More Grace

Brandon Bortles, owner of Golden's Abejas, Nosu Ramen, and SurMesa Taqueria, on how he says no in an industry built on saying yes.

White man with light brown hair and beard and blue button down shirt smiling.
Courtesy Brandon Bortles

I started working in restaurants when I was a teenager in the 1980s, where I grew up with the mantra that the customer is always right. Has that idea changed for me over time? Yes and no. I certainly want my restaurants to be friendly, welcoming, and hospitable, but I’ve also learned to say no, even when it feels uncomfortable. My goal is to find more grace in doing so. 

We live in a time of food allergies, gluten intolerance, fad diets, and a keen understanding of the benefits of a vegetarian diet. We keep all these things—can we remove nuts from an item? make dishes dairy-free? what percent of our menu is gluten-free? what percent is vegetarian?—in mind when we write menus.

Even so, there is a certain amount of guest entitlement that makes things challenging for a small restaurant. When guests begin to build their own dishes, I say no. This is most evident at brunch. We put a lot of thought and effort into creating dishes guests might not make at home and yet we get constant requests for bacon, eggs, toast, and potatoes. Will we take the chicken off the bone and throw it on a salad? No, no we won’t. This is not reflective of our culinary vision and it disrupts our normal flow at the expense of other guests. 

The guest marched into the kitchen and demanded we re-plate it. We did not.

Recently we were training two new cooks on a busy Friday night. A guest asked her server to make one of our small plates into a smiley face for her child. I said no. After the dishes were delivered, the guest marched into the kitchen and demanded we re-plate it. We did not. I want my cooks focused on our dishes, not worrying about what to use for the eyes, nose and a mouth on a rearranged small plate. Am I wrong? Maybe, in some people’s eyes.

That mother wrote a scathing review on Yelp—but we do not pretend to be kid-friendly at dinner, and we do not have a printed children’s menu. We look to win the people who want a nice meal out without a wailing child in their periphery.

We took January and February off to reset, partly because we were exhausted by the confrontations—the masks, the restrictions, the expectant guests. The truth is, six years in, we are doing some of the best food ever at Abejas. If we have to say no to something, I hope we are graceful, and I hope the guest is gracious.

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