The New Hospitality

Jen Mattioni, GM of Denver's Ash'Kara, on how she says no in an industry built on saying yes.

Headshot of white woman with dark brown and purple hair and gold necklace smiling at the camera
Courtesy Jen Mattioni

Our business might be to say yes, but that model no longer serves us. In the setting of the chef-driven and chef-owned restaurant, service staff long ago learned to say no without actually saying no. We did it to uphold the integrity of dishes, to ensure the flow of service, and to present our concept in its intended manner. 

The pandemic pushed what was previously an art form—how to guide a guest away without them even noticing—into a new realm. Suddenly, we were telling them where they could and couldn’t sit, how many people could be present and for how long, and with whom they could and couldn’t mingle. Overnight, we went from stewards of hospitality to COVID safety bouncers. I do not take any pleasure in telling a group of diners enjoying their time together in our restaurant that they need to wrap it up because they’ve exceeded their time limit.

Some nights, I go home feeling like most of my service was spent disappointing people. The weight of each interaction sticks with me.

Many are understanding. Those who are not exhibit the same entitlement, the same whiff of disapproval as the diner who, pre-pandemic, argued about why the chef wouldn’t allow a substitution.

In this new world, we encounter a new breed of entitled guest who lacks empathy and compassion. They lack the awareness that there are other guests and that to keep our business open, their time must come to end, allowing someone else’s to begin. Some nights, I go home feeling like most of my service was spent disappointing people. The weight of each interaction sticks with me.

But the silver lining is this: The totality of my experience in the service industry is a journey of continued learning, growth, and education. We must develop new skills and defense mechanisms in dealing with difficult, entitled guests. I take heart in seeing industry folks, both veteran and novice, gain courage, confidence, and eloquence. We are cultivating skills that, without pushback from our entitled guests, we would never have needed around the table. 

Being deemed “essential,” being pushed into this new hospitality, and being tasked with keeping our community safe while continuing to serve it have made us aware of our worth. Many will no longer settle for subpar wages, unreasonable management, and poor overall treatment. So we thank you, feisty guests, for helping us diversify our talent, grow our communication skills, and keep us sure-footed and sharp-witted. For better or for worse, we will never forget you.

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