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Some customers are treating waiters and hotel staff horribly. The hospitality industry wants them to knock it off

A new toolkit is intended to help workers cope when customers go from “terribly demanding” to just plain “terrible”

A flyer from the Rhode Island Hospitality Association's "Please Be Kind" toolkit.Rhode Island Hospitality Association

PROVIDENCE — The incidents aren’t usually of the table-flipping, fists-flying variety, although that does happen. People don’t even have to raise their voices to cross the line into condescension, although voices do sometimes get raised. Around Rhode Island, as the state emerges fitfully from a long and traumatic pandemic, some customers are being terrible to the staff of hotels and restaurants. The industry would really like them to knock it off.

“There’s always been that one guy — the person who flips the table and is that worked up, he’s always been here, he’s still here, he’s still coming,” said Jessica Willi, executive director of the Block Island Tourism Council. “He’s not going to change his behavior. The difference is, now it’s more of, ‘We want what we want, we paid for it, and we want it now.’”

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It’s a growing problem at hotels and at restaurants of all kinds: Staffing shortages are leading to delays. Delays are leading to frustration. Frustration is leading to unkindness toward the hospitality staff. It’s not universal, but just before the Fourth of July, after an accumulation of complaints, it finally came to a head.

Dale Venturini, the president and CEO of the Rhode Island Hospitality Association, convened an emergency meeting of the industry trade group on July 1. They came up with an idea: Posters that businesses could hang in the window, part of a “Please Be Kind Toolkit.” Like “no shoes, no shirt, no service,” they will serve as reminders for people to be a bit more humane.

“Welcome back,” one such poster says. “We are experiencing a staff shortage. We ask that you please be kind and patient with the staff that are working. Thank you!”

A breakroom poster with mental health resources, part of the Rhode Island Hospitality Association's "Please Be Kind" toolkit.Rhode Island Hospitality Association

But there’s another tool in the kit: fliers with mental health resources for staffers who are struggling to cope.

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Said Sarah Bratko, lobbyist for the hospitality association: “There’s such an excitement to get back into the universe, sometimes we forget there’s real people who are trying to do their jobs. We’re just asking that customers be kind, and patient, and give everybody a little bit of a break. Because the industry is doing the best it can.”

The stress from the pandemic has been tough on everyone, not least the people who worked through it waiting on customers.

“I have never heard this sort of collective, ‘People have been so mean,’” Bratko said. “I don’t know if it’s a sign of political divisiveness, or whether everybody lost social skills over the last year. It’s probably a combination of a lot of different things. But it’s bizarre how frequently we’re seeing this.”

While there are always bad customers to contend with, lately the demands have strayed into the absurd. One worker at a Providence restaurant with outdoor dining recalled multiple occasions when the rain or wind would start to pick up, and a customer would look her in the eye and ask, with a straight face: “Is there anything you can do about this?”

Industry leaders in Massachusetts share similar concerns.

The Massachusetts Restaurant Association partnered with Clear Channel Outdoor, which operates digital billboards throughout the state, on a public service campaign designed to remind patrons to be patient while restaurants reopen and restaff.

Steve Clark, vice president of government affairs at the MRA, said the billboards were on display throughout June and also included a series of signs aimed at promoting to-go and outdoor dining options.

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The Massachusetts Restaurant Association ran billboards in June 2021 urging customers to be more patient with staff as restaurants reopened.Massachusetts Restaurant Association/Handout photo

“We’re in the hospitality industry,” Clark said. “We’re dealing with people when they’re hungry, when they want to go out.”

Throughout the pandemic, Clark said the restaurant group also distributed resources to its members on dealing with mental health issues.

The hospitality industry is broader than just restaurants, and hotel staff are also coping with rude customers.

The Dean Hotel in downtown Providence was open throughout the entire pandemic. When things were at their worst, people were fine, staffers say. They understood they had to wear masks, and accepted social distancing. They accepted that there wouldn’t be maids cleaning up after them every day or room service on call at all times. But now the economy has opened up and it’s like a switch has flipped.

“Just five months ago we were considered essential workers,” said general manager Sosothabna Ngin. “Now you’re yelling in our faces because we don’t have room service on a Monday night.”

“We are a little worn out, the same way the customers are worn out in their own lives,” Ngin said. “They sometimes don’t take a second to remember, they’re in the same boat I’m in as well. We’re facing the same exact thing right now.”

As Rhode Island enters the midsummer, the problem now may be at its worst in tourist-heavy areas of Rhode Island, people in the industry say. Nothing against New Yorkers: It’s just easier to be a jerk to someone if you’ll never have to see them again.

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People were cooped up for more than a year. As they zoned out on Zoom or got their millionth lukewarm styrofoam-encased curbside takeout order, they might have been daydreaming of the perfect getaway. And when they finally get to take it, and something isn’t just right — maybe they’re not able to check into the hotel until 3:15 p.m., or they have to wait for a table even as some remain empty due to staff shortages, or the pasta fagioli takes a bit longer to come out than usual — so they take it out on the person right in front of them. That person definitely does not deserve it.

Neighborhood mainstays are also feeling the effects. Eileen Harvey, who owns Skeff’s Neighborhood Pub in Cumberland and Lou’s Cafe in Manville with her husband, is planning to print out multiple fliers from the hospitality association’s toolkit, so people have multiple reminders. People generally understand when they explain what they’re up against with staff shortages, Harvey said.

“I’ve got two bartenders cooking right now because they want us to remain open — so you didn’t get enough goat cheese, or chicken cut on the bias, I’m sorry, but we’re trying to do what we can do here,” Harvey said. “They always say, ‘Oh, all right. I’m sorry.’”

At the Red Dory in Tiverton, owner Aaron DeRego said they’ve been imposing limits on tables in order to meet demand, but 10 minutes before they have to clear the table to serve the next customer, someone will try to get in a cappuccino and dessert order.

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Bad customers will remind them of how much money they’re spending when visiting the area. Things can get downright creepy. Some of DeRego’s staff have chosen to continue to wear masks, which leads to comments like “Take your mask off so I know how to tip you.”

“Man, if we have to put stickers around so customers are kind, what are we doing?” said DeRego. “Why can’t people just be cool and just be happy that this whole thing is over?”

Anissa Gardizy of the Globe Staff contributed to this report.


Brian Amaral can be reached at brian.amaral@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @bamaral44.