Monday, July 17, 2017

Some Thoughts on High End Restaurants and Racist Servers

I have been hedging on writing this post for a couple of years now, but I feel like it's time to speak out. 

Why can't we all be as charming as Marcus Samuelsson? (Photo here)


Guys, we need to have a chat.

I'm not sure how to write this and I've been thinking seriously about it for months, but after an experience my partner and I had (again) at a nice restaurant over the weekend I just feel the need to call it out: we have got to do something about racism in the service industry.

Here's a little back story: my partner is a chef and a Togolese American. He trained at Le Cordon Bleu, has two degrees, speaks three languages, and is truly one of the nicest, most beautiful people you will ever meet. I have never, ever introduced him to anyone who thought he was mean or rude or a waste of their time. I consider myself beyond blessed to have this man in my life and I thank my lucky stars every day that I get to wake up  next to him.

Since he is a chef and we live near downtown Minneapolis, it would seem pretty natural that we really love to eat out. We consider getting a great meal to be a true artistic experience; watching an open kitchen function properly is like witnessing a great ballet - graceful, poetic, inspiring and skillful. We love food of all kinds from all places, from the cheapest pho and banh mi hole-in-the-wall to getting a great multi-course dinner from a linen tablecloth-type establishment.

Our tastes really run the gamut and we've eaten all over the Twin Cities and enjoyed the best of what they have to offer, as well as some of the worst. And there is only one thing that has ever truly destroyed our dining experience. It's not bad food. It's not inattentive service due to busyness. It's not dress codes or prices or lack of parking or loud ambiance. It's intentionally bad service that is clearly racially motivated.

I want to preface all of what follows to say that I understand that working in a service industry is HARD. It is an often thankless, physically demanding job. It doesn't matter if you're a cook or a busboy or a bartender or a server, often your nights can be exhausting, especially when dealing with demanding patrons. I can totally empathize with someone who is overloaded because they're covering too many tables, or has a broken walk-in and the food is slow to come out, or just started their job and is training in their role. I believe in always tipping at least 20-25%. Like I said, we eat out a LOT. I will never cut a tip for someone who has been busy and doing their best to keep up.

But there are some servers who treat us badly because they make a host of assumptions of who we are when we sit down at their restaurant. I have overheard servers complaining among each other about being seated with tables filed with people of color (POC) because they just *know* that these guests will run out on the bill or not tip (I am not kidding, I have overheard this exact conversation). I have watched servers bend over backwards for patrons to either side of us (who are older, and white) and have us wait 15 - 30 minutes between orders or drink refills or to get our checks. Let me give you a detailed case study from the now-closed Brasserie Zentral:

In the short year-long-ish life of Brasserie, I ate there at least seven times. Half of those were with my partner, and half were with friends or coworkers (all of whom were white). The first time I went was with coworkers, and we had a wonderful experience. The food was incredible (to this day still some of the best food I've had the pleasure of eating in the Twin Cities), the service was great, the prices were reasonable, and I was hooked. I came back a couple of weeks later with my partner, so excited to share this wonderful restaurant with him, and all of a sudden things were different. The food was still divine, nothing about prices on the menu had changed, but somehow the service felt....off. We were waiting at least twice as long as those around us to order. Food (which was perfectly cooked and made in an open kitchen not far away so we could directly see it) sat out, getting cold, waiting to be taken to us. Glasses at the tables around us were filled promptly and gracefully, while ours sat empty for most of the night. Other patrons' checks were whisked to them with a smile and witty banter, and we had no more interaction with our server than simply putting our order in. We decided it may have been an off night for her, left our normal generous tip, wrote a note about how much we loved the food, and decided to give it another try.

Guys, we went back there THREE MORE TIMES. Two of those times we had the same server again, and guess what? The experience was the same. Each time she neglected us, each time we left her a large tip, each time we were utterly perplexed as to how a place with such incredible food could generate such an obviously biased service experience. If we had gone there on our own (and I'd never gone with others) I might have written it off as just off nights for that particular server, but I went other times with all white groups of guests, had the same server, and had a phenomenal experience. It was night and day. There was one variable that changed between those visits, and it was race. And that sucks.

I cannot express to you how infuriating this problem is. To catch a popular phrase our money is "as green as anyone else's," and there is no excuse for making assumptions about your patrons' circumstances and giving them a shitty experience based on that assumption. This myth about POC providing bad tips may be "true" but only in the sense that people won't tip when they receive poor service - ever think of that? Who among us is going to drop over $100 on a meal and then leave a 25% tip for someone who couldn't be troubled to stop by to chat or fill glasses or take orders or bring a check in a timely fashion? Especially when you have witnessed them to be capable of doing this to patrons sitting no less than a foot or two away?

The worst part is that just one bad service experience reflects poorly on an entire restaurant, and that's not fair to everyone else working there who is doing a great job. We are not afraid to tell our friends not to patronize a certain place when we have had problems. Word of mouth is a powerful thing, and it is a huge shame to have a restaurant's entire capital - the millions of dollars that went into facilities and decor, the hard (and often thankless) work of the chefs and cooks sweating in the back to create delicious and beautiful food, the dream of a new restaurant owner - completely killed because one server decided their tip might not be as high as they want and gave patrons a poor experience (which they then report to all of their friends, coworkers, family....you get the idea).

Our experience at Brasserie Zentral, which was so clearly biased, was also unfortunately not our last. Without fail, every few months there's another place that raises our hackles and gets added to the "be wary" list. The latest offenders include 510 Lounge* and now, last weekend, a bartender at Tullibee asked us (and only us) to leave the bar we were sitting at with other patrons around.

This piece was supposed to be a retrospective of that dinner at Tullibee - and I want to write something about that later too, it's such a cool thing they're doing with farm-to-table work and accessible tastings and a beautiful space - but I just couldn't bring myself to write a glowing adulation after we essentially were asked not to partake with everyone else by one bartender who was on a high horse. Over an hour of great food and conversation was totally dismantled by one guy who singled us out. There was not enough seating at this event. Other patrons had migrated to the bar to have a seat. We stood for over an hour waiting for a place. We picked the furthest corner to stay out of the way when we finally decided to sit, and there were plenty of other seats at the bar available. Not a single other patron with their compostable plates was asked to move elsewhere. It really sucked.

So here's my plea for the restaurant industry: please, please have a training with your serving staff about how to treat ALL patrons equally. Please say explicitly that it is not cool to assume that the black family walking in won't tip you and to chintz them on their experience. Please address these issues immediately if they are raised to you by patrons who know they are being singled out. 

I want restaurants to succeed. I want to keep eating out. I want my partner to be able to be proud of the industry he has spent more than ten years of his life putting his passion into, the industry for which he has missed holidays and birthdays and weddings of siblings, all in order to help make dining a great and inclusive place. Don't let one person's racist assumptions ruin an entire industry. Please train your servers (and bartenders and anyone client facing!) and do it today. Your restaurants and all of your patrons deserve better. 

*The host was wonderful, as was another server we passed on our way in. Unfortunately once we sat down, our server loudly requested to be moved to another table, was huffy when he wasn't traded out, refused to look my partner in the face and only took his order through me (literally I was the only person who could talk to this guy... I wonder why?), and aggressively grabbed my partner's credit card out of his hand without a thank you or even a single word when we were ready for the check. It was so bad that this other server saw what was going on and stopped by a few times to check in. She was lovely and it was much appreciated - but she should not have had to do that. Get it together 510 Lounge.