July 21, 2024


The Food community

SF Bay Area restaurants are still struggling. Returning customers don’t see that.

5 min read

At Vanessa’s Bistro in Berkeley, owner Vi Nguyen recently encountered a customer who stood in her kitchen doorway to yell at her after a server made a simple mistake. 

“Not talk, yell,” Nguyen emphasized, sounding increasingly exasperated as she told the story. “This was the beginning of the reopening, and we had a line of takeout orders. Her husband stood at the doorway and was like, ‘She’s hungry! She needs her food right now!’”

This wasn’t an isolated incident for Nguyen. Since California’s June 15 reopening of the economy, customers have gotten … a little difficult. Well, a lot difficult. 

Nguyen said it’s gotten so bad, she’s even had to 86 some regulars (restaurant slang for banning or throwing out a customer). 

“One gentleman yelled at my server, ‘I don’t understand why you guys don’t have more tables out here’ … because they didn’t want to wait for the table. They were just super rude,” said Nguyen. “Where exactly do you want me to put all of these extra tables? In the road, where the cars drive?”

When the customer attempted to return to Vanessa’s Bistro soon after, she asked him to leave.

“People who were already nice prior to the pandemic are super nice, and people who were a little bit difficult to deal with pre-pandemic are now completely just unbearable to even serve,” she said.

Nguyen isn’t the only restaurant owner to notice a change in customers’ behavior post-reopening.  

“I’ve been seeing a huge rise in people just forgetting to be human,” said Mina Makram, founder of Palo Alto bakery Misfits Bakehouse. “People have been staying at home for a year and a half, but everyone in the service industry has been busting our butts … and this is what we’re getting now.”

Makram told the story of one customer who ordered a bread pickup the Friday before Memorial Day, never showed up, and then made a scene when she arrived the following Wednesday to find her order was no longer available. When he wouldn’t give her the refund she demanded, she left a one-star Yelp review. 

“Then she filed a fraudulent claim with her bank,” said Makram. “The bank withdrew the amount from the order from us but also fined us $15. … She stole from the bakery as far as I can see.” 

It may feel to customers that the pandemic is over and restaurants should be completely back to normal, ready to greet them with swift service and a smile — but in reality, many restaurants are still feeling the effects of the global crisis. From food shortages and rising prices of everything from chicken to to-go boxes to the well-documented “worker shortage” (although some restaurant workers, fed up with low pay and inhospitable working conditions, consider the issue more of a “wage shortage”), to the lingering economic and emotional toll of the past 16 months, restaurants are still facing a whole smorgasbord of unique challenges. 

“People just expect everything to be perfect, as if we weren’t dealing with a labor shortage, dealing with new systems that were put into place during the pandemic, having to juggle managing takeout flow and unpredictable service, an all new front-of-house staff … the list is just endless,” said Sergio Emilio Monleón, co-owner of La Marcha Tapas Bar in Berkeley.

Juggling all of these obstacles means, understandably, that some restaurants may have slower or less consistent service right now. Monleón explained that many of his new front-of-house staff don’t have previous serving experience, and some are too young to be able to taste their wine selection, so they might not be as knowledgeable as some customers are demanding. 

And due to food shortages, restaurants are also more likely to run out of certain items.

“Basically every supply chain and every supplier is pretty gunked up right now,” said Danny Stoller, co-owner of Square Pie Guys, a Detroit-style pizza restaurant with locations in San Francisco and Oakland. “We’ve had a series of issues with chicken. … And we had a period of time where our custom takeout boxes just never showed up. So we ended up having to pivot really quickly.”

These food shortages are often the subject of customer complaints — and sometimes even a negative Yelp review. 

“Somebody went to Yelp over an item that we ran out of at eight o’clock on a Saturday, and she canceled her entire order,” said Monleón. “… It was like 10 or 15 items we were already making.”

Square Pie Guys has also received some negative Yelp reviews of late. While their Yelp page has received a high enough volume of ratings that the occasional bad review won’t tank their overall rating, for a newer, lesser-known restaurant, one-star reviews can be devastating. 

“We got a Yelp review saying, ‘Hey, I tried to order a few minutes before your closing time, and you stopped taking orders,’” said co-owner Marc Schechter, who explained their website automatically stops accepting orders 30 minutes before closing. “… Why is that a bad Yelp review? Can there be some trust? Of course we don’t want to turn orders down, it’s not personal.”

Stoller pointed out that the restaurant industry is at an inflection point, or a “major reckoning,” he said, and said that restaurantgoers have a role to play in that shift. 

“We’re all in it together,” said Stoller. “And there’s not a single person in any industry that’s actively trying to screw anyone over, or provide poor service, or just be a bad owner.” 

Before lashing out at restaurant workers, Nguyen wishes customers would be a little more understanding of the difficulties they are facing in the industry at the moment. 

“I didn’t pay rent for eight months, you know, I took out a cash advance so that I could keep up with payroll, so my staff could stay employed,” she said. “Just be more understanding, more kind, more patient. I think patience is the key.”

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