At The Rail restaurant in Orleans, a family who came in to eat decided to take their food to go after their order took a while, owner Cam Hadfield said. To apologize for the delay, the restaurant didn’t charge them for their meal. But 15 minutes after the family left, they drove back to the restaurant, pulled into the parking lot, and dumped the free food out of the car window.
In Brewster, the owners of Apt Cape Cod recently gave their wait staff a “mental health day” after a series of incidents in which customers verbally abused young employees, dropped “a lot of f-bombs,” and called them “stupid.” One person told an employee they hoped the employee got hit by a car when leaving work, said chef and co-owner Regina Felt-Castellano, 39.
“This is the worst [customer behavior] that I’ve encountered in 20 years,” said her wife, co-owner Brandi Felt-Castellano. “It’s not one a day or one a week, it’s one every 30 minutes. When we commiserate with our other friends in the industry, it’s not little things, it’s more like, ‘I was physically afraid for my staff, I was physically afraid for myself.’ It went from stuff we could laugh about to stuff that is scary.”
Since the state lifted virtually all remaining COVID-19 restrictions on May 29, restaurants have been working to return to full speed while contending with staff shortages and supply issues. At the same time, customers emerging from months inside are eager to enjoy restaurant dining again with the arrival of warmer temperatures.
That has turned out to be a combustible combination. Some restaurant owners describe unruly customers who are lashing out at employees when they can’t be seated right away or endure longer wait times for their food.
“People were coming in and demanding that they get what they want right then, right there, and not understanding that we’ve been through this pandemic, and we haven’t had this many people here in 18 months,” Regina Felt-Castellano said. “And all of a sudden people started being abusive and using foul language to our wait staff and throwing tantrums in front of other people’s children.”
The recent string of events prompted Apt Cape Cod to take to its Facebook page last week to announce the restaurant would be closing for breakfast to treat staff to “a day of kindness.”
“We wanted to take a day to stop and tell our staff that we value you as employees and humans and you don’t deserve to be treated this way,” Regina Felt-Castellano said. “We wanted to fill the day with kindness and say: ‘You don’t have to worry about anyone saying anything to you because you’re worth whatever money we would have brought in that day.’ ”
The response from the community has been overwhelming, she said. The restaurant has received messages from as far away as Washington and California. A woman from New York wanted to send $100 on Venmo to be split among the wait staff. Others in the service industry have reached out to thank the restaurant for standing up for them.
“I feel 100 percent better that we did what we did,” Regina Felt-Castellano said. “There’s a weight lifted off my shoulders and a feeling that maybe now that there’s awareness, customers will be kind and understand. And it’s held true. I haven’t had an issue since we’ve put up the post.”
Bob Luz, president of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, said that recent incidents are exceptions, and that for the most part, guests have been gracious and understanding. Many businesses across the country are dealing with staffing shortages and supply chain issues, Luz said, but it’s exacerbated in the restaurant industry because it’s very labor intensive.
“[Restaurants] went from having limited capacity, limited employees, limited product, to open fully, inside and outside,” Luz said. “And having a public that had huge pent-up desire. And so the result is that it’s caused disruption.”
Since the beginning of June, the restaurant association has put up two billboards in the state urging diners to be patient and understanding.
In Rhode Island, the hospitality association went so far as to create a “Please Be Kind” tool kit to ask patrons to be nice to servers and staff, complete with fliers offering mental health resources for workers confronted by demanding customers.
“Welcome back,” one of the posters reads. “We are experiencing a staff shortage. We ask that you please be kind and patient with the staff that are working. Thank you!”
But some customers are not only refusing to be patient, they’re getting downright aggressive.
At the Cleat & Anchor in Dennis Port, a group of young people were drinking mini bottles of alcohol and whiskey as they waited in line to get into the restaurant over July Fourth weekend. When Felicia Pons, the co-owner and general manager, asked them to leave, a woman tried to physically assault her, she said, prompting another staff member to intervene.
Later that night, after the restaurant was closed, the group came back and started banging on the front door. The kitchen door was open, and they charged inside and threw a number of pantry items on the floor before they ran out, leaving the kitchen staff to clean up multiple tubs of mustard, Pons said.
“It’s been a rough summer when it comes to guest interactions,” she said. “It’s just crazy how some people are acting. I feel like everyone’s been cooped up for so long that they just feel entitled and privileged to the sense where the restaurant workers are below them. It’s definitely really disappointing the way our society is behaving in this post-pandemic world.”
Brian Amaral of the Globe staff contributed to this report.