Richard Bainbridge, Olly Smith: More of us should have the confidence to call customers out for treating hospitality workers badly

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Deputy Editor

Social media has become a great tool for hospitality businesses to communicate with their guests

At the height of the pandemic, they used their Instagram, Twitter, Facebook (and even TikTok) accounts to tell customers how they were adapting their operating models, and still, now, they put out rallying calls to fill up tables when cancellations come piling in at the last minute


But what of it when diners act up, leave unduly disparaging reviews online, or come in to dine expecting dietaries to be catered for at the last minute

Last week, social networks also gave chef owner of Cora in Cardiff Lee Skeet an outlet to call our a group of diners - since identified as senior members of legal firm Ince - for their unacceptable behaviour towards his front of house manager, Lily Griffiths.

The chef was crestfallen to find out that she had been "talked down to, disrepected and touched unwantedly" by the guests, and after initially offering to refund their £1,000 bill should they agree to "never come back to my restaurant," decided to give the full sum to Lily.

'We should respect each other wherever we encounter each other in life'

His reaction triggered a widespread response from within and outside the industry, raising the eternal question: is the customer always right? 

We asked our guest on The Staff Canteen podcast this week - joining TSC editor and returning co-host Richard Bainbridge - wine pundit, broadcaster, author and fellow podcaster Olly Smith, who stood firmly on the chef's side.

He explained: "I like him. I think call it out. I don't know the nature of the behaviour or how far it went, but if it's perceived that somebody is being bullied or made to feel uncomfortable, we absolutely have to call that out - and just because we're in our place of work doesn't change anything. We should respect each other wherever we encounter each other in life." 

Ultimately, even if it doesn't feel like the most hospitable response at the time, he said, "we need to call out bad behaviour - it's all too easy to just not say anything or to just turn a blind eye.

"I'm like everybody else, nobody wants to step in. It's a horrible feeling, but sometimes it's the right thing to do and as long as you're cool and measured." 

'It's always been, the customer is right, whatever the customer says, in hospitality, we have to bow to their needs'

For Richard, the incident testifies to the change in the way that the industry is perceived, and how, now, after emerging from the pandemic beleaguered and fighting to survive, has more grounds than ever to stick up for itself.

"It's always been, the customer is right, whatever the customer says, in hospitality, we have to bow to their needs." 

And while that is one of the defining features of hospitality, "at the same time, we are running a business, we're trying to do the best we can and we're serving people lunch and dinner."

Having had his fair share of experiences like Lee before, where his team have borne the brunt of customers treating them inappropriately, Richard said: "You have to balance - we are human beings, we are trying to do a job, we are trying to do the best we can and there are restaurants who do take customers for granted and try to shove out rubbish food or whatever to get their money - but I think there are so many amazing restaurants around the UK who are trying their best at the moment."

"We haven't had the easiest time over the last two years - so we are really trying to find our feet back in the world of the living." 

'We need to find a level playing field that works for all of us'

Some customers, Richard said, after having "been caged tigers for the last two years," are returning to restaurants with wild expectations, "and they're just exploding."

"They seem to take it out on the waiting staff - which I've seen more than ever in the last 12 months since we've been reopened, shut down and reopened. Customers have been somewhat nastier towards situations than they've ever been before."

The more reasonable stance to adopt now, he said, is that "the customers aren't always right. But we need to find a level playing field that works for all of us."

"If we can all understand each other, everybody will end up having a better time." 

Sometimes, Richard said, even when you try your hardest to give customers what they want - may it be attention or a more hands-off approach, "you have to work with them all individually, but they have to work and be acceptant of what you're trying to do at the same time." 

"At the end of the day, we love what we do and we want customers to come back in and we want them to have a great time." 

"We try all of our tricks in the book to try and make people have fun - I am very much behind [Lee], where sometimes I feel that I wish I had the confidence to do what he did, but I will just say, 'thank you very much, please come back,'" only to reconvene with his team in the aftermath, to, as he put it, "lick our wounds." 

"I would love to have the confidence that he had to be able to talk to some of the customers."

At the end of the day, hospitality isn't about servitude. Resolving a fall-out, however minor, is an act of negotiation.

Olly said: It's "a two way street - they want to give you the chance to put it right, but if they don't afford you that, you can give them the chance to put it right."

Photo credit, Olly Smith Alun Callender

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Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Deputy Editor 12th May 2022

Richard Bainbridge, Olly Smith: More of us should have the confidence to call customers out for treating hospitality workers badly