The Covid pandemic, and the persistent worker shortage that followed, altered the nature of restaurants in Boulder, leaving many chronically understaffed with more stress on already-overwhelmed employees. One consequence: Customers are crankier than ever.
“There are a lot of kind people out there,” said Kevin Daly, who opened Mountain Sun Pub & Brewery in 1993, and later added two more Boulder locations. “But when it’s bad, it’s really bad.”
In interviews with Boulder Reporting Lab, Daly and others said they noticed worsening customer behavior around and after the 2016 election, as the national conversation became more hostile and fractious. Then came Covid, shutdowns and a labor shortage. Already weary and annoyed customers became — at times — mean, the restaurateurs said. As local establishments still struggle to hire and retain workers, customer rage seems to have reached new heights.
“Everyone who had been in the restaurant industry kind of cleared out. It was the perfect opportunity to reset your career,” Daly said of the pandemic years. With waitstaff leaving, Mountain Sun restaurants trained a new group of 18- to 21-year-olds. “I think most of our servers hadn’t served before.”
When servers are new to the industry, the quality of serving can go down, Daly said. Customers are sometimes rude to beginners, creating a cycle that has aggravated staffing shortages in restaurants.
“People don’t want to work in this industry right now because it’s like combat,” Daly said. “It’s hard for us to retain employees.”
In 2020, when stay-at-home orders began, Steve Redzikowski, executive chef and co-owner of OAK at Fourteenth on Pearl Street, recalls sitting down with his staff to discuss the change of pace at the American cuisine restaurant. Though they knew it would be strange to only offer takeout, OAK’s staff hoped “maybe coming out of this, we’ll see a little bit more empathy.
“We have seen the complete opposite, which I’m shocked about,” Redzikowski continued. “Are people angry because they were grounded for a year?”
OAK opened in 2010, and Redzikowski said that compared to previous years, disrespectful customer behavior, including short tempers with staff, has become familiar. He cited one particular incident as among the more egregious examples. Last summer, two women walked into OAK, and after sitting down at their table in the restaurant, one of them took her shoes off, rubbing her feet while talking to the other, Redzikowski said. People at the neighboring table complained to OAK’s general manager, Craig Biggins.
When Biggins returned to the first table with their wine, the barefoot woman said it wasn’t what she ordered. He chose not to mention the restaurant’s “no shoes, no service,” rule. Biggins offered to get her a different glass of wine. She declined. According to Redzikowski, when Biggins assured her he wanted to make her experience a good one, she responded, “What we could use is a little quiet around the table right now because we’re having a conversation.”
Redzikowski calls these kinds of guests “high touch.” Difficult customers often need more time and empathy from staff, he said. Biggins told servers to give the pair space. And he told the woman to flag him down when she was ready.
“Yeah, f– off,” she responded. It was then that Biggins asked the pair to leave.
“How does it get to that?” Redzikowski asked.
One bartender, who has worked in Boulder for more than a decade and asked to remain anonymous out of concern for his career, said that the pandemic brought out the best — and the worst — in customers. “Rational and well-adjusted folks came back with a proper appreciation,” the bartender said. “Others, with self-centered mind sets, came in with a maladjusted sense of undeserved entitlement.”
“Not everybody’s bad,” Redzikowski agreed, “but it seems like the percentages are creeping up a little bit.”
The triggers can feel small to owners and staff.
“We’ve had some crazy experiences over some minor stuff,” Daly said. One group of people yelled when asked to leave after spending almost four hours at the restaurant’s largest table. Another “went ballistic” after a happy hour deal changed, he said.
“There’s nothing you can do to console them,” he added. Even when a meal is comped or the manager offers a gift card, “their response is so disproportionate. It’s hard to make them feel better. And I don’t know if that’s about anything we did.”
‘People don’t want to work in this industry right now’
Though restaurants throughout the states have steadily gained employees over the last two years, they are still nearly half a million jobs short of pre-pandemic staffing levels, according to the National Restaurant Association.
With such staffing challenges, restaurant owners and managers told Boulder Reporting Lab they make their servers and hostesses a priority.
“The most important thing to me is the way our staff gets treated.” Redzikowski said. “I hate to say this, but our guests come second.” Employee safety and comfort allows them to do their best work, he said.
“The statement ‘the customer is always right’ is absolute bullshit,” the longtime bartender said. “I would rather lose profit than lose the trust of my staff.”
The incident at OAK, when Biggins asked the customers to leave, may not be the norm for most restaurants, but it’s also not an isolated one.
“We’ve had several instances where we’re asking people to not come back,” Daly of Mountain Sun said. “It’s not a good fit if you’re this angry and your behavior is unacceptable.”
Before it gets to a point where diners are enraged, Redzikowski suggests they have a conversation with restaurant staff, especially if it’s a request about a meal or cocktail not being what they thought it would be.
“We’re going to listen. That’s what we’re there to do,” Redzikowski said. “We don’t hire anybody who we think maliciously would try to ruin your night. We make mistakes.”
And if it gets bad, most agree it’s okay to put your foot down.
“Regardless of how kind or how rude anyone is, everyone at the end of the day just wants to be validated,” the bartender said. “I think more businesses should embrace breaking up with clientele that are verbally or emotionally abusive. Just because you spend money does not mean we have to tolerate your poor behavior.”
Daly’s final suggestion: “Implore people to be kind. All restaurants are losing money right now to high wages and high inflation. Enjoy your experience and let other people enjoy it too.”