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Can restaurants ban guests for trolling them on social media?

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Question:

I’ve been trolled on social media by a somewhat regular guest who is impossible to please but somehow keeps coming back for more. I told her (via a comment on a post she made) that she’s no longer welcome at any of my restaurants, and I alerted my staff. Now she’s threatening legal action. Am I not allowed to ban a guest?!

– Owner

Answer:

As the owner of a private establishment, you have the right to serve those guests you want to serve. The mantra in hospitality law is that you can deny service for any reason, so long as it’s not for the wrong reason. So if you decide that someone is intoxicated, belligerent, comes in too close to closing time, was a bad guest on their last visit, is dressed inappropriately, or something else, including being a troll on social media, you can deny them service. Of course you cannot deny them service on the basis of race, religion, national origin, gender, age or disability, or any other protected classes in place at the state level.

As guests seem to be more poorly mannered than ever, stories of ridiculous guest behavior spread over social media, and irate banned guests spread their frustration on review sites, guest bans seem to be more top of mind. Restaurants are banning guests across a variety of categories, including critics, unruly children, Instagrammers  and those who stiff servers, to name a few. Lê, owner of Hop Sing Laundromat, a bar in Philadelphia, famously posts his running tab of banned guests who have committed a variety of infractions—they now number more than 3,000.

While banning may be legal, it is not an ideal solution. It limits your revenue opportunities, angers a guest—who may share their frustration with others—and defies hospitality. Still, there are certain guests your operation would be better off without, and often for good reason. While anyone can threaten or even pursue legal action to a point, if you had clear reasons for banning this guest, I wouldn’t worry too much.

My advice when it comes to banning guests is to:

  • Clearly postpolicies regarding dress code, phone use, smoking/vaping, serving intoxicated guests and so on. That way, if you deny service for any of those reasons, there will be less confusion about what may have motivated the decision.
  • Document any instances of denying service: date and time, reason, customer name (if available), description and employees involved.
  • Use banning as a last resort after first trying to explain your policies and correct the guest behavior.

 

While unpleasant, if you make the decision to ban a guest, stick with it. Don’t negotiate. More on banning customers here.

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