As a veteran of the hospitality business, my greatest successes have been measured by the width of customers’ grins. The happiness of diners has the power to give hospitality workers intense personal joy and satisfaction. Upon entry to the business, one of the first lessons hospitality workers learn is that the word “guest” should replace the word “customer.” “Guest” is used to remind us waiters, hostesses, and sommeliers alike that customers are to be treated as though they’ve been invited into their homes.

This sentiment is a part of every move hospitality workers make in a restaurant. We strive to make people comfortable. We do everything in our power to ensure that their guests feel at home. We run to the store for off-menu items. We adjust the volume of music. We tweak recipes and isolate allergens and hold in our pee until the end of service because, God forbid, table 48’s pasta sits on the pass for more than 30 seconds. We also make conversation, find personal connections, and dodge unwanted flirtations, all of this in the pursuit of a guest experience that evokes “home,” without in any way looking, smelling, or feeling like it.

My perspective on hospitality has always been “If I can, I will.” There were points, especially early in my career, when this led me to a space of unnecessary vulnerability and servitude. Pre-pandemic, I changed my dictum to “If I reasonably can, I will.” It was a small but important change of mindset. Requests are just that: courtesies hospitality workers accommodate if they can.

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For restaurant workers, the impact of customers’ entitlement goes beyond emotional strain: It can put us in physical danger. I’ve had the privilege of providing service as a large white man, and still, I’ve been assaulted by a guest who felt their food was taking too long. Members of my team at Sommation (a pandemic-born online community of sommeliers) and other colleagues with less physical presence and societal protection have confided in me the fear and anxiety these situations create for them.

I will continue to make every effort to accommodate every guest; after all, I love this work. However, our constant striving for unrealistic hospitality has created an unsafe environment for restaurant employees. My mindset has shifted again, this time to prioritize workers’ safety and security before efficiency and revenue.

The Covid Complication

This pandemic has made it abundantly and loudly clear to all of us in service that we are and have always been vulnerable while serving. Telling someone to put on their mask is uncomfortable for anyone. It’s even less comfortable for hospitality workers, who trip over themselves to be congenial and hospitable. This is a nearly unwinnable battle. Do we further risk infection, or do we risk escalating conflict?

Workers should not be forced to consistently endure situations that cause them discomfort. Your server should not have to go to work if they feel ill. Your sommelier should not have to pour your wine if you do not have a mask on.

The industry must be firm about the boundaries it sets, and it’s incumbent upon management and ownership to draw a line in the sand. This line needs to extend further than Covid protocols, as our employees have been allowing boundaries to be crossed, overextending themselves, and putting themselves in harm’s way for their entire careers. It’s insane that it has taken a global pandemic to wake us up.

The Customer Is Often Wrong

While conscientious and excited guests keep us engaged, restaurant workers often fixate on the “Karens” who grind us up during service. We live in the anger around the entitlement expressed by our nastiest guests. We’ve been taught to tamp those feelings down. We commiserate with our coworkers at the bar. We yell and drink about it until we wake up, a little hung over, and do it all again.

The guest is not always right. Restaurants offer what’s written on the menu. Just about every restaurant has a robust online presence, so guests know what is being offered before they walk in the door. I want everyone in my restaurant to have a great time, but I can no longer justify adding stress to an already stressful job — not for me, and especially not for my employees.

When we say “no,” we aren’t being spiteful or withholding. “No” can, in fact, be said in a hospitable way. “No” can also be taken the way it’s intended, as a boundary. If a guest chooses to take offense, that isn’t on restaurant workers. As long as we properly take care of our people, our business will continue without guests who lack respect.

Teaching Old Dogs

Establishments must prioritize the safety of their employees over a Yelp review. They need to make it clear to their staff, guests, owners, and investors that giving a mouse a cookie isn’t a good idea. It’s gonna want some milk.

This is going to take time. It will not be easy, and it will take the most privileged voices in our industry standing up together to say “enough is enough.”

It might cost me a sales milestone some Saturday nights. There might be a Monday lunch shift when my labor budget squeaks out of alignment. Our industry must accept this as a necessary part of doing business. Workers are the most important asset we have, by far. Protecting them is not only the morally right thing to do; it has the side benefit of creating a positive work environment. People work better when they feel safe and taken care of.

We will probably continue to have nights sitting at bars complaining about the jerks we served that night; the sting of a bad tip hurts in more ways than one. But the more we hold the line, the better it will get. It turns out that not everyone’s money is green. If restaurant workers could be paid a living wage and not be beholden to guests’ whims, we’d be in a much better position to tackle the angry and entitled folks who sit at our tables.

How do we retrain guests? We need to be firm. We need to be consistent. We need to go into service every night knowing where the line is and how to advocate for ourselves when a guest crosses it. We need to listen to workers and prioritize their comfort over everything. We need to allow ourselves grace when we refuse a request. A warm, inviting environment is compatible with one that has boundaries. If we hold these boundaries every shift, our guests will learn.

This story is a part of VP Pro, our free platform and newsletter for drinks industry professionals, covering wine, beer, liquor, and beyond. Sign up for VP Pro now!