The Customer Isn't Always Right
Chef Elise Kornack has a recipe for improving interactions between diners and restaurant employees, and it all starts with one thing: common decency.
Editor’s note: In November, we launched Communal Table, a forum for amplifying first-person voices in the food industry. Our goal is to work long term with leaders to create more humane and sustainable workplaces. We encourage restaurant and bar workers and owners to write in and share their experiences here: email@example.com. Have ideas about how to make the industry a safer, better, more sustainable place to work? Please share them, too. We’ll edit and post some entries to foodandwine.com.
Elise Kornack is most notably known as the (former) chef and co-owner of Brooklyn’s Take Root, the critically acclaimed 12-seat tasting-menu restaurant she ran along with her wife, Anna Hieronimus. Take Root received a coveted Michelin star from 2015 to 2017 and Kornack has been a semi finalist for the "James Beard Rising Star Chef" award for the last three years running, named a “Rising Star Chef” from Star Chefs 2016, one of the “50 Most Influential People” in the Brooklyn food scene by Brooklyn Magazine and New York Magazine's lead restaurant critic Adam Platt named her one of five "Best New Chefs NYC 2015" in the annual Where to Eat issue.
For years my wife, Anna, and I were a two-person team running a Michelin-starred restaurant called Take Root. I had the rare and only now do I realize, valuable experience to have worked every position in a restaurant solo. The choice to run our restaurant this way was ours alone and I am so grateful we did, because I have a deep understanding of customer service and the work that needs to be done to make customer-employee relations better.
The highs and lows we experienced while owning and operating Take Root are largely due to these customer interactions. There are too many to mention, but a few stand out significantly, and in the wake of restaurant harassment stories, Anna and I have recalled many unsettling events that occurred while working at Take Root. None of these were perpetrated by a power hungry male owner, or a inappropriately behaving chef; the offenders were all customers and the victims were only ever my wife or myself.
In the conversation of creating a healthier more civilized restaurant environment, why are we not putting more responsibility on the consumer? Why are we not asking ourselves how we can protect our staff from utter abuse and mistreatment, while honoring our goal to be hospitable? While there won't ever be one swift strike to eliminate behavioral patterns that are decades old, we can begin by sharing our stories, hold the diners accountable when necessary, and propose a new language to correct the antiquated saying that “the customers are always right.”
Last winter, Anna and I reached out to our diners to express our discomfort with the presidential election and made sure that they knew where we stood politically and socially and to reiterate what kind of environment we looked to foster at Take Root. We gave them the option to cancel their reservation or stand with us in solidarity more than once during the time we owned our restaurant. The story of our relationship, my sexual orientation and our beliefs were a common thread in almost all media coverage of Take Root, yet there were many occasions in which diners seemed to come unknowing of our marriage, that we are both women and that we are queer. For most of them, none of this was a problem, for others this was challenging, making us acutely aware of how often the fact of who we are would become a pretext for harassment.
One night, three years into running Take Root, a diner who had become a regular came in with a friend. He was a big fan of Anna's and mine and had no qualms at all with who we were, and perhaps it even amplified his admiration. He had dined with us five times, which by Take Root standards is a lot, considering the difficulty to secure the reservation and the price point of the meal. His loyalty to our tiny place was not lost on us and like other restaurant owners, we treated him to a more congenial hello as he came through the door and an extra pour of wine on occasion to express our gratitude for his patronage. With each visit he seemed more enthralled by our operation, felt connected to our success and possibly even partially responsible for it considering his level of support.
But his energy always felt oddly domineering. He would shout “Anna!” from across the room demanding her attention with questions regarding the wine list and would monopolize the dining room with his needy behavior. He put his hands on my arms when I stood by their table and often looked at me in a way that made my body itch. The last course had been served and some guests had already left. The coatroom was down a skinny hallway with a window into the kitchen, making it easy for me to see who had left and who was still lingering. By this time in the evening I was exhausted from talking to diners and holed up behind the range, cleaning the kitchen, as to avoid any further banter with wine-logged diners. I stepped out for one second to speak with Anna who was standing at the end of the hallway running someone’s credit card. My back was facing the dining room, when he came up behind me and motioned as if to hug me, with his hands on my chest. I forcefully removed his hand from around my arms and pushed him out of the way. My back against the wall, my heart was racing out of my chest, I always wondered if he was going to take his behavior too far, and he had.
Anna came rushing over, it had happened so fast, I looked up with tears in my eyes, “He is no longer welcome here," I said and continued to clean the kitchen floor.
The following morning Anna and I discussed the incident and were truly unable to find a suitable way to prevent this from happening again. It was the first time we verbalized our frustration on the many degrees in which servers, largely female, are exploited for their sexuality, poked fun at because of their weight or physical representation, snapped at, laughed at or groped.
I recently reached out to a friend of mine, Zahra Tangorra, the former chef and owner of Brucie in Cobble Hill, when I told her what I was writing. She reminded me of one particular instance, on a busy night of service when a very pleased diner asked the male server if he could meet the chef. As Zahra recounts, she was working the line that evening and was so busy she had yet to take a bathroom break since the start of service. At the first sign of a rare lull in orders, she stepped out to the dining room to greet the table of men who requested to meet her. It became clear they hadn’t expected a woman.
After introducing herself kindly and thanking them for enjoying the food so much they laughed in her face, “Yeah right, you’re not the chef, tell the real chef we want to talk to him!” Feeling humiliated and offended, Zahra politely asked them to leave, to which they responded, “You are a bitch with an attitude problem.”
Neither Zahra nor I had anyone to answer to at our establishments, no boss or management to inhibit us from banning the offender from the restaurant or defending ourselves. Still, rather than feeling empowered, I personally felt immobilized and afraid of retaliation or lack of support. I feared being looked at as a whiny victim or my business and myself subject to internet slander. The diners of ours who were respectful and the regulars who we grew fond of, were often shocked if they got word of such treatment; “Even in Brooklyn?!” was the most common of reactions. Yes, even in Brooklyn.
About a year before closing Take Root, I was standing at the threshold of our front door speaking with my landlord. A woman who was waiting for the storefront next door to open was loitering nearby. My landlord and I were discussing the flood in the basement at a whisper as to keep our conversation quiet. The woman looked through the front window, peering to see the inside of the dining room, reading the posted menu; she was in earshot of our conversation. I asked her politely if she would mind waiting in front of the store next door, instead of Take Root, as we were handling business regarding the building that was both private and required uninterrupted access to the steps and trap door. As she was a potential customer, I made sure I was well-mannered yet direct as to avoid a further back-and-forth. She scoffed, continued to stand there despite my request and laughed in my face, her eyes scanned my body, a feeling I am familiar with, being a masculine-presenting woman and just as I felt myself preparing to speak up, her friend arrived to meet her. They shared a hello, and with in seconds I could hear her inaccurately inform her friend of our “unpleasant exchange.”
My throat tightened because I knew she felt uneasy with me looking the way I did. I closed the front door, and the curtain as if to shut out the uncomfortable interaction and picked up the phone to call Anna. I told her how demeaned I felt by the woman’s tone and gaze, holding back tears I went back to work. I had set up Take Root’s Yelp account with my email and would receive notification when a new review was posted. Twenty minutes after my call with Anna I saw a new review had been displayed. The five sentence post, which has since been removed as a violation of Yelp guidelines, was an erroneous account of our exchange and included some choice words that inappropriately questioned my gender, including but not limited to, “perhaps it was a woman??...I told her (I think it was a her) you may have decent food but I will not eat anything from someone that looks like you…ever!”
She had access to an easy way to publicly humiliate me, slander my identity, question my sexuality and belittle my utter existence, simply because as a potential customer, she felt she had the right and perhaps duty to do so. My sexual orientation was completely irrelevant in sharing her account. As a business owner, I am certainly aware, diners have the ability to share their thoughts on my restaurant—even if they are outrageous or inaccurate—but something is very wrong if the consumer entitlement engenders blatant discrimination.
There are apt to be misunderstandings and disagreements in an industry that in essence is people serving people. On occasion, we are all capable of overreacting and becoming defensive when our feelings are hurt or our work is threatened. However, anyone at any level of service should be provided with the appropriate language to address an unruly or disrespectful customer without fear of retribution or retaliation.
Restaurant employees work long, exhausting hours, are not paid well, and tend to be marginalized. Only recently has there been a shift to prioritize employee welfare, and with this shift we must diminish misplaced diner privilege and create a more mutually beneficial relationship—one that fosters both understanding and boundaries, thus more honest and efficient service.
I propose we begin a movement where restaurants more commonly demonstrate their intolerance of employee harassment. I fully understand there is a monetary transaction that can often make handling disparaging diners difficult. I get that holding the costumer accountable is currently taboo, but we need to move into the future with a new perspective, one with heightened emotional and physical security for ourselves and employees, no matter their race, gender, or orientation.
It is imperative that both diners and restaurant owners become more aware of the harassment endured by staff members, in fear of not being tipped well or often just to keep their job. If you are a restaurant owner reading this and reason your staff has not experienced this kind of mistreatment, I suggest you check in with them all: bartenders, bussers, servers, and receptionists. Ask them if because of their gender, race or identity they have been subject to exploitation or hurt simply because of who they are, then urge them to share their story. By including the employees in the conversation and defining what is considered harassment we will alleviate misunderstandings and move towards a more tolerant future.
If you are a diner and you yourself can recall a time where you were complicit to the harassment of a server, where perhaps you watched your boss or your friend exploit a waitress for her sexuality or staff member because of their ethnicity or orientation, vow that your passivity ends here.
It is time that we reinforce healthier and more positive diner-employee interactions. Restaurants need to step up and create a zero-tolerance position against discrimination in their establishment. Make this message clear. Put it on your website or menu to discourage those who may behave that way from doing so, and enforce consequences for unprompted abusive behavior of any kind.
While I acknowledge that each restaurant will have to establish their own code of conduct, and address each account case-by-case, my hope is that the movement will encourage restaurant owners and managers to create policies that inform diners where they stand.
At the same time, diners need not panic and retaliate if they are made aware of their transgression. Instead, perhaps leave quietly, and write to the restaurant in a private email after you have taken a moment to cool off. No need to rush to Yelp and write an anonymous rant or degrade the employee. Perhaps what I am proposing is something my wife recently coined as the Common Decency Agreement between patrons and restaurant employees, a mutual promise that we will both simply behave politely and think before we speak or write. The customer may not always be right—but that doesn't mean they don't have to act right.