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One restaurant owner reflects: How can we be better diners in a post-COVID world?

Tara Gallina, co-owner of Winslow's Table and Vicia in the St. Louis area, discusses how customer entitlement negatively impacts the dining experience – particularly during a pandemic.

  • 4 min to read
One restaurant owner reflects: How can we be better diners in a post-COVID world?

The pandemic has shown us just how fragile the restaurant industry is, shining new light on decades-long conversations about everything from tipping and healthcare to increasing equity and access within the industry. As a follow-up to our March 2021 issue, we're asking local restaurant professionals to reflect on the year that changed everything – and where we go from here. Here, Tara Gallina, co-owner of Winslow's Table and Vicia in the St. Louis area, discusses how customer entitlement negatively impacts the dining experience. To contribute to this series, send us a note at editor@feastmagazine.com.

By and large, we have been so happy with how wonderful people have been at both of our businesses, Winslow’s Table and Vicia, over the course of the pandemic. The majority of people often go out of their way to be appreciative, so I don’t want to sound like this happens all the time, but we recently had an experience that was so striking to me. And it really just hit a chord within my own self, which I think reverberated for everyone else and just caused me to view it as an opportunity to hopefully educate people, if nothing else.

Right now, for a variety of reasons, we're just not doing things full-service. Staffing across the board in hospitality is really difficult right now; so many of us are hiring, which is wonderful because we're getting busy again, but there are not enough people that are either interested or able to take the jobs that we're offering. To be able to serve people full-service requires a lot of other layers, from the work that’s required in serving to the actual cleaning of all of the plates and all of those things. To be able to extend ourselves that thin with the little team that we have just isn't worth it, quite frankly. For a while, COVID was the reason we weren’t full-service, but now, even if we wanted to go back to that model, we just don't have enough people to do that yet in a way that we would feel good about.

With that in mind, we are seating on the patio at Winslow’s Table, and we still bring food out to customers. On a recent weekend, I dropped off some items in disposable packaging to a woman and she said, “Oh, you're so COVID.” I've dealt with people like this before, and I really try to be professional so I bit my tongue and said, “You know, this is what we're comfortable doing right now. Thank you.” And I walked away. I didn't want to think about it anymore. And then a few minutes later, I saw this woman approach one of my team members, and she was not wearing a mask, and she was kind of getting in his face. And I heard her giving him a hard time about taking out the trash with gloves on.

Winslow's Table Tara Gallina

Tara Gallina co-owns Vicia and Winslow's Table with her husband, Michael.

The whole thing was just so shocking, and her disdain and her lack of respect for my team member – and myself – just really made me so angry. I stewed on it for about 12 hours and finally said to myself, “I think someone else besides me probably needs to hear this.” I wrote about the experience on Facebook, and I really did not even remotely anticipate the response that would come from doing so. It was validating that so many people agree that this is ridiculous, and it was so uplifting in a lot of ways. But it was also really sad how many commented who had experienced even far worse behavior than what I described. I hope this sparks something in people to say, “You know what? This is not okay. We cannot allow this to happen anymore.” If anything good could come from this, I would love it to be that.

There are so many things that have been exposed throughout this pandemic, by and large for us with our industry and with society as a whole. There are a lot of problems to fix, and that extends to the service side of the industry as well. I'm not afraid to essentially fire customers, if that's what needs to happen. These kinds of behaviors have always been really infuriating, but when the entitlement issue affects the health and safety of our team, for me it’s just not worth it. Something that dawned on me was that the fear that I've had in the past of confronting people has always come from this other fear – what if we lose all this business? What if people don't come back? What if we get slow? Now that we've lived through that, it just puts things in perspective. I don't want to allow people like this to poison the experience for everyone else.

I want other people in the industry to feel empowered as well, because we've been putting up with things for way too long. I wouldn't have wanted a pandemic to bring us to this awareness level, but here we are. We’re there to serve customers, but it's a two-way street. I really want the future of our industry to be one that's positive, both in terms of creating great workplace culture and allowing people to thrive, but I also want people who are working in this industry to feel respected and like they're worth something. When people behave this way, it just makes that so much harder.

I think this is a really ripe opportunity to reset the expectations of people, and provide them with some guidance on what we expect from them as customers. Think of it as a re-education. I think the most important thing is to do your homework before you go to a place and figure out what that experience is, especially if you're someone who is really specific about what you're looking for in a dining experience. Are you comfortable taking your trash out yourself? Would you rather have somebody waiting on you? Do you not want to wait for a table? It’s really important that people take that step to check out what the place is doing before they go. And we're all more than happy to tell you; a lot of us try to share that on social media or our websites, or you can give us a call. I field those calls all the time and I'm happy to explain what we’re doing in detail so people understand and they're comfortable, and it’s the experience that they want. I think that alone would probably solve a lot of issues.

Customers also need to be empathetic. We are working very hard, and many people in this industry have worked the entire time; they've not been able to stay at home. They've taken that risk every day to themselves and to their families and that brings a lot of stress and anxiety with it. As much as we try to keep everyone safe and keep things positive, at the end of the day, you can't stop feeling that way. Having a little bit of understanding when interacting with people is really appreciated. We’re very empathetic people in general, which is why I think we've allowed this sort of behavior to go on for so long – we love to give people the benefit of the doubt. But at some point, that just becomes unbearable.

We’re here to create great experiences for people and we're here to make people happy, but we have to draw the line in the sand when we're disrespected. I don't want to allow that to happen anymore, at least not under my watch.