There are two kinds of customers in this world. The best of them are the over-tippers who drop 25 percent of their bill with no questions asked. And then there are… the others: Those who demand service, snap their fingers at servers for extra cups of ranch and more sweet tea. Perhaps they’ll ask for fresh lemons and turn their water into lemonade right there at the table. Rarely are those extras reflected in the gratuity.
But amid an unprecedented global pandemic that has wiped out masses of people, particularly those in the service industry, the old adage “The customer is always right” is gone. Gone like open-air buffets. Gone like free delivery. Gone like your hairline and your youngest kid’s college fund.
The restaurant industry has been among the most severely affected by the pandemic’s economic fallout. A recent report in Forbes estimated that roughly 10 percent of all restaurants have permanently shut down since March of last year. Other reports put those numbers closer to 17 percent. The ones that remain open are not only stretched beyond capacity for providing seamless customer service and food, they are severely understaffed. Some, including many Republican representatives, blame unemployment benefits recipients while others point to workers leaving the hospitality industry and entering new, better-paying fields.
Kelly Bone, the former bar manager at Reboot Arcade in Winston-Salem, says she left the industry to find better work hours and health benefits. Bone now works for a local aquatic installation company.
“I’m in gross nasty ponds,” says Bone. “I see all kinds of wildlife like frogs, fish, bugs. And I still prefer it to serving the public.
“I do miss my regulars a lot,” continues Bone. “And I miss being a good bartender and the hustle and bustle. I will always miss that. But I like what I do now a lot too.”
Restaurants used to be well-oiled machines with a lot of moving parts that needed to work seamlessly in order to make the operation run. These days, the machine is missing a few gears and cogs; the pieces that are in motion are actually wedges of cardboard stuck underneath the table legs to make it look like its running smoothly.
As restaurants are being pushed to their limits while people are re-entering society, a new standard of dining out rules has emerged. The old rules are gone. It’s time for customers to have a reckoning with themselves and with their dining haunts. Restaurants have always received customers as guests. When you visit someone’s home, you don’t put your feet up on the coffee table, hog the remote and destroy the bathroom, do you? So would you do it at a restaurant?
- Tip more than you would pre-pandemic.
Our friends in the restaurant industry have been through hell over the past year plus. Ever-changing mandates, the waiting game with state and federal economic relief, purchasing PPE and outfitting retail space to receive customers safely has taken emotional and physical tolls. Keep in mind that restaurant workers are risking health and safety in order to provide a service. On that merit alone, diners should give extra. Gone is the 15-20 percent range. Twenty-five percent is the new normal; 30 percent is better. If you’re eating out, it’s the least you can do.
- Expect slower service
Most restaurant workers didn’t spend quarantine gardening or baking bread. Many opted to search for new jobs that often had better pay and benefits. That means that many businesses are short-staffed when hordes of diners are coming through their doors. Customers want to eat out in large groups again so they can figure out how to split the check 12 ways when one person had three rum and Cokes, but someone else just drank water. Places are running on steam, truncating hours of service and doing the best they can. Cut them some slack.
- Follow the rules, even if you’re vaccinated.
If you’re fully vaccinated, that’s great, but that doesn’t make you exempt from rules. Don’t use your vaccination status as a reason to break the rules. Don’t give restaurant workers a hard time about why you feel you shouldn’t be subject to the same rules as unvaccinated guests. Do let your server know you’re fully vaccinated if you feel comfortable. Restaurants and guests alike should not let their guard down simply to maintain a sense of security and comfort for guests. Basically, err on the side of caution and behave as if no one is vaccinated, for yourself, but also for those serving you. If you’re not vaccinated, consider staying home until you are.
- Keep your group small for now.
Avoid going out with big parties. We know it’s tempting to celebrate grandma’s birthday or the fact that you can even go out at all. But don’t make the restaurant feel guilty by pleading your case via email for your 12-top because you are all vaccinated. And if you do end up breaking this rule, follow the rest of these rules for sure.
- Keep complaints to a minimum.
Think again before assuming the worst and complaining about ‘unfriendly’ or ‘distant’ service. Servers are less chatty because they are doing the work of three people while making one-third of the money. They are doing the best they can to be hospitable while socially distancing. Remember, they’ve been doing this for a year while you were holed up in your house binging Bridgerton. They are past burnt out. This is the new normal and we all have to adjust.
- Respect the shift in peak dining times.
Do not expect to eat at 6:30 p.m. without a reservation, and even then, be prepared to be seated when the restaurant is ready for your party. Perception is not reality and even if you see empty tables, you may have to wait for service. With fewer tables and servers than ever, the prime dinner hour is in more demand than the “before times”. Cut yourself, the restaurant and the staff a break and consider eating dinner at 7:30. Or — gasp! — live on the wild side and make a reservation after 8 p.m. like a night owl!