"When you walk into an environment where you don't feel that warmth and hospitality, you know it, you feel it on your skin."—Alpana Singh

By Kat Kinsman
August 08, 2019
Klause Vedfelt / Getty Images

You know when you're not welcome. It's a gut feeling that you may or may not try to talk yourself out of, especially when you're spending money at a restaurant. Did the host really roll her eyes, or am I just imagining that? This server seems like he'd rather be anywhere else but here, are we keeping him from something? That table is getting fawned over and we're being ignored, are we not cool or rich enough to be here?

Quite often, the hospitality business lives up to its name, but even restaurant folks get the cold shoulder sometimes. At the recent Welcome Conference in New York City, industry pros spoke up about the ways they've been made to feel unwanted when they're dining out.

Patrick O'Connell, chef

It's often in subtle ways that others might not have been able to detect or articulate. There's a lot of unconscious communication that takes place with the public. You very often see people in the hospitality world experience a kind of burnout where they've just seen one too many guests. They become resentful, and they need to be replenished. It's quite tragic when that happens even if the guest doesn't fully grasp that they are feeling it. It really undermines your ability to enjoy anything, and the tiniest slight in a restaurant is always magnified. I tell our people that when the guest walks in, they have to think of them as six-year-old children coming down to the Christmas tree and hoping they'll get the present they wanted.

Anthony Rudolf, Welcome Conference co-founder

I feel not welcomed in a lot of places. Hospitality extends far beyond the walls of a restaurant. I think the greatest disservice to the word hospitality is that it is considered an industry. It's not. I feel not welcomed when I turn on my turn signal and the car in the lane that I need to get into speeds up to the car in front of it. That makes me feel not welcomed. That's an act of hospitality where had they just flashed their lights or waved their hand, I would have felt welcomed.

I think restaurants try really hard to welcome people. It's in the business model. The people that are working in the dining room know that at the end of it, their compensation's going to depend on whether or not they do it, so it really is about are they authentic and genuine. That's when I feel most unwelcome. I feel out of place when the 23-year-old waiter is talking like a 40-year-old British butler. What are you doing, man? We're not in my castle. I don't have a castle. But if we were, my butler wouldn't act like that. You need to be proper, or whatever the restaurant is trying to put across, but I know if we went out and threw darts after this meal, you wouldn't be talking to me like that. When people are inauthentic is when I actually feel like I don't belong and I'm not welcome.

Alpana Singh, sommelier

You walk in and you feel like you just interrupted a private story, or crashed a dinner party that you weren't invited to. It's just like, "I'm sorry, am I bothering you? Am I interrupting something?" I'm very energy-driven. As soon as I walk into a space, I let the vibration hit me. When you walk into an environment where you don't feel that warmth and hospitality, you know it, you feel it on your skin. It's almost like there's a smell to it, and it doesn't smell good.

Steve Palmer, restaurateur

Indifference is the enemy of hospitality. Sadly, in the last ten years, restaurants have gotten so cool that you have that feeling of like, I'm lucky to be here. That for me is the opposite is being taken care of. It's sort of like, if you weren't here, somebody else would be, so what does it really matter?

Rick Bayless, chef

I've felt unwelcome at restaurants a lot in my life. People are moving through, perhaps even a very orchestrated service style, but they never connected with me. At some of the very, very top restaurants I felt incredibly unwelcome and at some of the simple, little, quick service places I felt incredibly welcome, but the flip also happens in all of those places. The place that I have regularly felt the most welcome was from street vendors, all over the world.

Brian Canlis, restaurateur

I went to Alinea for the first time, and they did nothing to not make me feel welcome; my own intimidation is what made me feel not welcome. I was a young restaurateur, they had just won, I think, number one in America, and Grant was just crushing the world with his genius. That dining room is kind of intimidating, and then you have to move steel contraptions to get food into your mouth. It was the most exciting and terrifying thing, and I felt like I didn't belong. I felt like, this is out of my league, this is really intense. And I remember struggling with having a good time because I felt so—am I doing it right? Gary Obligacion, I didn't know him, but I think he sensed that. The best dining room people sense, I don't think that guy knows that he belongs here, he's not having fun.

I don't remember what Gary said or what he did, but he spent about 30 seconds at our table and it was some next level hospitality wizardry, but I did a 180. And I was like, oh, I'm allowed to have fun here, I do belong. The whole point of being here is for me to have the most incredible service and culinary experience of my life. That's when I first saw a dining room guy show the power that they have to make a guest who doesn't feel like they belong suddenly feel like they absolutely belong.

Gary Obligacion, general manager

I remember going to a relatively new restaurant with a colleague of mine. We walked into the restaurant, and we were greeted. We went to go sit in the bar, and then we were just going to sit down and have some snacks. The server came and said, "Well, we're only serving the left hand side, the appetizer portion of the menu." I said, "Great. No problem." I sat down, and that wasn't a big deal. That was totally fine. But then she went forward and said, "Because someone called in sick."

I made me feel was that I was not going to get a full experience, because of a hardship they had on their side. I was made to feel unwelcome, because they were worried about their needs more than mine. It was not because of a rule or policy. I can abide by that. It's more that they had an inconvenience, and that inconvenience was passed on to the guest. That made me feel more unwelcome than you can imagine.

Jen Pelka, bar owner

I was on a double date with my husband and two of our really close friends. We were at a restaurant, had spent hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of dollars at a steakhouse with a lot of history. We definitely shut down the place, but it became a situation where they started flipping over chairs, turning off the lights, and they literally came over and told us that we had to leave. Being told that you're no longer welcome doesn't feel that great.

Ti Martin and Lally Brennan, restaurateurs

Martin: I feel unwelcome in restaurants all the time, sadly. Unfortunately, I don't think the state of hospitality is great. I think it's bad, and we're on a bit of a mission to help with that.

Brennan: know I feel uncomfortable, I feel unwanted, rushed.

Martin: Corrected. That's a favorite of mine, when they correct you.

Brennan: That they know more than you know, whether you know anything about food or wine. Or anything.

Martin: They're doing you a favor to let you in.

Brennan: It's an awful feeling.

Martin: Yeah, and we pay for that. God dang it.

Andrew Zimmern, TV host

I can't tell you how many places do things to customers that are the least hospitable things imaginable. When I'm with my kid, sometimes we'll be in a fast casual places or we're time-poor, so I just need to feed him. He's a kid, he's going to melt down. I can hang on, adults can hang on a little bit better. You walk up to a counter somewhere, and it's literally just like, "Hey."

That's much different when, on the flip side, you go to a Shake Shack, and I just know this because I've analyzed it, and talked to Danny about it, it's" "What can we make for you?" That's a much different greeting, and much more appropriate in a fast casual. I don't need to get into a conversation. I'm there to order my burger and fries and shake. But there's an invitation and an offer there that changes the very nature of the hospitality experience. It's an emotional transaction, I'm being taken care of.

I just had this experience in a restaurant in Los Angeles. I walked in, there were three of us, we're a party of six, I had a reservation, there were empty tables. "Hi, Zimmern, party of six." There was no hello, there was no welcome, there was no anything other than a person at the front desk. This is not a unknown place, they just looked up and said, "We don't sit incomplete parties." Full stop and went on to doing her thing. I was horrified.

I wasn't going to savage this person. For all I know, they just got divorced that morning, and they showed up at work because they had to. You just don't know what bear-trap someone's in. But it's mind-boggling to me sometimes little things that are regularly done in places that turn people off when it's so easy to do something to turn people on.

Amy Mills, restaurateur

One of the worst ways of feeling unwelcome in a restaurant is when things are going so far south and nobody seems to care. There's a comedy of errors that's happening and there's never any attempt to rectify that or make things better or even laugh along with you. People hide from you instead of confronting the issue or trying to make it better and you're left feeling a little bit bewildered, like, "Did that really happen? Is this happening here?"

Brian Koppelman, showrunner

There is this sense when you walk into a restaurant and feel indifference from the people serving you, from the people cooking the food, from the people at the front desk. It's dispiriting. It doesn't hurt my feelings personally, right, because I understand, but it reminds me of the worst of our indifference to one another on the street. I understand if I'm walking down the subway stairs, that somebody walking up the subway stairs might be indifferent to my need to get to the train on time.

Even if I'm working to not be indifferent, and to focus, and notice them, and create space, I'm probably also slightly indifferent whether I want to be or not because I need to make the train. But in a restaurant, what you're there for is not only the food, it is this exchange, this recognition that you're there to change your state, and these people want to help you change your state. When I'm met with what I consider the opposite of that—indifference—it makes me a little bit sad.

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