Can customer expectations match the reality of restaurant staff?

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PHOTO BY LAURA PETRILLA

DIn recent months, the behavior of a segment of diners has deteriorated with the reopening of restaurants for a full catering service.

How bad is that? Last week, The Wall Street published an article titled, “Restaurants and hotels are pushing back the rise in customer tantrums. “ In September, Food & Wine Magazine posted an infographic on its Instagram page titled “The New Rules of Dining Out” with guidelines such as “The Customer Isn’t Always Right” and “Patience, Patience, Patience”. Rule 10 is “Be nice,” reminding adults going to dinner the same thing we might say to a child on the first day of school. Ouch.

This is also happening in Pittsburgh and it affects the lives of people working in the hospitality industry in our area. Restaurant owners and hotel workers tire of serving as a punching bag for recalcitrant guests.

“It’s absolutely crazy what’s going on. I have never been so stressed in my life. It’s a constant game of emotional Russian roulette. You just don’t know which table is going to be happy, upset or whatever, ”says Fiore Moletz, executive chef and co-owner of Della Terra at Zelienople and Burgh’ers Brewing, which has branches in Zelienople and Lawrenceville.

Most restaurants in Pittsburgh are understaffed. The lack of staff forces establishments to increase the service with compressed menus, shorter and possibly irregular hours and longer waiting times for meals to come to the table. People are also paying more for these meals, as the rising cost of everything from ingredients to generally invisible necessities such as sanitation services translates into higher menu prices. In addition to this, hosts, servers and general managers are responsible for enforcing COVID-19 security measures such as masking, physical distancing, and proof of vaccination status to an audience fatigued by the pandemic.

“People outside of this industry don’t necessarily understand the procurement and personnel issues we face,” says Amy Beatty of The Warren Bar & Burrow, Downtown.

Of course, people who choose to visit restaurants have every reason to expect a good time during their outing. So it’s just to be disappointed that the buzz of returning to reunion in social settings is dampened by having to flag down a waiter to order another round of snacks and cocktails. If you’re paying a few bucks more for this chicken sandwich, it’s reasonable to expect it to arrive hot and crispy.

“I understand. It’s not exactly how you hoped it would turn out or like before the pandemic. But we are as much a victim of the circumstances as your experience. No one wants to come to work and have a bad service. Don’t do it on purpose. We’re doing our best, ”says Curtis Gamble, executive chef and co-owner of Station in Bloomfield.

Professionals in the Pittsburgh hospitality industry report that most diners are kind, or at least tolerant, when things don’t go as planned. But they say those who aren’t – and there are more of them than ever – are responding with verbal attacks or taking to social media to wage war over little things. Hosts are yelled at for enforcing publicly available mask and vaccination policies; the waiters are dressed for a soup that did not arrive quickly and the diners demand that their appetizers be compensated because no one has recorded them for 20 minutes. Another segment of the restaurant population is militarizing peer review websites like Yelp, given a low rating because the establishment missed certain menu items or refused to split a check for a large group individually.

“You get these reviews that say the food was good, the atmosphere was great. But it was all slow, so here are your two stars, ”says Beatty.

It’s hard to say precisely why this is happening – there isn’t enough data yet to support a specific theory – but hospitality industry veterans believe in factors like repeated slow experiments (an explosion may not not happen the first time something goes wrong; the third) and the overall hyper-politicization of life right now is part of it.

“The smallest thing will turn a table off,” says Moletz. “Serving and cooking are respectable jobs. Why is there a perception that people can be treated like garbage just because you work in a restaurant? “

Repeated rude behavior is demoralizing restaurant workers across the region, which is a trend nationwide. An August report from restaurant industry data analysis company Black Box Intelligence called “The post-pandemic restaurant worker: who wants to work and why” who surveyed 4,700 current, past and potential restaurant industry employees, 62% of respondents report experiencing emotional abuse or disrespect from customers (and nearly 80% report their mental health has been negatively affected in the past 12 months).

“I don’t think people see the full picture of how hard we work to make things work,” says Alison Hilliard, bar manager at Gaucho Parrilla Argentina, Downtown.

Most of the experienced hospitality workers who have chosen to stay during the pandemic say they are determined to ride the wave. But newcomers, the people needed to staff restaurants, don’t have the same incentive to stay, even though wages have risen in recent months.

“How do we teach this to our new hires, when they don’t know what the industry was like before all of this? How do you keep people off when guests have a tantrum because you have to enforce mask rules, or they have to wait a little longer for their meal? Said Hilliard.

Restaurants try in different ways to manage expectations, such as limiting the number of tables available to ensure smoother service for customers (although this sometimes has the unintended consequence of a possible walk-in initiating a tirade because ‘they see empty tables but are told they cannot be seated) or inform people in advance that the meal may take a little longer than expected. Staff also feel better able to inform customers when they cross a line. And management, in many places, supports them. “I’m not invested in someone’s temper tantrum. I just want to make sure the people who work here feel good about their jobs, ”says Gamble.

Supporting a restaurant is not a charity – diners have a right to a reasonable expectation that the food and drink they have ordered will be prepared with careful attention to detail and served relatively quickly. But the reality is that until restaurants can fill in the gaps and new staff are trained to work with the fluidity of industry veterans who have moved on to other jobs, it’s a good idea to catch your breath and think about how you’re going to let someone know your dinner isn’t going the way you hoped.

Things will eventually stabilize. Until then, says Hilliard, “The collective trauma of what we’ve all been through affects us and continues to affect us all. So have empathy. We try again to find our way. We like to provide cozy and warm spaces for people. We want to be there when you want to leave your home, when you want to let off steam. We want things to go well. But for now, you have to meet us in the middle to some extent. “



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