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Food & Drink

Restaurant Customers Have to Get Comfortable Hearing ‘No’

Chef David Fhima reminds Minneapolis that whether you're serving a table or sitting down at one, 'we are coming into a restaurant as equals.'

a server in an empty restaurant puts a place setting down on the table
Alternate headline: Stop Being a Jerk to Your Server
Louis Hansel

Maybe, over the last few months, you’ve stepped up to a restaurant’s host station to inquire about their empty tables only to find out there’s somehow a 45-minute wait. Or you’ve been frustrated to learn that the hours listed online were inaccurate, and the bar you hoped to visit closes in 20 minutes. Or maybe you’ve been told, “Sorry, we’re out of the roast beef,” or “That keg just kicked… and that keg is kicked too.”

If you’ve gone out to eat since COVID restrictions lifted, you’ve probably discovered that these kinds of minor dining inconveniences are now simply a fact of life. Restaurants have struggled to win back employees (often for good reason) and can’t get the staff needed to run at full capacity. Kitchens and bars are dealing with supply chain issues. Costs have gone up across the board. Everyone is stressed way the hell out.

Stuff just isn’t as streamlined as it was two years ago. Days don’t run as smoothly as they once did.

And we—the people who eat at restaurants—are not always handling it very well. 

“Customer entitlement at restaurants is at an all-time high,” Food & Wine reported in December, “making work unsafe and unbearable for many in the industry.” Guests refuse to wear masks when asked (what Delta variant?) or to sit outside when the dining room is getting too crowded. They can’t comprehend long wait times or understand why they need to make a reservation when walk-ins were previously accepted.

One local restaurant is saying: enough is enough. Last week, Fhima’s in downtown Minneapolis shared an Instagram post asking people to please, be reasonable as we navigate this new dining landscape.

“As you know, we are intensely passionate about what we do,” it begins, before getting to “the elephant in the room,” which is that people seem unaware of the challenges listed above.

“We are asking you to understand the ‘no’s’ that were previously ‘yes’s,'” the post continues. “No to another table when the table looks open but we have a light staff on the floor, no to a large party at 7, prime time, when our kitchen staff will already be running hot for dinner service for regular diners.”

Chef-owner David Fhima tells Racket it wasn’t any one incident that inspired their statement (though they hear horror stories of dine-zillas “all the time”). He says it was more about “a feeling in the air,” a sense that your average person might not understand what restaurant staffers are up against right now.

Fhima isn’t complaining about the worker shortage—he agrees that the industry has too long relied on people who are overworked and underpaid, and he doesn’t expect them to readily return to the restaurants that jettisoned them as the pandemic set in. His message is for diners, many of whom don’t seem to grasp that things have changed since COVID, or realize that the experience they feel entitled to… well, it kind of doesn’t exist anymore. 

Mise en place is the greatest phrase in our kitchen—in any kitchen—which means: to set things in place, to be ready,” Fhima says. “And what we have discovered during COVID is … it’s not enough. Getting ready is not enough. We were doing the mise en place to be ready for chaos.” 

Handling that chaos requires deftness and dignity—from servers and the people they’re serving. “It’s about saying, ‘Well, wait a minute, we are all in this together.’”

Fhima expands on the importance of “no” during our conversation: “We have to stop saying ‘yes’—even at a financial cost, even at the risk of guests going, ‘Hey, I’m seeing an empty table out there, and you’re saying I can’t sit there?’”

There might not be a server for that table at the moment. Maybe the kitchen is understaffed and close to crashing. Maybe no one on the floor has the time for a party of 10 right now. The thing is, it doesn’t matter. Sometimes, we all have to hear “no.”

“It’s not right for someone in our organization to be put out by saying ‘yes’ to you,” Fhima says.

People on both sides of the table seem to agree. The post is one of the best-performing Fhima’s Insta account has ever seen, receiving a flood of support the chef says was “unexpected.” During this stressful time, the plea for greater empathy and understanding has resonated with industry workers and diners alike.

“It’s not a one-sided proposition, it’s almost like a contract … that we as human beings have with each other, to say, ‘Okay, this wonderful industry that we love and adore, how do we make it better—for all of us?” Fhima asks.

When we eat out, “we should expect amiability, we should expect hospitality, we should expect service, we should expect wonderful food and a phenomenal atmosphere,” Fhima tells us. “But we are coming into a restaurant as equals. The fact that you’re being served doesn’t mean we are your servant.”

Put another way: “During times of scarcity and need, we must act with an abundance of love, integrity, honor, and flavor,” the social media message from Fhima’s ends. 

You can read the post in full below.