A Line in the Sand

We’re in the business of saying yes. But that’s not always the best answer.

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Has COVID made drawing that line easier?

When we asked operators about the sticky business of saying no to a customer, Schafer Pennington, wine buyer and sommelier at Cody’s Cafe and Bar in east Denver, responded with a (somewhat) rhetorical question. “I want to know when our passion, craft, and existence shifted to the whim of each individual’s idea of how my spark should be defined or priced?” He wasn’t being snarky; he was speaking on behalf of an industry hamstrung by the axiom, “The customer is always right.”

Over time, this well-intended platitude has created a monster, morphing from a gracious gesture of hospitality to a choppy sea of expectant and entitled guests. Not every customer, but far too many.

Of course, it’s a delicate balance, something that Tony Zarlengo, co-owner of Denver’s Cafe Brazil, underscores. “Having a loyal public and building unsinkable relationships with the most frequent supporters have always been key to creating strong emissaries of goodwill,” he says. “And yet, there are times when we have to say no for self-preservation.” And saying no to a loyal customer—as you well know—can cut deep. It goes against hospitality’s creed, but it’s become a must.

Last December, Khushbu Shah, restaurant editor for Food & Wine, penned an unflinching article about hospitality’s imbalance of power. Her piece, in addition to documenting truly abhorrent customer behavior, gets to the heart of the matter here: “The American approach to dining is very individualistic. It is about what the diner wants, when they want it,” Shah wrote.

The pandemic not only revealed the very worst in people, it also (finally) allowed restaurants to draw a line in the sand. We will do this. We won’t do that. That line is different for every business, but there is real power in that shift. And, in that, there’s forward motion. Shah’s story has served as an industry discussion point—and ultimately inspired this series of op-eds. —Amanda M. Faison

Smiling Black woman with short natural curly red hair wearing a light grey chef's jacket.
Courtesy Mawa McQueen

Not Today, Not Ever

By Mawa McQueen, owner, Mawa’s Kitchen and the Crêpe Shack, Aspen and Snowmass

Saying no has never been a problem for me. I was born this way. In fact, I think the first word that came out of my mouth was “no,” instead of Mum or Dad.

The problem is that society has declared, “Everyone is right and no one is wrong.” Many people treat each other viciously and unfairly. Back in the day, “no” simply meant “no,” and people had values, moral standards, and a code they lived by. With a simple handshake you signed a contract and your word meant something.

Today, the customer is far from always being right. Guests can be senseless, entitled, and mean-spirited. My response to a difficult customer is, “Oh, not today, madam. Not today, sir. You picked the wrong person and the wrong restaurant.”

I will never be in the “yes” business because that is for a slave.

A few people have come into my restaurant refusing to wear a mask. My staff kindly gives them one to wear and if the customer refuses, I tell them they need to leave. They leave and write bad reviews on Google, Yelp, and Tripadvisor. Let them. The safety of my staff is my priority; if I don’t keep them safe and they get sick, who is going to work? No one.

In a resort town, people book three or four restaurant reservations for the same time, then decide where to go at the last minute. They disregard cancellation policies and make up lame excuses to avoid the charges. We charge them anyway. These people don’t respect the service we provide or the amount of work needed just to be open.

Perhaps foolishly, I expect people to respect my craft. I will never be in the “yes” business because that is for a slave. The days of “the customer is always right” are long gone—they disappeared right along with common courtesy. How can the customer always be right when they are just as imperfect as we are? This phrase must be removed from hospitality, retail, and all customer-service training. It should be replaced by the idea that we should do everything we can to do right by the customer within our abilities. 

No, madam, no, sir: I am not in the yes business. I am here to provide you with the best experience using all of my resources, experience, and talent—within reason. But when I say, “No, not today,“ I mean it.

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

The New Hospitality

By Jen Mattioni, general manager, Ash’Kara, Denver

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.

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.

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

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.

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

More Grace

By Brandon Bortles, owner, Abejas, Nosu Ramen, and SurMesa Taqueria, Golden

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. 

[It] is not reflective of our culinary vision and it disrupts our normal flow at the expense of other guests. 

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.

Smiling white woman with long, dark brown hair and a chunky brown sweater
Courtesy Sam Alviani

It’s About Community

By Sam Alviani, co-owner, Bread Bar, Silver Plume

On a bright morning in September of 2020, I’m pacing my kitchen. I’m on the phone with a couple who rented the bar for a 25-person outdoor wedding in October. I’m trying to maintain some form of vocal neutrality. I pace, because it diverts my anger and incredulity. The groom has just asked me to turn a blind eye to unmasked guests. He has admonished us for following a set of “arbitrary” health and safety rules—state law. To him, the language on our website asking guests to wear masks in town unless they’re seated at the bar is aggressive.

One of my partners cuts in: “Listen. This is how we’re doing it. It’s how we can respect the Silver Plume community and be part of its effort to mitigate risk. If that doesn’t work for you, we ask that you find another place that will.” The groom acquiesces, but only because he doesn’t want to have to find another venue.

Silver Plume’s population clocks in at about 177 year-round residents. Even with an influx of young homebuyers and renters over the past few years, the majority of people who live here are of retirement age, or well on their way. It’s a tightly bound community, with some families having lived here for generations. This sleepy haven exists outside of time with its Western false-front facades and dirt roads.

Managing the outrage and colliding views of the virus was, more often than not, maddening. But despite what it costs us…our priority, always, will be safety and care for the town.

Before the pandemic, our work with the town centered on event permits, liquor donations for the town’s biannual Melodrama performances, People for Silver Plume meetings, and parking plans. Last March, that work became more urgent—first with a full shutdown to discourage out-of-town visitors and later with discussions about how (and if) we could safely host small groups outside over the summer. What we arrived at was a reservation-only plan; we shut down the casual, walk-in service that has always been a hallmark of Bread Bar

We had a summer of reservation-only weekends that were our only means of controlling guest numbers. We fielded both thoughtful questions about our opening plans through fall, winter, and spring, and the inevitable disappointment of customers who were passing through and found a “shut” sign. We crossed our fingers and hoped our website and social media missives were reaching everyone. We’ll keep the reservation system for as long as we need to. 

Managing the outrage and colliding views of the virus was, more often than not, maddening. But despite what it costs us in potential guests, when the health of our community is at stake, our priority, always, will be safety and care for the town.

Old Habits Need to Break

By Sue Smith, owner, Cody’s Cafe and Bar and Bettola Bistro, Denver

At Cody’s Cafe and Bettola Bistro, we have stood up to some unfair and unrealistic demands from customers. But not always. Old habits are hard to break.

Since I have been in business here for more than two decades, I still get long-time customers showing up, demanding special treatment, and asking for dishes we haven’t served for many years. We most often politely tell them no, and encourage them to try something from our current menu. It’s not easy for us to turn on a dime and make certain Vietnamese dishes, when we now serve mostly Italian and new American seafood. Nevertheless, I admit to sometimes running to the store and buying special ingredients just to prepare a dish from yesteryear to appease a loyal customer.

Aren’t we—the restaurants that make up the fabric of the city—entitled to hope for better times ahead?

I regret that we too often accept the “customer is always right” mantra instead of standing up for what is fair—for what is right for us. Restaurants are vulnerable to negative online reviews, and customers are eager to write damaging reviews instead of confronting restaurant staff in person about the quality of food or service. Recently, we turned a would-be customer away because we would not exceed Cody’s 50 percent dining capacity. She gave us a one-star review, even though she never dined at the restaurant.

We have consolidated Bettola Bistro and Cody’s Cafe into the Cody’s space and have resisted the pleas and demands of some customers who want to eat at Bettola. We have denied customers the option of sitting at the bar despite their protests. Mask wearing is still mandatory, even though we still hear complaints. It has been a tough year for all of us, but aren’t we—the restaurants that make up the fabric of the city—entitled to hope for better times ahead?

Talk to us! Email your experiences (and thoughts, opinions, and questions—anything, really) to askus@diningout.com

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