I’ve been waiting to write this post for a long time. It is not intended to nip at the heels of diners, or to generate sympathy, or even to encourage other restaurateurs to stand up to their clients. It might make some people angry, or indignant, but my intent is not to provoke.
I’ll begin by saying this: I really like people. All kinds. I’m comfortable on the floor, talking to strangers. I enjoy spending time with my customers, and over the past year many patrons have become friends. Without them, my restaurant is a sad, empty husk.
But let’s consider an altruism altrustic aphorism that is rammed down our throats from the first time most of us take a job in the service industry: The Customer is Always Right.
Ah, the limitless possibilities of infallibility.
I used to preach this very line to my staff, and I danced around the subject once here, in the story of the lady in pink who only ate pink things. While it’s best to bend over (backwards, mind you) for customers in most situations, there are times when one is asked to bend a stretch too far. There are some customers that are, in fact, wrong. I assume they know this, because entering a place that serves food does not exempt one from societal norms. I’ll give you a few examples:
If you throw a birthday party for 23, order water and a few salads, and sneak in 3 bottles of rotgut rum in your pants to drink under the table with your friends that is wrong. You know it is. And you should expect to be thrown out when we catch you, but we won’t. Because we are masochists.
I bet he doesn't play the violin
If you do not eat any animal products, and you waltz into a restaurant and dourly demand a meal without any animal products, when the cuisine cooked in that restaurant’s kitchen is built on a foundation of seasoning that comes from animals, this is not right. It’s like going into a guitar shop and demanding that they sell you a flute. Really, I have nothing against vegans. But my restaurant does not sell what you seek. And it is not your right to demand for us to do so. (Still, we probably will, and especially if you call ahead, because we are masochists).
If you storm into a restaurant to demand a table, at 830pm on a Friday night, with two escorts in tow and a rented luxury car parked in plain sight outside, thinking that this will aid your chances of getting a table without a reservation, it won’t. And if you force the owner to ‘call your butler’ at your 5-star hotel while he is busy serving perfectly nice people their dinners, well, that is not right. If you then throw coins in anger at my staff, and spit on the floor, and threaten to burn down the building, well, that really isn’t right either. And you can fuck off, because we’re not that masochistic.
Right now, as you read this, you might think – oh, this is just bitterness. Venting. Catharsis. Whinging. Well, perhaps, but I’m trying to get somewhere. I’m trying to make a point.
The Customer is Always Right is Occasionally Wrong. It encourages people to act in bizarre and uncouth ways. Ways that they would never behave in someone’s home, or grocery store, or library.
What the wrong customer does is affect the dining experience of respectful guests in a negative manner. Whether it’s backing up the kitchen with a ridiculous order; shouting and cursing in midst of dinner; berating staff so that they’re afraid to do their job; or taking up all the tables so that they can surreptitiously sip booze that they snuck in, in their pants. It fucks up a machine we spend a lot of time tuning. It gives bad people an unfair advantage – they get all the attention while perfectly civil people are ignored. And that is selfish.
Last Friday I had probably the weirdest night in terms of service since we opened at Soul Food. But the thing was, after all the problems had subsided, I looked up at the bar and in the dining room and felt a surge of contentment. Like a glance of warm sun in winter. A regular offered to buy me a beer. People smiled and chatted as they ate their meals. My staff breathed a little easier, and things returned to normal.
And as I hop and skip from one cliché to the next, I’ll admit it. This is why we do it – for that feeling of satisfaction we get when others are happy for what we do. It's a relationship.
And this relationship of trust and respect is what's right about customers, and about us, the guys on the other side.