I'm Allergic to Onions

Tilia line
Photo by Eliesa Johnson

I don’t think the guest is always right. There, I said it. Is that shocking to you? I can think of more than a dozen instances back in my service life where the guest was certainly in the wrong (the time the guy reached over the bar and grabbed me by the braid because I wouldn’t serve him another drink comes to mind) and I had the support of my management. Of course, bad behavior is one thing we could all agree on, but what about demanding behavior or bad attitudes? Is that within the realm of what should be expected and tolerated by service staff?

This discussion came to light recently with regard to what we’ll call the gluten situation. A server rant made its way around social media basically venting frustration about diners who claim a gluten allergy and then proceed to ask for a breadbasket or enjoy a cakey dessert. The rant was poorly worded, misinformed, and mean in tone, but the theory behind the anger concerning the disruption of a system had some merit in it. Kitchens are highly orchestrated machines that need to function at high levels of efficiency to make it through a rush and keep all the diners happy. They are not grocery stores, they are not dinner parties, they are kicking their butts to make you their food. When someone asks for a menu item to be drastically altered— or worse, to have the kitchen cook something not even on the menu—it can throw a big wrench into the flow of a kitchen and potentially hurt the ticket times and dining experiences of other eaters, thereby jeopardizing tips and returns. You can see why a worker might get angry when all of the fuss to make a guest happy was based on a perceived whim, with a potentially fabricated illness that guests feel they can trot out when they feel like it. If you don’t like onions, don’t pretend you’re allergic to them, just say you don’t like them.

But isn’t that service? Catering to the needs of guests, whether or not you “believe” them? Should it be the server’s job to figure out if a guest is lying about an illness or handling it in the way the server deems “right”? I say no. If you can meet the need, meet it: That’s good service. Just as it’s wrong for people to assume the kitchen should be able and ready to handle their every whim, it’s wrong for servers to assume anything about the moral basis for a guest’s requests, especially with gluten, where there are so many gray areas.

In the end this is a delicate balance of respect, which is deserved on all fronts. The people who are serving your food deserve respect for putting themselves second to your needs and working hard for your fun night, and the people who are dining deserve respect for choosing your establishment and paying for your services. If we could foster a better understanding of how food affects different people and try to accommodate where possible, while at the same time understanding the boundaries of restaurants and throwing away all sense of entitlement, we might find a balance that requires less ranting and more eating.