Two friends of mine recently sat at the counter of a Dallas restaurant’s open kitchen, prime seats (or so they thought) where they could watch the cooks at work. The head chef served them personally and was a model of politeness and charm.
And then, between courses, that head chef would turn around and yell at the rest of the cooks. The chef berated staff for small missteps, like, at one point, building a tray of raw oysters on which one oyster was a little bit larger than the others. My friends say the chef picked up the bigger oyster, tossed it in the trash, and told the cook who had shucked the excessively large oyster, “You’re making me look like an idiot.”
Nobody in the kitchen was hostile toward customers. But as my friends watched, they texted me that the staff looked fearful, and that it was surreal to be treated as honored guests while other people mere feet away were being treated like enemies.
All of which makes me wonder: how does that fit the definition of hospitality?
Restaurants typically believe hospitality means an attitude to their visitors; an online dictionary agrees: “the friendly and generous reception of guests.” But as my friends found out at their open kitchen perch, hospitality doesn’t count for much if you think that generosity is a veneer.
Even this point doesn’t go far enough. If we criticize a restaurant’s work environment because it was visible to customers, we are still putting guests at the center of the story. Here’s a better way of putting it: hospitality doesn’t count for much if it is extended to one kind of person, but not another. The solution is not to go yell at employees somewhere else. Fear is not a better way to rule the kitchen if you get better at hiding it.
Maybe restaurant owners should think of employees as guests, too. After all, they can quit. They’re not invested in the same (literal) way as an owner. Leaders must think about creating a friendly, generous environment not just for paying customers but for everyone in the building.
It will be very hard to excel at hospitality if you think that friendliness, generosity, empathy, and warmth should be shown to some people but not others. Eventually, you’re going to slip up.
If that philosophy is unconvincing, if you think you won’t slip up, or if you only understand the bottom line, here’s one more argument in favor of extending hospitality principles to employees: customers don’t just respond to hostile restaurant environments. They notice happy workplaces, too.
I recently had a terrific dinner in another city, at another restaurant with an open kitchen. During the meal, I noticed an employee polishing glasses at the bar who was noticeably older than the other bartenders. Then that person went and welcomed some tables at the host stand. Having seated some guests, that person picked up a pitcher of water and visited my table. “How is your meal so far?” the server asked, refilling my glass.
Only it wasn’t a server. It was the owner, a nominee for multiple James Beard Awards.
Eyes opened a little wider, we started to watch the interactions and body language of other employees. Staff members covered each other’s duties and joked and laughed with each other. The owner approached them as equals. We asked our servers questions about the food and drinks and heard enthusiasm that was sincere and deep.
Maybe it was an act and we were fooled. Maybe the yelling takes place after-hours. But some restaurants do know the value of extending hospitality to their employees. I know from conversations with current and former industry members that there are Dallas restaurants where the staff is treated with respect, professionalism, and familial kindness, even if someone plates oysters of different sizes.
We felt good at the restaurant in the other city, and not in the selfish “people are being nice to us” way. We felt good in the “we’re surrounded by happy people” way, the feeling of companionship that is the goal of almost all group interaction. The way you might feel on a holiday, while volunteering, or at the end of a heartwarming movie.
It must be very hard to replicate that spirit if half the people in the building are excluded from the warmth. If a restaurant extends hospitality to its paying guests, but not to its staff, all those guests will ever get is a performance, a photocopy of kindness and not the real thing.