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Is it OK to correct a guest's pronunciation?

restaurant server
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Question:

Should I be correcting guests’ pronunciation when they misspeak? A (not yet tipsy) guest ordered an “Espanol and soda.” After thinking on it for a few beats I said, “Espolon (tequila) and soda?” She looked totally offended that I couldn’t read her mind without checking. And of course it would have been on me if she sent it back.

– Bartender, fine dining

Answer:

This comes up a lot, especially with wine and foreign menu terms. As a culinary and hospitality educator, it pains me to let misunderstandings or misinformation sit unchecked—if I make a mistake, I want to be corrected so it doesn’t happen again.

But remember, as a front-of-house professional, your primary job is to provide hospitality, great food, beverage, service and atmosphere, not (primarily) to provide education. Fortunately, those two concepts often go hand in hand. There’s nothing I like better than trying a new (to me) beverage and learning about its maker and region, or trying something novel on a plate and learning how the chef makes it. Many guests, maybe even most, feel the same way.

I can certainly imagine situations where a guest who simply wants a tequila and soda would not welcome a language lesson. Maybe she is with some business colleagues or friends and wants to seem sophisticated and knowledgeable. Maybe she had a terrible day (a time for a drink if there ever was one) and has more pressing things on her mind. Or maybe she simply thinks she’s right and is not the type to want to be corrected.

One of the challenges in hospitality is reading the guest. Do they want to be educated or do they want to be right? Or do they just want their booze? In this case, I think you were perfectly right to clarify the guest’s order to be sure she was getting what she wanted. My advice is to lightly correct the guest upon serving the beverage (“Here is your Espolon and soda”) so she will know how to order in the future.

Finally, if correcting guests, be sure staff is knowledgeable about your food and beverage offerings. I recently dined at a restaurant that should know better and ordered a Cocchi Americano (pronounced KOH-kee). The server authoritatively corrected me, self-assuredly bringing me the Ko-CHEE.

More on correcting guest pronunciation (or not) here.

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