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Not all regulars are created equal

Question:

We have a regular guest who always asks for items to be taken off her bill because they were "not to her liking," and is usually successful. This is probably why she returns. Would we be better off telling her she’s not welcome? Can we?

– Sarah Aherne, Host, Pittsburgh, PA

Answer:

A difficult guest can make everybody miserable—the server, the manager, the kitchen staff, and, perhaps most troublingly, the other guests. Most experienced restaurateurs and service staff are adept at distinguishing between legitimate complaints and scammers. Some complaints can actually be a good thing for your operation—you can correct a problem before it spreads to more guests, gain constructive feedback, and can address a dissatisfied guest in-house before she makes her grievances public on a review or social networking site. A legitimate complaint gives you an opportunity to win back that guest’s loyalty by taking the complaint seriously, rectifying the problem and ensuring that future visits will be better.

A chronic complainer, on the other hand, is not someone whose business you want to cultivate. Chances are that no amount of comped items or corrections would satisfy. The particular guest you mention is especially troubling if her family’s unruly behavior is detracting from other guests’ experiences in your operation. The worst outcome would be to lose repeat visits from treasured guests because of someone in the dining room who made their experience miserable.

My advice is to have management let this guest know that you take her complaints seriously, but since she has had multiple experiences in your operation and has yet to be satisfied, you feel that she would be happier dining elsewhere. In terms of whether you can bar a guest from your restaurant, a good rule of thumb is that you can refuse service for good reason, but not for the wrong reason. That is to say, you can refuse service because someone is acting inappropriately (as is the case here), is intoxicated (in fact, you must refuse alcohol service in that case), does not meet a posted dress code, or other reasons, but not based on the sex, race, ethnicity, religious affiliation, disability, or sexual orientation of the guest. Moochers, boors and jerks are not protected classes, but you do need to be sure to apply your policies evenly.

As always, consult with your counsel to be sure you are operating within your rights and keep good records of the incidents leading up to banning the guest in the event of follow-up complaints.

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