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Indignity after indignity allegedly plagued the beleaguered staff of the farm-to-table restaurant for weeks. Finally, a customer’s fiery rant over a breakfast takeout order last Thursday became the final straw.
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The owners of Apt Cape Cod in Brewster, Mass., decided to abruptly shutter their homey roadside establishment for the next several hours so staff could enjoy a “day of kindness.” An “astronomical influx” of customers had been screaming at employees, dangling legal threats and driving team members to tears, the owners wrote on Facebook.
Apt joins a slew of restaurants across the country that have reported more frequent mistreatment in recent weeks. As customers clamor to resume their pre-pandemic lives, some have lashed out at an industry suffering from a shortage of workers, more costly ingredients and supply-chain glitches. Scrambling to stay afloat, overworked staff members often find themselves on the other side of customers’ irritation.
Abusive treatment, Apt co-owner Brandi Felt Castellano told the New York Times, has become “its own epidemic” since Massachusetts restaurants fully reopened in late May.
“A lot of customers now, as we all are, are so eager to get back to the way that life was before the pandemic,” said Darron Cardosa, a longtime waiter who runs a popular food-service blog. “We’re just supremely disappointed that things aren’t the way they used to be.”
Every day, Cardosa said he hears from servers berated by customers about service delays due to the restaurants’ skeleton crews. Staff members have said they feel “beaten down” and “disrespected” as the food industry reevaluates its long-held mantra that “the customer is always right.”
Restaurants and hospitality groups have responded by pleading for understanding as they get back on their feet after a brutal year. A Mexican restaurant in Iowa reminded guests in May that its servers are real people doing their best. A South Carolina barbecue joint started reading an agreement to customers, informing them that they will be asked to leave if they’re rude more than once. A Louisville ramen shop closed for a week to take its servers to Las Vegas as a reward for working through a tumultuous year.
The Rhode Island Hospitality Association designed signs, posters and social media images for restaurants to promote kindness, while the Massachusetts Restaurant Association bought space on more than a dozen billboards to remind customers to be patient.
For the Massachusetts group, which represents about 1,400 restaurants, the move was meant to be proactive. Bob Luz, the association’s CEO, said his organization had not heard about increased misbehavior after states rolled back coronavirus restrictions — but he added that all businesses face issues with customers.
“Restaurant employees will not let their people be mistreated,” he said. “And every once in a while, you have to fire a guest.”
But workers say their employers do not always protect them. Servers and kitchen staff point to the industry’s low wages, unpredictable hours and reliance on sometimes poorly behaved customers for tips as reasons that many are quitting in droves. Others, laid off amid the pandemic, pivoted to other industries they expected to find more fulfilling.
At Apt, recent instances of unkindness have included a customer suggesting that a staff member get hit by a car and another person threatening to sue because the restaurant could not guarantee her a table outside, Castellano and her co-owner and spouse, Regina Felt Castellano, told Boston television station WHDH, which was among the first news outlets to report the story.
Apt is short-staffed, and food supplies are more expensive or hard to get than before the pandemic. Add customer cruelty to that tough environment, and some young staff members dread their next shifts, Brandi Felt Castellano told WHDH.
Fed up, the Castellanos recently posted a sign outside their restaurant making their expectations clear: “If you cannot be kind, you cannot dine!” The new mantra joins Apt’s tone-setting motto of “Come as strangers, leave as friends,” posted on the establishment’s website.
“As a small-business owner, I refuse to let my staff be treated less than human, and will continue to stand up for everyone in the service industry,” Regina Castellano, who is also the restaurant’s chef, said in a statement to The Washington Post. The Castellanos declined a further interview and did not respond to questions about whether employees were paid for their reduced hours and whether some of them are tipped.
Apt’s decision to pause service was greeted with an outpouring of support from community members, who asked to donate to employees, sent encouraging notes and praised the owners for protecting their staff. One guest brought the employees gift cards for ice cream, the Castellanos said, and someone dropped off a bouquet of lavender hydrangeas.
“Sad state of affairs when people are so emboldened to be rude and hurtful,” one person wrote to the Apt staff on Facebook. “I hope you are blessed with many kind customers in the days, months and years to come!”