for safety protocols—has only served to highlight how pervasive and, frankly, dangerous the problem really is.

"We are expected to provide them with above-and-beyond service, even if they are abusive. It makes us feel like we are not allowed to have the expectation of being treated like a person."

This issue of entitlement is rooted in the popular adage "The customer is always right," which sits at the center of American hospitality. "It was definitely something that was hammered into me when I first started in this industry," says Lauren Friel, the owner of Rebel Rebel in Somerville, MA. "I was told that not only is the customer always right, but we want to awe and delight them. The idea is that we will bend over backwards for the guest."

Liz, a server whose name has been changed because she requested anonymity, says she works in a similar environment. At the steakhouse in Connecticut where she is currently employed, management enforces a culture of "always accommodating the guest" at all costs.

"We are expected to provide them with above-and-beyond service, even if they are abusive," she says. "It makes us feel like we are not allowed to have the expectation of being treated like a person."

The idea that the customer is always right is pervasive not only among hospitality professionals, but also among customers themselves. "We've taught the American diner that there are no boundaries and they can ask for anything and everything, and that it should be given to them," says Friel.

The precise origin of the phrase "The customer is always right" is not known, but its popularization is most commonly attributed to three men: Harry Gordon Selfridge, John Wanamaker, and Marshall Field, all of whom founded popular department stores around the turn of the 20th century. At the time, "caveat emptor," which translates to "buyer beware," was the more common attitude. It placed the onus on the customer to make sure everything was correct—and placed zero responsibility on the company to do right by the customer. The gradual rise of the phrase "the customer is always right," however, shifted the power balance away from the company and toward the customer.

This notion was solidified in the American restaurant space in the mid-1990s, in part due to the release of restaurateur Danny Meyer's industry-shifting book, Setting the Table. Meyer advocates for building a culture of "yes" in the book, recounts Miguel de Leon, the wine director of Pinch Chinese in New York City. It was something that was common in Meyer's establishments and quickly spread throughout the industry.

"I saw that customers almost always got what they wanted," writesKeenan Steiner in Grub Street, about his time as a server at Meyer's flagship restaurant, Union Square Café, adding that employees often referred to the restaurant as "the house of yes." But it begs the greater question, says de Leon, of "Yes for who?" The answer under the culture Meyer evangelized is the person with the money, which in the case of restaurants is the diner. "The commodification of service becomes completely transactional," says de Leon. "It becomes about what the restaurant can do for the diner, he explains. "There is a lot of harm in that."

A masked waiter takes a customer's order while using his phone as a menu
Hospitality workers are often drawn to restaurant work because they like to take care of others. "A huge reason why we are in this business is because we want to make people feel good, make them feel special, and make them feel cared for," says Friel. "Being of service and serving others is a very noble thing," adds Caro Blackman, the maitre d' of Maydan in Washington, D.C. She believes that most people who work in hospitality are empaths who want to nurture other people. "I just don't believe the customer is always right. That's a very unhealthy expectation," says Blackman. "Any healthy relationship has to have healthy boundaries, period."

American diners, however, struggle with the concept of boundaries, which Friel attributes to the lack of clear industry standards for what hospitality should look like. "There is no rubric, no guide to tell you how long is too long to wait for something. Is it one minute? Is it five, or ten?" Increasingly, the diner decides what those boundaries look like, based on their own expectations. It gets dangerous, says Friel, when those desires and expectations "start to encroach on someone else's humanity."

In its current iteration, hospitality feels like a one-way street, where customers are emboldened to make impossible demands and engage in behavior that can be disrespectful. It's not uncommon for diners to make unreasonable food requests. Abigail, a server in Charleston, South Carolina, who asked to be identified only by her first name, says that at a popular Southern restaurant she used to work at, customers would demand dishes not on the menu, like a baked potato or a certain type of fish. A manager would then be tasked with picking up the dish from a restaurant across the street to make the customer happy. She also recalls the table of three women who would frequently split one rack-of-lamb order between them, but demand the lamb be cut into three pieces and cooked at three different temperatures—no matter how busy the restaurant was.

Customers throw temper-tantrums when service doesn't meet their personal expectations. Liz recalls the story of a customer who was so upset at the size of the free birthday dessert given to his daughter that he berated the staff until the cops were called. Another night, a patron came in demanding a seat at the packed bar. When the bartender was unable to magically conjure up space, the patron threatened to go to the corporate offices "to make sure she lost her job because she couldn't make people get up out of their seats for him."

Instances of name-calling are quite common, too. Judy Ni, the owner of Baology in Philadelphia, recalls the story of a customer berating a young employee, who is Black, calling him a number of derogatory names and racial slurs, including the N word, because he wasn't given his order "quick enough." Jeffrey S., a server at a seafood chain in Connecticut, witnessed a woman scream slurs at his coworker of Latin descent and call him an idiot repeatedly because she was unhappy with her wings. (There was nothing incorrect about the order, says Jeffrey.)

"I make sure to stand far enough away when waiting on a table so customers can't touch me."

Blackman recalled the time a customer remarked that she would "probably drive her future husband to drink." Ursula Siker, the owner of Jeff & Judes, a Jewish deli in Chicago, says customers have sent harassing DMs to her restaurant's Instagram account, calling her "unprofessional" and "a disgrace" due to wait times for their food.

Diners often feel entitled to restaurant workers' personal stories and space. A customer once sent an angry email to a restaurant owner because a server in Phoenix, Arizona, who asked to remain anonymous, wouldn't reveal the meaning of a deeply personal tattoo located on his arm.

"My tattoos represent past relationships, old buddies, and a friend I lost to suicide," says the server. "They are my memories. They are my experiences. I didn't get them for you." The disregard of physical boundaries is a rampant issue, too. "It's why I make sure to stand far enough away when waiting on a table so customers can't touch me," says Abigail.

Many servers are reporting that the lack of respect for boundaries has only gotten worse since the pandemic kicked into high gear. This is especially troubling given that boundaries have grown even more important to ensure the safety of both restaurant workers and customers. "A lot of people have not been respectful towards us with the COVID restrictions," says Jeffrey. He frequently gets requests for samples of sauces or extra pieces of food like shrimp or corn (for free). "They really think I'm going to go back to the kitchen and jeopardize everybody in this restaurant to get them extra things I'm not even supposed to be touching."

Many customers refuse to wear masks, or get angry when asked to wear a mask at the door. "We call them 'mask-holes,'" says an operations manager of a restaurant group in Mississippi who asked to remain anonymous. They often take their anger out on the people working at the host stand, who are frequently some of the youngest employees of the restaurant group.

"They are just doing as they are told," she says. "It's hard for people to understand that to dine with us, you have to follow the safety protocols, because while they might only be here with us for an hour or two, our staff is here anywhere from four hours to ten hours."

Masked bartender
Nayda Hutson says she has similar issues at her Charleston pizzeria, Renzo. She must constantly combat the "immature" behavior surrounding masks, she says, recalling a customer who repeatedly tried to enter the restaurant mask-less. He was a doctor, no less, who worked around patients with COVID-19.

Working at a restaurant in 2020 has meant constant exposure to people who don't take safety, or the health of service workers, seriously. Abigail recalls overhearing a table at her previous restaurant discussing how they recently attended a huge party at a local creek in the hopes of catching COVID-19 and "getting it over with." "I had to warn the server and the bussers to make sure to wash their hands extra after dealing with this table," she says. "It's just so awful."

It's incredibly frightening too, says Liz. "My job has never been more absurd, more political, and more dangerous." She says that she is constantly dealing with diners speaking to her from less than ten inches away with no mask on, due to the dining room being so loud, even at 50 percent capacity. At one point, the entire kitchen staff at Liz's restaurant got sick. "We are really, really scared," she says. "I have personally had a family member die from this." Jeffrey carries a special kit that he put together for himself in his fanny pack filled with sanitizer so that he can clean anything he touches. He is incredibly worried about getting someone else sick, having already lost three family members during the pandemic.

Diners expect a magical world when they walk into a restaurant. "We create a world where they get incredible food, impeccable service, the music is beautiful, they get everything they want, they are drinking, they are happy," says Abigail. "The norms [and realities] of the outside world don't apply."

And during the pandemic, diners are seeking normalcy. Customers don't like that the safety measures, such as mask-wearing and temperature checks at the door, keep drawing attention to the fact that there is an outside world where if you don't follow the safety protocols, you could die.

Meanwhile, restaurant workers are expected to maintain that illusion of magic by grinning and bearing it. Ni recounts her time as a captain at Blue Hill at Stone Barns in upstate New York, where she would laugh in a specific way if a table was bothering her. Her fellow employees got the message, but customers were none-the-wiser. Jeffrey says he has now taken to crying in his car on his breaks, "just to make sure everybody else stays happy."

The American approach to dining is very individualistic. It is about what the diner wants, when they want it. It does not matter what is happening at the restaurant, which in many ways is a choreography as precarious as a set of spinning plates. It does not matter that there are other diners with needs, too. There is a belief the rules apply to everyone else, except them. "It's a continual championing of the individual," writes Priya Basil in her 2020 book, Be My Guest. "The hospitality industry thrives on the message that you are the only one who counts: you should come first, your every need considered and catered to. You deserve it, after all, as long as you can pay."

That final sentence is a damning indictment of the power structures in American hospitality. "Money does something to people, where this version of entitlement means that they can buy anything, literally anything, like respect and freedom," says de Leon.

Blackman once had a customer try to bribe her with over $500 for a table because he had lied to his wife about getting a reservation at the restaurant, which is booked out months ahead of time. He believed his money should put him ahead of customers who tried multiple times before finally securing a table—and there are restaurants that would have given in.

Customers also wield their power through tipping. Though a number of people are advocating for the restaurant industry to finally rid itself of an antiquated system that is rooted in slavery and perpetuates harassment, it is still the most common system. Servers and other front-of-house staff are paid at a subminimum wage, which is often around $2 an hour, with the idea that tips from customers would make up the rest of their salaries. "You can't buy a sandwich with that money … you can barely buy a Coke," says de Leon. Instead, front-of-house staff must attempt to accommodate every guest's whim, because they might not get paid otherwise. Customers demand perfection, even though restaurants are run by human beings, and each mistake comes at a cost.

Every person I spoke to had multiple tipping horror stories to share. Abigail says a table once ordered $200 of food but gave her a $5 tip due to a small miscommunication with the kitchen that resulted in a delayed order. Hutson recalls the time a middle-aged couple came into the restaurant and placed an order for a heavily modified pasta and pizza with the server. When the bill arrived, the couple became irate and demanded the pasta be taken off of the check because they claimed to have never ordered it, even though they had eaten it, and if the restaurant didn't comply, they would take it out of the server's tip. Hutson comped the order, so as not to affect her server's income, but the incident felt like a punch in the gut.

Barista wearing protective face mask cleaning and disinfecting cafe counter with a customer sitting at back
Jeffrey remembers witnessing a coworker, a single mother, wait on a table when the restaurant had first re-opened during the pandemic. Management had strict rules that all food was to be served on disposable plates for sanitation purposes. The table ordered nearly $300 worth of food, but tipped his coworker nothing because "they weren't given proper plates and silverware."

"It's very insulting when people don't tip you because most of them don't realize what we go through behind closed doors to get the food to your table, especially during the pandemic," Jeffrey says. "They don't realize that the $20 you leave on my table, at this point, means everything to me. It's how I survive."

De Leon says that customers are constantly deducting mistakes or disappointments from a server's tips instead of speaking to management about what they wish was fixed. "A dish wasn't great, so instead of leaving 20 percent, maybe you leave 18 or 15," he explains. "The part that people forget is that these tiny, tiny choices add up to something so consequential—someone's livelihood." But guests are rarely burdened with that consideration because they get to leave and go home.

Often, customers will take to platforms like Yelp to complain about their experiences. These sites have only served to bolster the power that customers have. Siker remains frustrated to this day with the first review left on her restaurant's Yelp page. It was opening weekend and her team was understaffed, she recalls, but they were profusely apologetic about it and even offered customers gift cards. Someone left them a two-star review, which then turned into the restaurant's entire rating. "We are a new restaurant that opened in the middle of pandemic, and this review is still reflecting on us two months later."

Friel says sites like Yelp are "vultures," and finds it ridiculous that you can post on these platforms with zero experience and affect people's businesses. "There is no real path for recourse," she notes. But what upsets her the most about these platforms is that it can cost people their jobs. "I remember being a server and having a review written about me," Friel recalls. "My name was in it and half of it was lies, and I just remember thinking, 'Holy shit, I could lose my job.'" Luckily Friel had an understanding manager, but that is not always the case. Liz says that the corporate offices of her restaurant look at bad reviews as a sign that staff did something wrong. "We are always held accountable for the volatile entitled guest," he says. "It creates a culture of fear."

There needs to be a re-imagining of what it means to be a restaurant guest—with an added emphasis placed on "guest." Restaurants are welcoming diners into their spaces. Most service workers I spoke with considered the restaurant to be a "house" in many ways. When you go over to a person's house for dinner, when they invite you into their personal space, there are expectations that you place on yourself as a guest, says de Leon. You try to be on your best behavior, you appreciate and respect the food that is in front of you, and you don't complain about your seat. "You hope that at the end of it, you would get invited again to that same space," he says. So why don't customers see restaurants that way?

It's a matter of respect; many diners don't see hospitality jobs as "real" professions. "People see it as a part-time job, and not a real career," says the server in Arizona. "But I have been working in the industry for over 20 years."

"I think the way they treat us just goes to show that they don't respect our jobs," says Abigail. "Because they don't think this is a legitimate job, they think of themselves as better than us." She says she has been asked multiple times what she actually wants to do with her life.

Liz says customers have written things like "get a real job" on the tip line of receipts. "They think these jobs are just for young kids or people paying their way through college," she says. "I'm like, 'Excuse me?' A lot of us have mortgages. We have families. We operate extremely professionally." She rages at the idea that service work is somehow unskilled work. "Can you navigate the psychological minefield of waiting tables while executing a dozen other tasks?"

"We often have to act as a psychologist and a sommelier and be great at multitasking and time management to do this job," adds Abigail. "You can definitely tell the difference between someone who is just doing this temporarily, and someone who sees this as a career."

"The hospitality industry is something people dedicate their lives to around the world, but it's not seen that way here, even if we have dedicated our lives to it." 

The lack of respect for hospitality jobs as "legitimate" professions is very American, posits Mar. "If you left more than a couple of Euros as a tip at a nice dinner in Paris, they would be upset, because there, being a server is seen as a legitimate profession, an honorable profession." If you go to Japan, she adds, it's not uncommon for sushi chefs to spend nine years training before they are even allowed to touch the rice. "The hospitality industry is something people dedicate their lives to around the world, but it's not seen that way here, even if we have dedicated our lives to it."

Not only is the profession not seen as "real," but the people who work these jobs are not often seen as human, either. "People think severs aren't people," says Jeffrey. "We have opinions, we have emotions, and words do hurt us." Customers act like a server's personal boundaries don't exist or matter, says Liz. "They always expect us to sacrifice our comfort and dignity in the name of making money."

Hospitality workers are struggling now more than ever before. Last month, Jeffrey made just $400, and his savings have all but evaporated. He is worried that his car, which is on its last legs, might break down. He doesn't have money for repairs—he barely has enough to pay his bills and feed himself.

"I've been living off frozen food," he says. "I just pray and try to stay positive." But it's hard to do that when his last two pay checks were $67 and $43, respectively. He is far from alone: A new report from One Fair Wage says that over 80 percent of hospitality workers have seen a decline in tips, and 40 percent have seen an increase in sexual harassment since the pandemic started.

The server in Arizona is currently moonlighting as a DoorDash driver, to make up for fewer shifts and unpredictable wages. He says that some nights she makes $500, but on others just $75. Liz estimates that she is making less than a third of what she used to as a 20-year veteran of the industry. "It used to be easier to put up with whatever," she says. "But now we are barely making any money." The mental health toll on restaurant workers has been enormous, as well. De Leon says people used to show up early for their shifts answering phones at the restaurant. Now, less than an hour before they are supposed to start, they are still in bed.

Hospitality workers have been forced to become essential workers during this pandemic, not because they actually are, but because customers want to dine out. It is a luxury, not a necessity, to be served and waited on. Hospitality workers, on the other hand, need to come in. This is the only way they can pay their bills and keep food on the table, which many are barely able to do.

"The fact that restaurant workers are being considered as essential workers is mind-blowing to me," says Blackman. "We are working the same hours as doctors and nurses, but we are not saving lives. We're just here to be a luxury service for people who want to escape—but that comes at our own demise."

The pandemic has cast a harsh light on the fractured foundations of the American hospitality model, a pillar of which is this notion that the customer is always right. It's become abundantly clear that the industry needs to stop prioritizing the wants of customers over the wellbeing of its staff. "Owners really need to rethink the idea of what hospitality is, starting with their staff," says Friel. "[A]ll of this preaching about hospitality for others doesn't work if your staff is miserable and being abused all the time."

A happier staff also means happier customers, says de Leon. "A restaurant needs to provide a safety, happy, warm environment for its employees first for customers to have an amazing time." Blackman notes that a staff-first mentality benefits everyone. "Once you do a staff first mentality they will run your restaurant for you better than you could run your restaurant yourself." A restaurant that does not put its staff first, ultimately, is not running a sustainable model.

Most of the people interviewed for this story believe that tipping should be eliminated, if restaurants want to center the wellbeing of their staff.

"Gone are the days of this Disneyland, give-me-everything era of hospitality. We need to use the word 'no' more, and customers need to understand that just because we can't offer what you want doesn't mean that we are fighting against you." 

"Tipping is unfair," says Liz. "It perpetuates racism, it perpetuates sexual harassment, and it allows guests and owners to weaponize your wage." Friel believes that eliminating tipping would also go a long way in getting customers to understand what dining actually costs, and what labor is actually worth, perhaps curbing customer entitlement in the process. Abigail is less optimistic. She worries that entitled customers will act even more entitled if tipping is eliminated because "we are getting paid the same, no matter how they behave."

The most necessary and urgent change that is needed, however, is the introduction of the word "no" into the American hospitality lexicon. "Gone are the days of this Disneyland, give-me-everything era of hospitality," says de Leon. "We need to use the word 'no' more, and customers need to understand that just because we can't offer what you want doesn't mean that we are fighting against you."

"If there is anything the pandemic has taught us, it is that guests are not used to being told 'no,'" says Liz. "It rocks their world every time. But they need to get used to hearing 'no.'"

Restaurants also need to give their servers agency to not always say "yes." "Owners need to stop entertaining a customer's every request," she adds. "Guests need to realize they are not the center of the universe, and just because they are paying for this experience it does not mean the rest of the world has to fall down and die because they wanted a birthday dinner."

Blackman believes that restaurants should operate like a "hospitable dictatorship." "The idea is that yes, we want you to be here. Yes, we want you to have a great time. But yes, it's also not going to be at the expense of others," she says. "So if you start becoming violent with your words, your energy, or you start becoming aggressive as a customer, then we might have to close up our agreement with you."

It's about putting your foot down and being okay with letting paying customers walk out the door if they are entitled, says Mar. "That money is not worth it. No amount of money can replace your dignity as a human being, and you shouldn't have to put up with that type of behavior."

Friel says that the pandemic has shown that the customers that are most important to her business are those from the local community. They are the people who not only tip well, but also regularly check in, bringing flowers and sweet notes to the staff.

"Compare this to the one-off customers who I have never seen before," she says. "I don't need or want their money if they are rude." Instead, Friel says she would rather spend her time finding ways to support her community. "The regulars are the people I will bend over backwards for happily," she says. "Because they treat us with respect."

"We are tired, we have experienced death, some of us have lost our homes, many of us are losing our minds."

Mar says she has had some "truly incredible customers" throughout the pandemic, but that it is unfortunately not the norm. "I even go over and thank them for being so amazing because they are so rare," she says. "They are unfortunately the smaller percentage of people."

Instead, the majority of customers have used the pandemic as an excuse to tip less and demand more. Jeffrey wishes customers understood that hospitality workers are going through the same pandemic, too. "We are tired, we have experienced death, some of us have lost our homes, many of us are losing our minds," he says. But at this point, he would just be happy if customers were kinder.

"Please, just be nice. Even if you don't tip me … just be nice."

Previous Post Next Post