What can save restaurants? Hospitality

by Karen Stabiner

COVID-19 and inflation have knocked restaurants to their knees, and everyone with a vested interest, from owner to chef to server to customer, seems to have an opinion on how to get them up and running again.

Permanent “parklet” dining will save the day. Meal kits will, or better wages, more compassionate work schedules, menu price hikes, smaller menus, the addition of a wine shop or a curated market, a reasonable landlord — or some combination of the above.

That’s all dollars and cents, though; somebody forgot to mention hospitality, the unquantifiable element that attracts us to one food palace or neighborhood joint or food truck over another. Hospitality’s the unsung hero of the dining experience, as essential as any spreadsheet item.

It’s easiest to describe by what it isn’t: desultory, one-size-fits-all service, the kind where your water glass stands empty after the first fill, the server knows as little about the menu as you do and has no energy to find out more, the wrong order arrives late and is no longer hot — the equivalent of an extended shoulder shrug.

At the other end of the spectrum, as bad but in a different way, there’s the kind of over-the-top service that leads to jokes about “Hi, I’m Bob, your server, and I’ll chew your food for you tonight.” Fake hospitality is a semblance of warmth in the same way that a microwave is a semblance of an oven — efficient but superficial. The results lack depth.

And hospitality has nothing to do with the power-based behavior displayed by customers, usually male, who expect servers, usually female, to endure flirtatious behavior in exchange for a decent tip, or customers of any gender who expect servers of any gender to tolerate outsize demands that make the diner feel special. Feeding us is not supposed to involve feeding our egos.

True hospitality? To quote Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart in a 1964 decision on obscenity, “I know it when I see it.”

I’ll go him one further: If we want to see it, we need to be worthy of it. Hospitality is a relationship, not a delivery system, and the quicker we all step up, customers and employees alike, the better things will be for our favorite restaurants.

Customers have reverted to some questionable pre-pandemic behaviors as we head back to restaurants — the damning Yelp review as another kind of power grab, the pursuit of new eateries as a competitive sport, a demand for dining experiences that will somehow compensate us for everything we’ve endured over the past two-plus years.

We are pretty quick to be dissatisfied, and to say so. Take a moment for empathy, though, and consider the other side of the exchange: restaurant workers who try to maintain a gracious presence in a battered industry that’s seen thousands lose their jobs, more thousands turn their backs, continued closures and still-spotty progress in labor practices and work culture.

What if we engaged with them a little bit, looked up to see exactly who handed us the menus, expressed gratitude for a job well done?

We could build back better, to borrow a phrase, instead of sitting back, waiting to be satisfied. Don’t get me wrong. I’m as quick as anyone to flinch at too little or too much attention when I go out to eat — but when the effort is genuine, it can’t hurt to respond in kind.

It might make life better for all of us. In the 1970s, Stanford University sociologist Mark Granovetter wrote about the importance of “weak ties,” our connection to people in our lives who are not family but not strangers, either. And while he wasn’t writing about restaurants, I’d say the theory applies, magnified by the pandemic.

I didn’t see my close and careful friends as often as I wanted to in the midst of various COVID spikes, but I saw the baristas at my favorite outdoor coffee place, and as the weeks went on our conversation extended past the niceties of placing an order. Nothing major — I don’t know how any of them feel about Roe vs. Wade or Jan. 6 — but enough to make me feel welcome and make them feel appreciated.

Which is a lot, when you think about it, especially these days.

I don’t have a long list of restaurants to recommend, even though I write about them and ought to know the next or best new places, but I’ve never been much of a prospector. I like to go home when I go out to dinner — that is, to places that are truly welcoming, which involves me being a person a restaurant likes to take care of. Food sustains us; hospitality does too, in ways we can’t measure on a profit and loss statement.

Culinary Agents, a job-networking source, recently listed the seven attributes it considers essential for hospitality workers — be a good listener, be humble, be honest and be an effective communicator, basics like that. Couldn’t hurt if those of us on the receiving end of the table adopted them as well.

Karen Stabiner is the author of “Generation Chef: Risking It All for a New American Dream.”