When Is The Customer Not Always Right?

How to put your foot down with demanding diners

Penny pinchers, opportunists, entitled regulars. These are the sort of customers that make you question your commitment to long hours and short margins. Operators explain in their own words how to deal with difficult guests gently and diplomatically (or not).

Colleen Haws

Owner of Grandview Tavern & Grille, Fort Mitchell, Kentucky

Backstory: Spent more than 30 years in customer service in the airline and travel industry before opening Grandview in 2007.

“You definitely want to make repeat customers, but there comes a time when customers feel entitled, and they disrupt the business flow. You always want to correct any problem—that’s the first rule of thumb. But sometimes you’re not going to make them happy. 

I had a couple sitting at a high top dining for over two hours. I approached them and said I had a reservation for 8:45 and [asked] could I move them to another table and offered to buy them a drink. The husband said, ‘Why don’t you move that table?’ and pointed to the group next to them. I made the mistake of saying ‘Well, they’re regulars,’ instead of pointing out that it’s harder to move six people than two. They just went off. They took it so far—social media, Yelp. They even took it to the Better Business Bureau. They wanted me to pay the check, which was over $120. I sent her an apology and offered to buy them a drink. We ask people to do these things all the time, and 99 percent of the time people are cooperative. And you just get that 1 percent of people, that’s when you make the decision, ‘I really don’t care if you come back to my restaurant.’” 

Eddie Lakin 

Chef-owner of Edzo’s Burger Shop, Evanston, Illinois

Backstory: Worked in fine dining for 20 years before opening his counter-service burgers and fries joints in 2009.

“We often discuss the idea of ‘firing’ a customer, whether directly saying, ‘Your business isn't welcome here anymore’ or indirectly, by saying, ‘No,’ to everything they ask for politely. We have done both. Most of the indirect ones are done simply by conscious choices we make—we don’t offer reservations, the ‘no table grabbing’ policy, etc. For some people, that is enough to turn them off of us, so they don’t come once they’re aware of the situation.

I try very hard to assume goodwill from every customer, even the ones who seem difficult or gruff upon first impression.  Extending caring hospitality to those who make it harder often leads those folks to soften and become great customers. That said, some people are just not going to be happy with the level of product or service that we offer. So in some cases it really does make sense to ‘fire’ the ones who don't have the good sense to realize that they should stop coming.”

Eliot Wexler

Owner of Nocawich, Tempe, Arizona

Backstory: Ran James Beard Award-nominated Noca for six years before retiring from fine dining. Now runs Nocawich, his three fine fast casual sandwich shops.

“I always looked at it as if I had invited someone to my house…(and) want them to have a good time. If you want ketchup with something that should not have it—fine. You ordered your steak medium and to your eye it is not—no problem. We’ll remake it. I always felt that I was better off comping something to make sure everyone felt good. But if this guest in your house acted poorly, then would you invite them back? 

There are a very small percentage of guests that no matter what happens, they will not be happy. The manner in which the guest presented the issue was key: Abuse to the staff or bad behavior changed everything.  Those are the ones that you remember. When things went off the rails past the point of fixing, I would buy the meal and let them know that this was their last meal at the restaurant. I called it the ‘Marco Pierre White.’ At the point I could not salvage it, then I would have the server assistants completely clear the table except for the napkins in their lap. After a bit, the guests got the message and left.”

Kelly Chapman

Owner of Mac-o-licious, Los Angeles   

Backstory: Transitioned from a food truck serving upsale macaroni and cheese to brick and mortar in five months. Prior to foodservice, Chapman led a corporate life in recruitment at Microsoft and Lightworld Enterprises.

“Occasionally a customer will complain about our prices. It's usually in two areas: drinks or mac ’n’ cheese. They ask, ‘Why don't I get a free refill?’ I gently show them the kitchen area where we personally squeeze our lemons for our fresh lemonade. I explain that, ‘A bottle is a lot cheaper, but that’s not what we do here. May I offer it to you at half price as we do appreciate your business?’ The response usually is ‘Oh? Well it is delicious.’ 

Often a consumer may not understand the factors involved in setting a price, especially a small business that shops locally wherever possible. They don’t understand the difference in wholesale pricing for a chain versus a small brick and mortar. We find when customers gain an understanding of the factors involved in setting a price, they appreciate what we do more.”

Rick Stewart

General manager of Barnie's CoffeeKitchen, Winter Park, Florida

Backstory: Started his job 14 years ago, gaining plenty of experience resolving issues with the affluent and sometimes demanding Winter Park clientele. 

“Whether or not the customer is right, you should always make them feel like they are. A few regular guests come across as entitled. Guests have demanded food items that are not on the menu. I’ve heard things like, ‘Do you know how much money I spend in here? I come here all the time!’ The most important thing when dealing with entitled guests is to listen. Most of the time they just want to be heard. I’ll respond with, ‘I understand how much you frequent Barnie’s, and you are a valued guest.’ I let them know they are the core of our business. Having said that, I explain that we try to accommodate everyone’s tastes, but every time we deviate from the menu, the rest of our guests have to suffer.”