How to refuse service to a guest

How to refuse service to a guest


Your column regarding prejudice by a guest against a server left the method of handling the guest "hanging". What would you suggest as a means of telling the guest the position you hold? Do you encourage the guest to leave at that moment? Or is there another way?

– Marty Marsell, Owner, Better Pizza! Inc, Cumming, GA


Of the columns I’ve written in the past few years, the one about how to handle a racist guest who says or does something offensive to an employee received tremendous reader response. Sadly, what I thought was a somewhat unique story resonated for a lot of you.

First, thanks for the positive feedback. Marty Marsell also writes, “Thanks for your answer to how to handle a customer who shows embarrassing prejudice and intolerance. We have asked these types of people to take their business elsewhere when this has happened. You confirmed our decision. It is critical to stand behind our people and they appreciate our support. Sadly, you don't have to travel abroad to see "ugly Americans".

The follow-up question is really about how to refuse service in general. We spend most of our time in the restaurant industry focused on getting people in the door, keeping them happy while there, and encouraging them to come back. So it rankles when we have to take the reverse approach and talk about how to refuse service to a guest.

There are multiple reasons to refuse service. Intoxication and dress are probably most common. The key hospitality law maxim to remember is that you can refuse service for any reason but not for the wrong reason. It’s best to refuse service from the outset if you anticipate a problem rather than letting things blow up.

In terms of actually getting it done:

  • Don’t accuse. Avoid saying, “you,” as in, “You wrote a racial epithet on your check last time so we’ll no longer be serving you,” but rather use “I” like, “I'm sorry I am not able to seat you.”
  • Don’t negotiate. If you are refusing service, it must be for a good reason. Don’t try to reason with a guest or negotiate as in “Well, I’ll let you join us this time but that will be your last visit with us,” or, “I’ll serve you but just one drink.”
  • Let line-level employees blame you. Line-level employees who may be uncomfortable having the conversation can say, “I’m sorry but I could lose my job if I seat you.”
  • Don’t explain. Your job is not to make a problem guest into a better person—it’s to run a restaurant. Don’t try to breakdown where the guest went wrong or point out model behavior. That can only devolve into an argument. Saying, “If you didn’t come here and take your clothes off in the dining room last time, I might have been willing to seat you this time,” won’t work. They know where they transgressed and if they don’t, you’re not going to change them.

Finally, for any restaurant, it’s a good strategy to maintain positive relationships with your police force so that if you need help, they know you run a clean business and are likely in the right.

More on refusing service here

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