Everybody in the service and hospitality industry knows that the adage “The customer is always right” is absolutely wrong. Even for those who are not in the industry, we all have had enough experience with humanity to know that there are more than a handful of duds in the bunch. Customers can be great, but they can also be entitled, sexist, predatory, condescending and/or racist.
I worked in food and beverage for nearly a decade and a half, and a lot of my business still puts me in close proximity to that industry. Between that and so many of my friends working in, managing and owning restaurants, I run into a great deal of restaurant stories. I was particularly fond of this one, in which an owner of a Portland restaurant (who asked to remain unidentified) confronted a customer who was decidedly wrong.
The incident began with note the customer in question left behind on a receipt (I have a photo of of the note, though the receipt would give the restaurant, and the identity of its owner, away).
The note read:
All white clientele in a predominantly white city and state and you only play Motown music! You should add a little more to the mix.
I will let the restauranteur, who I should note is white for the sake of the story, take it from here:
I have talked a number of friends and have heard a great deal of experiences from people who have had uncomfortable dining experiences because they felt as if they were being scrutinized because of their race.
I called him the next day and left a nice message where I explained who I was and how to get hold of me. It was really driving me crazy and I wanted to let him know what happened from my point of view… So I called again the next day and finally got in touch with. I told him who I was and that I wanted to… He cuts in and says, “Yeah, yeah. The experience was great. We had a great time. The food was great.” But I was like, “Yeah, but I wanted to talk with you about the note that you left for the server. My partners, my staff and I found it quite disturbing and racist.”
He was taken aback. “Well, it’s not racist.” I told him, “I wanted to be clear that we don’t condone this, it upset us, and it is racist.”
He asked, “Well how is it racist?” So I said, “Sir, when you point out that we’re in a restaurant with all white clientele in a white neighborhood in a white state and then disparagingly point out that the music is predominantly black, that’s racist.” He said, “Well, I like black people.”
I told him, “I am curious, what kind of music are you looking for?” Unrelated to that, he said, “I like jazz and there is black people in jazz. I like blues.”
I reiterated his message about the white clientele in a white neighborhood and that we found that disturbing. He repeated, “I am sorry to have upset anyone, but it’s not racist. I am sorry you took it that way.” I told him that yes, it is, that I am not going to convince him of otherwise, and that this is where we stand. Told him that at that point, I am wasn’t sure what is more unfortunate… That he left this note, or that he doesn’t understand what you did.
I told him that we will always be playing Motown, and that he is no longer welcome at our restaurant. Such a calmness that came over me.
I didn’t realize what a moment it was until I told the staff about it and one of them who is gay and has dealt with discrimination all throughout his life said, “You’re my goddamn hero.” That meant a lot to me coming from him.
IMAGE CREDIT: Library of Congress