The reputation of restaurant industry work is notoriously humbling, as servers and bartenders cater to customers on their best and worst days. Its bright side – the camaraderie with coworkers and patrons – was dimmed during the COVID-19 pandemic, as guests took their frustrations with them to the dinner table.
But today, problematic customer behavior continues, and service industry veterans like Brad Kaplan, a 48-year-old Denver bartender, are left wondering if a return to normal will ever occur.
Kaplan remembers sitting at small-town establishments in his native upstate New York, watching the hands behind the bar as they practiced their craft. That fascination with the work led him to spend 18 years in the service industry, where he appreciated developing relationships with customers.
But then the pandemic happened, and it changed the dynamic between service workers and patrons. Restaurant and bar workers upheld mask mandates, sanitized with powerful chemicals and handled problems often outside of their control, like supply-chain issues.
Kaplan followed the rules but admitted it wore on everyone, especially many of the customers. “Everybody was sick of it.”
For the past three years, some patrons have lashed out about businesses’ approaches to the pandemic, with some scoffing at the rules and others criticizing them as too lenient. Kaplan has handled those upset customers since 2020, and the bad behavior persists today.
“I’ve always said you have to have really tough skin because you deal with all sorts of people and complications,” Kaplan said.
He’s one of more than 260,000 employees in Colorado’s restaurant industry – about 8% of the state’s workforce, compared to 10% pre-COVID, according to Colorado Restaurant Association. More than 12,700 establishments operate throughout Colorado, making the state No. 5 in the U.S. for number of restaurants per capita.
This year, the country’s restaurant industry is predicted to hit $997 billion in sales, the National Restaurant Association reported.
But the sector is still recouping losses after the turmoil of the pandemic, which forced restaurants in many cities to close temporarily. For some owners struggling to make ends meet, the interim shutterings turned permanent.
Those who managed to stay afloat are now facing high prices and staffing shortages in an industry that’s already sink or swim. Last year, food and beverage costs soared more than 20%, with the price tag for labor, utilities, rent and supplies also rising, said Denise Mickelsen, Colorado Restaurant Association communications director.
“The restaurant industry in Colorado has changed dramatically since 2019, and today, after three years of operational challenges and soaring inflation, local restaurants continue to struggle to regain their post-pandemic footing,” Mickelsen said.
Some Colorado restaurants are opting to hike their menu prices, cut their hours of operation and put a pause on expansion plans, she added. “Despite these actions, more than half of local restaurants think they will be less profitable in 2023 – and that’s scary for an industry that hopes for 3% to 5% profit margins in a good year.”
Yet, customer-facing positions, such as servers and bartenders, are obligated to smile through it all as they trudge forward into an uncertain future. Restaurant hosts “should be the first line of hospitality, not the first line of defense,” Kaplan said.
Burnt out, some workers have opted to leave the industry and don’t plan on returning, he added.
For his part, Kaplan’s channeled his experiences with customers into the 3 Stars Podcast, a show that he records alongside two co-hosts who bite back at bad restaurant reviews. Still, he considers the service industry to be “where the fun is.”
“I don’t think that people are worse than they were before,” he said. But as COVID-19 lingers, “people are still kind of holding onto the frustration. We’re all still getting over it.”
“Politeness is out the door”
Other service industry workers maintain different opinions.
Server Samantha Bolte-Woods said customer behavior has “definitely gotten worse.” Over the past 25 years, the 41-year-old Westminster resident has watched the service industry evolve into what it is today.
“Politeness is out the door,” Bolte-Woods said in a phone interview. “People are more disrespectful, rude, intrusive, forward and entitled. They just don’t seem to realize that this is our 9 to 5.”
And she doesn’t foresee that changing anytime soon.
When the first COVID-19 outbreak started to ease and businesses began to reopen after the initial shutdowns in 2020, customers oozed excitement and patience, Bolte-Woods said. “There was a beautiful grace period where everybody was just nice.”
But as months rolled by, those attitudes started to curdle.
Over the course of the three years since the pandemic hit, restaurants often operated in limbo, as mandated closures hit the establishments, then lifted. Patrons and staff alike were left guessing as to when COVID outbreaks would disrupt their lives again.
As a result, customers started to feel rushed, Bolte-Woods said, recalling instances of yelling, profanity and name-calling.
And while she appreciates the sweet gestures by patrons, like compliments written on receipts, “it’s hit and miss,” Bolte-Woods said. “The ones who treat us terribly – unfortunately, they kind of do outweigh the ones who are kind, which sucks.”
Ultimately, she blames management and owners who fail to back up their employees in tough situations. “Restaurants allow customers to behave badly,” she said.
One memory of bad behavior sticks out in the mind of William Hutcheson, a bartender and server. When he worked at ViewHouse Centennial, Hutcheson dealt with a patron fuming over the mask policy mandated by the business.
“The thing that stuck with me the most about that time – coming out of quarantine and such – was just like, all the hoops that we had to jump through, just to basically get yelled at and risk infection,” Hutcheson said in a phone interview. The Denver resident has about two decades of restaurant industry experience under his belt.
Customer behavior “has gotten better and worse,” he said. “The people that were rude and inconsiderate before are even more so now.” But the 38-year-old has also noticed more positivity from his considerate customers.
Some patrons dislike the reservation system and menu QR codes popularized during the pandemic, Hutcheson said. “They want to pretend like COVID never happened.”
As servers, “we’ve had to learn to be even more flexible,” Hutcheson said. He advises patrons to keep in mind: “We just work there.”