In January 2022, I woke up to this widely circulated meme: “The Whole World is Short Staffed. Be kind to those who show up.” It was just a year and a half ago, but do you remember how bleak it was, in the heart of the pandemic, when Americans left the workforce in millions, due in no small part to truly execrable behavior on the part of their so-called guests and customers?

A Newsweek article one year ago cites a 2018 study that investigated “how customer treatment of employees can impact workers. The study noted that 98 percent of employees report experiencing incivility at work, with around 50 percent saying that these experiences happen at least once a week.” And that was in 2018!

The writer went into detail about a sign seen outside a rural Pennsylvania Dairy Queen: “Please respect our Staff. For many of them, this is their first job. They are someone’s child. Do not be rude to them. Thank you to those that are respectful and patient! P.S. It is sad that we have to post this but some people need reminded” [sic].

An interview from Slate in May 2022: “There is no doubt that we are seeing an increase in hostility and bad behavior in our industry (I’m a farmer). We’ve had customers scream at our sales team … I’ve had several occasions where people call to say they are going to sue us because the piece of fruit they bought ‘tastes awful.’”

Have things improved since 2018? Not so much.

Anthony Dagostino is the owner of the popular West Orange restaurant, Mama Dag’s Pizza & Seafood House, and a former client. He’s also a helluva nice guy whose staff had to put up with an outrageous amount of verbal abuse from guests.

Cocktails at Mama Dag’s in West Orange.

There’s the couple that showed up on a Saturday night with no reservation after COVID rules were modified. Remember when restaurants could seat only a certain number of guests at every other table? When they arrived, Anthony—super glad to see them—asked, do you have a reservation? When they answered no, he said,” I’m sorry, but I can’t seat you; seating is limited and I’m fully booked as per state law.” Furious, they screamed, “Mama Dag’s was our favorite restaurant, but we’re never coming back again!”

There was the lady last summer who placed an order to go. Upon arriving at the restaurant, despite the fact that there were folks dining al fresco on the patio right next to her, she laid on her horn for a solid three minutes. When Anthony came out to see what was going on, she said, “Where’s my order?”

His response: “If you didn’t want to come in, why didn’t you pick up your phone and call to say, I’m out front; can you bring my order?” He handed her the food and said, “Enjoy. I’m not charging you, but you’re not welcome here again.”

Then there’s the time Anthony walked into the kitchen to find his lovely teenage server crying. When he went to comfort her and find out what happened, she said that a woman at one of her tables called her that word that rhymes with witch. Multiple times.

Another restaurateur who chose to remain anonymous told me a story that still has me gobsmacked. She’s an acclaimed pastry chef who was helping out her business partners by taking orders and serving at a busy Sunday brunch a couple months ago. People were complaining left and right when she appeared at one table, ready to take an order. She took the order and explained it might take a little while due to how overwhelmed the kitchen was.

[Sidebar: she happens to have a stunning engagement and wedding ring set.]

One of the women at the table said, may I ask you a question? She said, of course. The guest said, “If you have a husband who can afford to buy you such a huge engagement ring, how come you’re a waitress?” The pastry chef said, “My husband is executive chef here and I’m an owner of this restaurant. We’ve mortgaged everything we have to stay in business, but not this ring.” Then she ran into the kitchen and burst into tears.

Kyle Gouvin is a former assistant supermarket store manager . Notice that I wrote “former?” After 20 years in F+B, he now works in the insurance industry.

You think it’s bad in the restaurant biz? He had some godawful stories to share about customer behavior in supermarkets.

“Retail has always been a tough business [because] employees are told ‘the customer is always right,’” he emailed me. “Even though the fact is, often they are not, and sometimes they are even abusive. I definitely saw an increase in nastiness during Covid, which put a strain on my employees and me. We were expected to maintain the same standard of customer service, despite the fact that we were all going through the same angst and unknowns and putting ourselves ‘out there’ every day.”

I asked Kyle if he was willing to share a nightmare tale. “During Covid,” he told me, “I expected people to be much more cautious about germ spreading. I had hoped it would slow down the ‘Cherry Spitters,’ as I call them. These are the folks who open the bags of cherries, hand pick the ones they want, sample the cherries, then spit the pit back into the display or onto the floor.”

Spitting cherry pits on the floor of the market? Worse yet, back into the bin?

He continued, “Unfortunately, this activity did not slow down. I also witnessed people fighting over product, since product was short and in demand.”

And yes, I did a quick, unauthorized, totally unscientific survey of folks in the industry today and was told, nope, many customers are still rude as hell.

Kyle’s message to us eaters and shoppers? “If you can’t be kind and cooperate, just get out of the store. People are working hard and the universe doesn’t revolve around you. Grow up.”

And by the way, if you’ve ever met me, you’d know I have a tattoo on my left wrist that I look at maybe 20 times a day. In cursive it says, “Just be kind.”

I guess we all need a reminder once in a while.

It’s safe to say that Karen Schloss Diaz lives to eat and not the other way ’round. For 20+ years, her MarComm firm, diaz * schloss communications, has been serving up PR, community engagement, advertising strategy and social media for food & beverage brands. Her newspaper column, “Choice Cuts,” ran in The Montclair Times (USA Today/Gannett) for 11 years.

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