By Mark Moeller | News of comedian and TV host James Corden being banned from the famed French restaurant Balthazar for berating servers generated plenty of publicity. Corden later apologized for his outburst, and said it was prompted by his nervousness over his wife’s food allergy having been mishandled. For those in the restaurant industry, the story raises important questions about how to best communicate guests’ needs to the kitchen and how to respond when guests lash out — in order to both diffuse the situation and ensure that other guests are able to enjoy a drama-free meal.
First, restaurants need to recognize that the more general goodwill that they enjoyed from guests during the pandemic has largely disappeared. While the pandemic has created ongoing staffing issues for restaurants, OpenTable finds that dining out has returned to nearly the same levels as 2019. And those guests are now eating out expecting the same service they grew accustomed to before masks and plastic table dividers intruded on their good time.
So how to bridge the divide? Here are a few tried and true best practices to help manage guests’ expectations, maintain a positive experience for servers, and diffuse any unexpected situations.
Admit when you are short staffed. Rather than place a sign out front apologizing for the staffing challenges (which may discourage people from coming in to eat), encourage your host to welcome guests as they walk in and mention that you are short staffed. Let them know that you are standing by and to let you know if they need anything.
Notify the manager if a guest is disgruntled. Servers should feel empowered to notify a manager when there may be a problem. This gives the manager a chance to approach the table, ask how the guest is doing, talk positively about the server, and offer to help resolve any issues. Often, an additional table touch or two where a guest feels acknowledged will diffuse the situation.
Be cognizant of kids’ needs. Children can create a commotion in restaurants —particularly when they are any combination of restless, tired, and hungry. Their outbursts can disrupt the experience for other guests. To start, every restaurant should have dedicated items for children like crayons, coloring books, and stickers. Also, servers should bring bread or finger foods to the table as soon as families are seated. And ask parents if they would like the children’s food to come out first, with appetizers, or with the adult meals. Going the extra mile for a child dining out leaves a big impression on both kids and parents.
Stay cool and offer a redo. Sometimes due to extenuating circumstances, a guest’s experience, or meal, leaves something to be desired. Rather than offering to cover the cost of the meal, knowing they are unlikely to return, consider giving them complimentary entree vouchers instead. This gives your team another chance to win them over — many guests will take advantage of a free meal and you have a chance to redeem yourself.
Take extra precautions when it comes to food allergies. Guests who are navigating serious food allergies — whether their own or a loved one’s — need to be fully understood and have their needs clearly communicated to the kitchen. This starts with training servers to get a guest’s allergy information completely — whether it is a preference, a mild allergy, or a severe life-threatening allergy. If the allergy is severe, staff need to ensure that there is no cross contamination. I always advise them to wear gloves when handling the plate of an allergic guest, both for safety and to communicate seriousness to the guest.
Be sure to get a final assessment. Transparency and communication are not just for the beginning of a restaurant experience, but also at the end. Staff should ask guests how they enjoyed their meal. If they get a lukewarm response, they should inquire further, discover what didn’t work and communicate that to the chef. To the guest, they might offer a small dessert or other item. In this way the guest feels acknowledged, they appreciate the extra effort, and they are left with a positive experience that will affect how they view the restaurant long after they have left.
Remember, you can’t please everyone. Even with the best effort, some guests will never be happy. On those instances, I like to say that a server has to be like a baseball closer — forget it and focus on the next one.
If the behavior persists, draw the line. When a guest is truly unreasonable or abusive to the restaurant team, you may need to ask them to leave. Covering the cost of the meal will help facilitate a quick exit.