The Culture of “Yes”
In a world of over loaded choice, strident demands and customer power, perhaps the onus is on the customer to be open minded, fair and reasonable rather than assume a culture of “yes” will make a restaurant acquiesce to any demand
Article by Aaaron Shuttleworth Photograph by Michael Browning
A couple came into a high end restaurant in NYC recently where a good friend works. Everything was wrong. The lighting, the music, the seats, the air (don’t ask…just don’t), the food, the chefs’ personalities… culminating in the lady commenting that she shouldn’t have to pay. Before the manager could let out a stifled ‘Yelp!’ the bill was on their table with her entire tasting menu, running north of $200, comped. She then proceeded to admonish the servers for embarrassing her by comping her meal, that she had just asked for free, and left her husband to sheepishly tip her whole meal back to a bemused staff.
This anecdote may seem ludicrous – and granted it is at the pointy end of the spectrum – but as someone who has been in the service industry for 13 years it highlights what hospitality professionals are dealing with more frequently on a daily basis. I am talking about something I like to refer to as ‘The Culture of Yes’, or the inability of restaurants to say no to even the most outlandish of a guest’s requests.
As consumers, we are at a point where we are subject to more choice than we’ve ever had at any point in human history. In NYC alone, the number of establishments that you can eat out at is somewhere in the 25,000 – 30,000 vicinity. Gone are the days of eating out solely for a special occasion; the New York fridge, filled with beer, half a bottle of wine and some cheese is a very real thing.
As the volume of venues and meals eaten out increased, so did the levels of hospitality. To survive, 5-star service was no longer confined to the Michelin stars, with a gradual balance between warm, open, guest-facing service and rigid systems and standards coming to the fore. Empires were built on these foundations and arguably the two biggest proponents of this philosophy, Union Square Hospitality and Make it Nice, have managed to combine longevity and relevance through a core belief in unbridled hospitality.
And then Yelp came along. Word of mouth and Pete Wells were now joined by virtual hordes of amateur critics, and it wasn’t long before they realised that the threat of a bad review carried a whole lot more gravitas than it used to. South Park brilliantly parodied the Yelp culture and its adverse relationship with the restaurant industry, and YouTube series The Restaurant managed to sum up exactly what every server has ever thought in less than two minutes, #GTFOH. A study by Michael Luca for The Harvard Business School conducted in 2011 shows that for independent restaurants, an extra star on Yelp can mean up to a 9 per cent increase in business revenue. Suddenly the hike in service standards was exacerbated and accompanied by something new; fear. The guest became bolder, with the ability now to amplify a single experience and directly impact on a venues bottom line, which in turn led to more and more baffling demands. Celebrity diets transitioned from tabloid magazines to our social media feeds and an all-out war on gluten followed shortly after, with the lines being set at right angles for what the word ‘allergy’ actually meant. In days gone by a simple nut or shellfish allergy may have been the crux of your problems, but now Troy has to count his macro’s and exclude five parts of the dish, whilst Beccy isn’t a celiac ‘per se’, but gluten makes her really bloated. Don’t even start on little Timothy, “who can only eat Himalayan goat’s milk laced with raw honey and we know you’re not a Taqueria but would it be too much to ask if you could just find some for us?” Tied in implicitly with the demand for ‘bespoke’ restaurant dishes, is the cocktail renaissance. Guests now have the luxury of creating whatever drink they feel like on the spot, and many believe that this should directly translate to the kitchen. ‘I’ll have something refreshing with gin’ comes with a whole host of options for a bartender, all of which roughly take the same amount of time.
Trying to do the same thing in a kitchen is nigh on impossible. There is a reason why kitchens are as regimented as they are and it’s to ensure the food that they are proud to make and put on their menu gets to the guest in a precise time and of a consistent quality, even when they’re slammed on a weekend.
The onus is now not on the hospitality industry to up its game, but rather on the guest to reciprocate the respect that has been gifted. In no way does this mean that venues, or hospitality professionals, should dial back on the experience they strive to provide. However, guests should be mindful of the classic Spiderman adage that ‘with great power comes great responsibility’.
The power to affect the hospitality being provided to other guests.
The power to influence others through positive or negative reviews.
The power to directly affect a restaurant’s bottom line.
Research and an open mind are two vital tools that guests can arm themselves with to ensure they’re holding up their end of the bargain. Just because a restaurant is Japanese doesn’t mean they have seaweed salad and hand rolls. If a restaurant is Spanish it doesn’t mean they have paella. Be open to a new experience, and put your trust in the chef. You have already placed a portion of that trust when you walked through the door, so why retract it when faced with the unfamiliar?
Above all, guests can act like they’re just that; guests in someone else’s home. Restaurateurs are opening their doors and venues to us 99.9 per cent of the time not for profit or fame, but to share their vision of hospitality. Instead of turning inward and critiquing every aspect of an experience with a mind to review it later, let’s start a dialogue with our hosts.
The guest and the host form a symbiotic relationship, bound together by interwoven threads of hospitality and a desire to share an experience. By choosing to be conscientious guests, we make a choice to better our experience as a whole, and to grow and further an industry instead of blindly taking from it.