Understaffed & Under Pressure

     She said that it would be a 50 minute wait. Five-zero. After 15 minutes he walked back up, arms crossed, and said, “where’s my damn table?” She calmly explained the miscommunication and apologized for the confusion. With every word she said, his face got redder and the smoke started pouring out of his ears as he yelled: “‘You’re an incompetent child! You do not get to call me a liar! I will never be coming to this establishment again!’”

     This interaction happened to Kim Gowell (‘22) at Olive Garden, where she works as a hostess and to-go specialist. Unfortunately, Gowell is not alone. Many staff members in the restaurant industry have faced the same anger and hostility from customers. Most restaurants are understaffed and back to full-capacity after having limited seating throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, including many in the Oyster River community. They don’t have the staff needed to effortlessly operate and many customers have no patience. With even the most minor inconvenience, a customer will often choose to take out their anger on the person serving them without realizing the consequences it may have.

     Over the summer, many local restaurants relied on high school and college students. With the start of the school year, many students had sports or other activities meaning they could not work the same number of shifts they had been. This left restaurants very short-staffed and struggling. This lack of staff means that everything takes longer and customers need to be more patient, which has become an issue.

     Steve Newick, owner of Newick’s Lobster House in Dover, said that “most of the customers are still fantastic, but what’s happened is there’s just more that are outright rude than there has been in the past and they’re more hostile. We’ve had people yelling and swearing at us, we’ve had someone throw food, just really unacceptable behavior.”

     The man who yelled at Gowell chose to react aggressively to something that she had no control over. That put her in an uncomfortable position. After the interaction took place, Gowell said, “I literally went back to our little break room and just cried for a minute.” 

     Kim Clark owns Clark’s American Bistro and Ciao Trattoria in downtown Durham. At her restaurant there haven’t been incidents as severe as Gowell’s, but there have been rude customers. Clark said that what she has experienced is “just passive aggressive. I had a customer say to me that I needed to do a better job training my staff.” When people act this way Clark wants people to think, “‘what would it be like in your own kitchen, if you were trying to cook seven different things, custom-made?’” 

     Some customers may choose not to have an outburst in a restaurant and instead write a review. Clark talked about how they have experienced negative reviews on online platforms like Yelp. She said, “[customers] will go off and write a review, rather than letting us have a moment to address [their concerns].”

     The COVID-19 pandemic has been hard for everyone. With the rise of online ordering, most people expect their food to be ready the second that they arrive, even if they are dining in. Clark said, “I think that people who go out to eat should look at it as an experience, and if you’re in a hurry, go to McDonalds. If you want to sit down and be waited on and have an experience, you’ve got to give the people working there the opportunity to give you the experience.”

     Ariana Jackson (‘23) works at Ciao Trattoria where she is a hostess and makes pizzas. She said, “if I don’t have a pizza ready at the exact time [the customer] comes in, they are pretty passive aggressive and are asking ‘why is it not done yet?’ Then I have to explain that I’m making pizzas for other people too and there’s only two ovens.”

     Gowell said, “I just dont think it’s necessary to be mean for no reason. I understand that you’re frustrated but that’s not our fault. People getting mad at you for it feels [terrible] because then you feel responsible, when you’re not.”

     Both Clark’s American Bistro and Newick’s have taken matters into their own hands by putting up signs requesting that customers remember to be patient and kind. Newick said, “the treatment by the guests has improved since we put up signs and [started to escort] people out if they cause a scene.” 

     Part of the statement Newick’s sign said was “‘if you feel the need to rant and rave, like a spoiled child, please ask for me, Steve Newick (I’m here most of the hours we’re open). Newick’s crew members do not deserve the abuse. I will listen politely. Then, I will ask you not so politely to leave and never come back. It may not be the best thing for business, but we have taken too much abuse over the last year and a half and I will not subject our crew members to more.” Although Newick originally thought releasing the statement could be bad for business, he said the statement went viral and actually caused a sharp increase in customers as well as a better work environment for staff.

     For many restaurants, staff have been stepping up to help each other out. At Clark’s American Bistro, Clark noted a time when she saw this: “I walked in [to the restaurant] and there was Jess, our food and beverage manager, making pancakes. It’s kind of [the] roll up your sleeves and ‘what do we all need to do to get this done’ [attitudes] that have been positive.” She also said that at both of her restaurants, “we have really good managers, and we as owners try to be there during busy times too. [Our staff] see us going to speak to a customer and it helps reiterate the fact that we’re going to have their back.”

     The COVID-19 pandemic has hit the restaurant world hard. Restaurants, like those in the Oyster River community, have been surviving and trying to make the best out of a bad situation. Looking to the future, Jackson said, “I just hope that [customers] will become more understanding. We’re all human beings and everybody makes mistakes once in a while. It’s just not fair [to harass] someone who is working for you.”

Artwork by Mary Jeong