Rude Awakenings – As Good Manners Go by the Wayside, Operators Seek to Maintain Civility

Author: Margaret Sheridan

R&I Senior Editor

Reprinted from Restaurants & Institutions Magazine

Felino Samson learned years ago what he didn’t want as a restaurateur and an employer. The chef-owner of Bomboa in Boston recalls a harrowing experience as a guest at a fine-dining restaurant in Boston.

“A ruckus broke out in the kitchen. No one [in the dining room] could ignore the noise. The chef was yelling obscenities, berating his staff and throwing things. Guests froze in their seats,” he recalls. “It was embarrassing and terrible. I vowed never to be like that guy. Behavior, good and bad, has a wave effect.”

Put any two humans in a restaurant setting, one as paid help and the other as paying guest, and fireworks can fly from many directions. Despite the best intentions, not all exchanges have a ring of respect or gracious hospitality. The expectation that “please” and “thank you” will bookend every conversation doesn’t always play out. Often, civility is replaced by short-tempered responses, rude comments and shouting matches. In short, bad manners have taken up residence in the restaurant world.

Not all the onus falls on employees. Increasingly, customers contribute their share of ill temper. Unchecked on either side, workers or patrons, rudeness can grow from ripple to tidal wave, swamping staff and guests and jeopardizing careers and profits.

Rude behavior in restaurants manifests itself in many ways, from the couple who loudly demands a four-top instead of the smaller table reserved for them to the drive-thru worker who extracts a measure of revenge by “accidentally” dropping the change onto the pavement. And when over-served revelers at a corner table refuse to lower the volume, the noise can disrupt the entire house.

While customers and staff share blame for rudeness, it is up to operators to take the upper hand in stipulating desired behavior. “You teach customers by establishing the behavior, then teaching the staff to uphold it,” insists Peter Gurney, managing director of Kinesis, a Seattle-based customer-service consultant.

Confusing Times

What happened to courtesy and good manners? Gurney says that baby boomers tossed them out in the 1960s, during a period when many traditional values were questioned. “Manners are in flux and no one plays by one set of rules any longer,” he says.

Etiquette authority Charlotte Ford points to the impact of technology on lifestyle in “21st Century Etiquette” (The Lyons Press, 2001). For many, efficient but impersonal e-mail has replaced the more intimate habits of writing notes or placing phone calls. Internet chat rooms liberate users from accountability for their actions. And, Ford contends, the increasing lack of individual responsibility encourages rudeness. Slowly, this anything-goes attitude has found its way into foodservice.

Further muddying the mix is the dissolution of formality. Whether it is casual Fridays in the workplace or lack of dress codes at most restaurants, people are puzzled about what’s right, according to P.M. Forni, a literature professor at Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins University and author of “Choosing Civility” (St. Martin’s Press, 2002).

“People need boundaries,” Forni insists. “Misplaced informality or excessive informality can easily turn into rudeness.” His examples include the waiter who calls a female guest “hon,” or a server who comments on how well a customer cleaned his plate. “Not everyone wants to hear that. It is up to the to management to set rules,” he adds.

Concept Talks

Decor, ambience and price help give visual cues as to how people behave in a given restaurant. Just as tuxedoed waiters, elegant table settings and chandeliers set a tone of polished civility at Le Bec-Fin in Philadelphia, the blaring music and devil-may-care attitude at Dick’s Last Resort, a Dallas-based chain of eight units, encourages an entirely different set of behaviors, both from guests and employees. Dick’s hires people with colorful and outgoing personalities, and customers expect outrageous behavior. “But sometimes a waiter will cross the line,” says Brenda Couch, director of marketing. “We’re all for shock value at Dick’s, but not rudeness where people are insulted and feelings get hurt.” When a server’s language or behavior goes over the line, the manager addresses it immediately, she adds.

Gurney insists that operators clearly know what their concept is about then teach the concept and its boundaries to staff. “If management doesn’t know what its brand stands for, who will?”

Mind Games

Customers dine out with different expectations, Forni says. He groups diners into different categories. Some treat dining out like a mini-vacation and suspend their everyday manners. Since they are paying, these consumers feel entitled to act any way they wish and to make demands, some unreasonable, on the help. Another type of diner considers restaurants as a shelter where loud noises and crying babies do not belong, Forni says. Since both guests inhabit the same dining venue, it is an operator’s responsibility to be assertive and define acceptable behavior to employees and customers.

“It is not up to the guest to chastise the loud slobs at the next table. But it is the customer’s responsibility to tell the manager.” Of course, reminds Forni, “The customer is always right, when he is polite.”

Pino Luongo agrees. But the New York City restaurateur insists that the owner, manager or captain must take the initiative to be role model and enforcer. “Rudeness needs to be checked immediately,” he says.

“If I see a customer belittling an employee, I intervene. I introduce myself, then the waiter. I explain, always with a smile on my face, that the waiter is a professional who deserves to be treated as such. In order words, “Cut the crap,” he explains. “Sometimes customers, especially affluent ones, mistake privilege for ownership.”

Stand Up For Principles

When Kelly Courtney and partners created Mod, a 65-seat restaurant in Chicago, they wanted a neighborhood-friendly place with inspired food and professional service. The partners trained the staff to go all out to make guests happy. “And 99% of the time, we succeed,” says Courtney, executive chef. The partners also agreed that bad behavior and complaints are to be handled by the partner working the floor.

The game plan was put into play recently when a customer refused to pay for her entree. A whole fish was ordered and devoured, except for bones. “She complained about the bones,” says Courtney. The partner and server listened, questioned, then reviewed the server’s performance, including revisits to the table, and the menu’s description of the dish. The guest backed down and paid.

“You’ve got to stay calm, but it still is upsetting,” adds Courtney. “The customer is not always right. In this case, we stood up for our principles. Otherwise, some people take advantage.”

Frustrated or disgruntled employees can sour a service counter or dining room, turning guests into unwitting pawns as their discontent plays out in unexpected ways. The founders of Ruby’s Diner keep in touch with employees of the 38 units with daylong meetings a few times a year. “Managers are not allowed at the meetings, so staff really let’s us know about their problems,” says Tammy Collas, director of training for Ruby Restaurant Group, Newport Beach, Calif. At a recent meeting, management learned that a cumbersome, hard-to-use soft-serve machine raised the ire of those who used it. All too often, their stress turned into rude behavior directed at guests. The machine was replaced to the employees’ delight.

“Employees who are listened to and respected, feel important and valued,” she adds. “They’re much less likely to act rude if they feel they are a real part of the operation.”

A steady corps of regular customers at Gibsons, a steakhouse in Chicago, means that the staff must find the right balance of propriety and familiarity. Servers know many guests, regulars from the upscale neighborhood, by names, favorite tables, quirks and cocktails. Amid the bustle of a busy, relaxed room, the serving style remains professional, with a deferential approach that makes guests feel treasured and taken care of.

In such an environment, expectations are high; even a server’s bad mood can be interpreted as rudeness. “The waiter’s manner is picked up by guests,” explains David Place, manager. “If I see a waiter or other staffer is having a rough day and is letting a bad mood impact service, I tell him to take the rest of the day off,” Place says.

The restaurant culture and its diverse labor opportunities draw employees from different cultures, backgrounds and experience. To bring them together as a team and promote good behavior, Forni suggests that management engage employees in dialog about personal and professional behavior. Then, good conduct should be recognized and reinforced.

“Make praise heartfelt for fine behavior. It comes through tone of voice, saying thank you, holding doors open. Praise a good decision; praise someone for diffusing a bad situation. Dole out criticism in private. If the staff can benefit, address a problem in a general way, but never single out one person. That’s rude.”

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About Eric Larse

Eric Larse is co-founder of Seattle-based Kinesis CEM, LLC, which helps clients plan and execute their customer experience strategies through the intelligent use of customer satisfaction surveys and mystery shopping, linked with training and incentive programs. Visit Kinesis at:

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