Be Nice or Leave: Why diners should show understanding as restaurants face staffing issues

click to enlarge “Guest behavior is absolutely affecting [staff’s] quality of life,” Alejandro Cabello, manager of San Antonio brewpub Back Unturned Brewing, told the Current. - Nina Rangel
Nina Rangel
“Guest behavior is absolutely affecting [staff’s] quality of life,” Alejandro Cabello, manager of San Antonio brewpub Back Unturned Brewing, told the Current.

“When did going to brunch become so difficult?” my usual weekend dining companion and I asked each other on the morning of Sunday, Jan. 2.

After trying to make reservations at nearly a dozen San Antonio restaurants, we felt defeated — and hangry. All our favorite brunch spots were closed for the weekend, citing staffing issues or the ongoing pandemic.

We finally settled on walking into a Southtown eatery around noon. The online reservation system had been inexplicably suspended, but we had it on good authority from a kitchen staffer that the reservation books were sparse with scheduled diners.

When we arrived, we were given a laundry list of requirements we had to meet for dining in, delivered by a hostess with a practiced and dry, take-it-or-leave-it tone.

And that’s when it happened. My inner Karen emerged. I asked the hostess, in a snippy, unfamiliar tone, “Was any of this posted anywhere online?” I’m not proud of it, and every time I relay the experience to someone else, the internal shame I have for not practicing empathy in that moment grows just a bit more.

But there was an upside. Curiosity blossomed out of that shame.

My work life includes 20 years in the restaurant business, and I have a deep-seated love for my hospitality family. If I had allowed the fatigue of these stressful, uncertain times to drive me to that point, how bad has it gotten for other diners? And, more importantly, what has that emotional escalation meant for San Antonio hospitality workers?

As it turns out, it’s miserable right now for staff at local restaurants and bars.

Restaurant owners have experienced unprecedented turnover and loss — both financially and to their labor reserves. Beyond that, servers, bartenders and other staff have felt the strain on their emotional health as customers lose their patience in dealing with less-than-ideal dining experiences.

“We closed for a few days [between Dec. 27 and Jan. 2] out of an effort to protect the health, longevity and wellbeing of our staff, guests and the business itself. Obviously, this wasn’t our first choice, but it was the right choice for the long haul,” James Moore, executive chef of North San Antonio brunch spot Full Belly said. “When we reopened on [Jan. 3], there were a substantial number of voicemails addressing the closure, but two stood out. They were just angry, riddled with expletives.”

“[You are] stupid cunts that can suck a bag of dicks for being closed,” one voicemail scolded.

The other caller accused the restaurant staff of being “morons” and “idiots” before signing off with “Fuck you.”

Moore said it feels strangely fulfilling that people are that desperate to patronize his business. However, he’s not going to apologize to anyone for closing so he can ensure the safety of his staff and avoid a potentially disastrous service experience because he’s shorthanded.

“The irony is that the people that left those messages undoubtedly tried to find somewhere else to get brunch,” he said. “And knowing what I know about the current state of the industry, most other restaurants have also had to close, whether it be for a few days or weeks. … We’re all in the same boat.”

click to enlarge A sign in the window of Blanco Cafe reads, "Please be kind to our waitstaff. We've been short-handed since COVID19 started. Thank you for your patience." - Sanford Nowlin
Sanford Nowlin
A sign in the window of Blanco Cafe reads, "Please be kind to our waitstaff. We've been short-handed since COVID19 started. Thank you for your patience."
170,000 unfilled jobs

Moore, who also serves as president of the San Antonio Restaurant Association, estimates that 95% of the local operators he knows have endured unprecedented financial and labor-related blows over the past 16 months.

That number lines up with statewide data.

During a November forum, Texas Restaurant Association President and CEO Emily Williams Knight said the state’s foodservice industry had some 170,000 open jobs and that 91% of operators reported that they don’t have enough staff to open at full capacity.

Industry insiders say those numbers don’t provide the full picture of today’s crisis. The latest COVID-19 surge forced many Texas bars and restaurants to shut down over the typically busy Christmas and New Year’s holidays.

“We closed for the entire week right before New Year’s Day, because four members of our already small staff had COVID,” Full Belly shift lead Krystal Douglas said on a phone call. She was quarantined at the time and recovering from COVID herself. “And, of course, not making that money was tough, but a lot of us honestly really needed the break, because there’s just so much ugliness out in the world right now.”

Douglas added that the treatment she and staffers received from guests over the past eight months is the worst she’s seen during her 20-year career.

As a recent example, she cited a party of two who arrived a half hour late for their reservation with four extra guests in tow. When the host told the party they couldn’t be seated immediately due to the additional guests and would need to wait for 30 minutes, the woman who made the reservation accused the employee of being racist and called the police.

The situation only escalated after a server tried to calm the woman, but law enforcement never showed up.

“People get pissed off because we run out of pastries, they call the restaurant angry because online reservations are booked. It’s like they’re just angry at the state of the world and we’re easy targets,” Douglas said. “We’re as nice as we can possibly be, and we still get this person’s wrath because their coffee wasn’t hot enough.”

Quality of life

Let’s rewind to my own brunch visit. After I was seated, the bartenders began audibly squabbling with each other. My former restaurant worker self was appalled.

“Surely they know we can see and hear them?” I thought to myself, while they complained about each other in clear view of a bar top full of people. That’s the kind of behavior that usually draws a reprimand from managers.

Then sympathy set in. I felt for the mid-level managers who normally get stuck dealing with these kinds of situations — they’re the folks who end up drawing some of the most unenviable duties when the shit hits the fan.

“Guest behavior is absolutely affecting [staff’s] quality of life,” said Alejandro Cabello, manager of San Antonio brewpub Back Unturned Brewing. “The luxury of flexible schedules and time off that was once a benefit in the service industry is now almost nonexistent. They need to work in order to pay bills, but there is so much added pressure with the customers’ desire to go back to normal. It’s unsustainable.”

Cabello typically manages a staff of 10. Under normal circumstances, the small and tightly knit group provides exemplary service to customers, he said. But these days, Cabello — like the folks from Full Belly — feels like he’s struggling keep customers happy while juggling pandemic safety protocols and keep things running while shorthanded.

Thousands of restaurant workers have left the industry for higher wages or more desirable working conditions since the beginning of the pandemic. The reality of the labor shortage is that longer wait times, limited menu options and fluctuating hours will be with us for a while.

Inconvenient? Yes. An excuse to lose your shit like I nearly did? Absolutely not.

“We do our best to accommodate people on a daily basis… but we’re not perfect,” Full Belly chef Moore said of the obscenity-laced voicemails he received. “Twenty years ago, I’d have have called that person out, invited them to say that nonsense to my 6-foot-2, 275-pound, short-fused self, but now, I just laugh. I’m not going to apologize to diners who want to throw expletives at me for deciding to preserve my business and protect the staff I do have. It’s a no-brainer.”

So many restaurants, so little time. Find out the latest San Antonio dining news with our Flavor Friday Newsletter.

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