Rules of Order
As social settings and gathering points for people, restaurants occasionally see things go awry. Whether it’s a spat between guests, over-imbibing or too much noise, managers need to know how to deftly diffuse and deflect the situation so an upbeat ambience is restored.
“Thank you for ruining our dinner with your screaming kid.”
Those are fightin’ words, the content of a note dropped on the table of a fellow diner in a Nampa, Idaho Texas Roadhouse restaurant. The little dust-up which took place last fall was prompted by an 11-month old who punctuated his dining experience with a series of periodic yells. His mother chalked them up to his bubbly enthusiasm and general excitement over dining out. Two women at the next table interpreted it differently and let their pique be known with the note.
Whether it’s a squalling baby, kids running around the dining room, a too-loud cell-phone conversation or an argument between diners in which everyone becomes privy to the spat, awkward things play out in restaurants. How management handles them is critical, an important component of the customer-service experience. It’s never truer than in the age of social media, when disgruntled guests are quick to vent ire in public forums, telling the world of their slight.
“Ideally, you don’t want to alienate anyone but unfortunately it happens,” says Robin DiPietro, professor in the School of Hotel, Restaurant and Tourism Management at the University of South Carolina.
In the case of the note, which quickly exploded on social media outlets, Texas Roadhouse’s Director of Public Relations Travis Doster responded, “We’re in the hospitality business. We want all of our guests to have a great experience.”
DiPietro, who earlier in her career worked for Burger King, says that many problems simmer along in the dining room before reaching the boiling point, allowing lots of opportunity for an attentive manager to intervene and dial back the heat.
“Restaurant managers should be proactive, walk around the dining room to see what’s going on,” she advises, adding that potential problems then are easy to spot and diffuse before they become hot zones. Then, they should be handled in a way that seamlessly merges diplomacy with decisiveness and an equitable solution.
The Texas Roadhouse story was reported in many outlets across the world, including CNN, The NBC Today Show and USA Today, generating thousands of comments. A seemingly small event—after all, babies cry all the time-turned into a firestorm about elderly diners, parenting skills, babies, families and rudeness in general. Noting that the managing partner was in a no-win situation as an on-the-spot referee, Doster provided further details about how things played out.
“With social media, a lot of facts get dropped. The managing partner [of the Nampa restaurant] had been alerted that the women had complained. He went to the table, asked if there was anything he could do. They said no, they were good and thanked him. But then they left the note anyway,” Doster says. “The managing partner saw the note as crossing the line. The mother had apologized and was in tears. He didn’t want her to leave the restaurant that way. He’s a father himself so he acted with his best instincts and his heart. We’re a family restaurant and absolutely support him in that.”
Coming to a Head
DiPietro recently had dinner at a nice restaurant in Hilton Head, S.C. At the next table, two children each were watching different movies on hand-held pads with the volume turned up high enough that conversation at the next table was compromised. DiPietro discretely summoned the manager and asked if she and her dining companion could be moved to another table.
“Instead, the manager asked the mother to turn down the volume on the movies. She stalked right over to our table and asked if we had made the complaint. It was awkward for everyone and it didn’t need to be. We offered to move and that would have kept everyone happy.”
She adds that there weren’t that many guests in the dining room at the time. “The manager might well have noted that the table with the kids was generating some noise and seated incoming parties such as ours in a different area. As it is, there is a tendency to seat by station,” she says, noting that there should be flexibility based on circumstances. “An ability to think on your feet, be flexible and act accordingly is important. Staff should be trained in that as well.”
The very nature of restaurants—their hominess, comfort levels and the simple fact that adult beverages are available—occasionally results in situations going amiss.
“If someone has been drinking too much or they are having an argument, that’s definitely time to call a manager; servers should not have to handle those situations,” Di Pietro advises. “And the manager should visit the table with someone else instead of going alone. Ask politely for them to tone it down or to leave the restaurant,” she says, adding that anyone who has been over-served must not be allowed to drive. “Ensure their safety and the safety of other guests.”
At Texas Roadhouse, a simple operating philosophy has been an infallible guide through the dramas that inevitably unfold. “We operate by the golden rule,” says Doster. “Our managing partners are owners, not bouncers. They take seriously the idea that once you’re a “Roadie,” you’re part of the family. We treat with trust, respect, concern and care, and that’s the key—a long-term guest focus and mentality.”