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Diners Are Fed Up With Minimal Service. Will a Little Warmth Win Them Back?

The Marte family took a risk the other night. They went out to eat.

The last time they’d gone out, things quickly unraveled. The queso arrived but the tortilla chips didn’t. Servers delivered enchiladas they didn’t order. When the family complained, their waiter shrugged.

The bill came to more than $50, before tip — a lot for working parents with two young children.

“For us, that’s why takeout is usually the better option,” Jessica Marte said as she settled into a booth at a Chili’s Grill & Bar in a suburb north of Atlanta. “The food is not the problem. Most of the time it’s the service.”

The patience that customers have extended to restaurants over the last few years is wearing thin, especially as menu prices climb and experienced workers are harder to find. A plaintive cry is rising from America’s dining rooms: Can we get some service around here?

And not just any service. Diners say they crave a night out free from QR codes, waiters who don’t seem to care and menus designed to glorify the chef and attract influencers. They want to feel like welcome guests again, wrapped in the kind of warm, competent hospitality they fantasized about while the pandemic took it all away.

Some restaurant owners, even as they struggle to train a new generation of waiters, hosts and cooks, say they’re looking for ways to restore and even improve that essential piece of the experience. They’re retiring robot waiters, making dining rooms cozier and giving servers and bartenders more time to spend with customers.

“We gave restaurants a pass for many, many months, and I think we are at a place where people really miss the human touch and the little details,” said Ed Lee, a chef and author who divides his time between Louisville, Ky., and Washington, D.C.

Mr. Lee saw this month just how much small gestures mean the first day he opened Nami, a Korean steakhouse in Louisville. A woman held the restaurant’s oversize, stylized menu to her cheek and murmured, “Oh, a menu!”

In Norcross, a small city north of Atlanta, Alexis Anin just opened Influence, an Afro-Latino restaurant and club where he is doing anything he can think of to make people feel that going out is a better idea than staying home. He made sure the booths feel luxurious and the lighting is flattering but not too dim. He set up a small patio for the Covid-wary who still don’t feel comfortable eating inside.

“You have to come up with different tricks to get them to stay in your building,” he said. That includes making them feel secure. Even though the neighborhood isn’t considered dangerous, he added a security guard at the front door.

“I want patrons to feel safe, so they know they are going to have fun and it won’t turn into something,” he said.

Fun, however, has gotten expensive. Eating out cost 8.6 percent more in April than it did a year ago, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. At places that add service charges to supplement wages, the sticker shock is even worse.

“I want to support all these service-charge initiatives and better working conditions for people,” said Liza Dunning, a creative director in the Bay Area. “But also, wow — I am now paying how much for a roast chicken?”

Leann Emmert and Katrina Elder, who work in the film industry, used to spend weekends checking out the newest Los Angeles restaurants. But now that having a couple of drinks and sharing an entree and an appetizer can easily cost $200 with no guarantee of good service, that’s changed. The couple has been largely sticking to a neighborhood restaurant with consistently good food and that everybody-knows-your-name feeling.

“I do not want to spend my money at a place that can’t figure out how to make people feel cared for,” Ms. Emmert said.

Will Guidara, the New York restaurateur who in 2022 published “Unreasonable Hospitality: The Remarkable Power of Giving People More Than They Expect,” said the value proposition of eating out has changed. “Great food in the absence of hospitality is not a great value,” he said.

But how to teach true hospitality to a new generation of workers who may not even know how to fold a napkin?

Lingo like “86” — which means the kitchen is out of a particular dish — might as well be a new language. Mr. Lee recently explained to a novice waiter that she didn’t have to ask a diner’s permission every time she refilled the water glasses.

The need for more attentive service hasn’t been lost on the executives at Chili’s. One measure of how things are going at their 1,129 restaurants are the reports the company compiles about “guests with a problem,” or G-WAPs. A year ago, the G-WAP metric rose so much it needed to be addressed immediately. A lack of staff attentiveness was high on the list.

Kevin Hochman, who had just become the chief executive, made some moves. He canceled a pilot program that used robots as servers. He told managers to hire workers to bus tables, a task that in recent years had fallen largely on servers. He simplified both the tablets that servers use to take orders and the way some dishes are prepared and plated.

The aim was to give servers more time to spend with guests.

“When you go out to eat you want to be waited on, and that hasn’t changed,” Mr. Hochman said. “People pulled back on those expectations a little because of the state of labor and staff, but I think that’s kind of over now. They want a fast and fun, inviting atmosphere.”

For 16 years, Jasmine Owens has been bartending at the same Chili’s where the Marte family was having dinner (which they really enjoyed, by the way.)

“Things are, like, night-and-day better,” she said. The crew she works with is more cohesive and the customers are happier — especially compared with the early days of the pandemic, when the staff was drowning in takeout orders and customers were so on edge they would scream and throw food.

Even chain restaurants are embracing what even five years ago was considered a radical concept: Kitchen culture has to become kinder and less militaristic, and servers can’t pour love on their guests if they don’t feel the love at work.

That means better pay, coupled with mental health support, employee affinity groups and fun extracurriculars that don’t center on post-shift drinks.

“Conventional wisdom was ‘leave your problems at home and come here to work,’” Mr. Lee said. “Now we kind of do the opposite. Bring your problems to work. Pre-shift and during family meal, I want you to tell me what’s going on with you. Is your mom sick? Did your pet die? So if you start acting weird during service, I know why.”

It’s a time-consuming and less profitable way to lead, at least at first. “But over the long run,” he said, “if I am not burning out my staff, they stay longer and I’ll save money.”

Still, the cost of labor in an industry pressed by inflation and peppered with help-wanted signs can be crushing for restaurateurs.

Craig and Annie Stoll, who started the popular pizza-and-pasta restaurant Pizzeria Delfina in San Francisco’s Mission District in 1998, had a hard time finding waiters to work at their newest branch in Palo Alto, in part because they pooled tips in an effort to even out compensation between cooks and servers.

So they devised a waiter-less system in which diners keyed in their own orders, while lower-paid attendants and food runners took care of tables.

“People didn’t love it,” Mr. Stoll said.

As business picked up, they went back to using waiters, whom they attracted by readjusting the tip-pooling formula.

“People were much, much happier,” he said. “They wanted that warm service. It’s what people crave.”

Sam Hart, the chef who owns Counter- and Biblio in Charlotte, N.C., has taken a counterintuitive approach: putting guests last.

First on the list of what he calls “the seven priorities” are employees and their mental health. The idea is that if a restaurant’s whole ecosystem is working smoothly, guests will never know they aren’t the priority — a concept much like what the restaurateur Danny Meyer called “enlightened hospitality” in his 2006 book, “Setting the Table.”

But Mr. Hart believes that some guests need to know exactly why they aren’t the priority. In a recent column in The Charlotte Observer, he took on the entitled post-shutdown diner directly.

“It’s gotten to the point where something must be said: an ever-growing portion of inconsiderate guests are destroying the hospitality industry,” he wrote. He listed 13 things customers should not do while eating out, including snapping fingers to get servers’ attention, threatening to post a negative review and “thinking that you own the place.”

Akila Stewart, a server at Gramercy Tavern in Manhattan, doesn’t buy the notion that the pandemic created a new class of particularly demanding customers. “You are always going to get someone who is probably having a bad day,” she said. “It’s just the nature of the business.”

She says customers these days are chattier, interested in how she is doing and generally more grateful. “They’re more aware that it could be taken away,” she said.

At one of Manhattan’s oldest and most beloved Jewish lunch counters, it almost did go away. Eisenberg’s, which opened in 1928 on lower Fifth Avenue, closed its doors for good during the height of the pandemic.

Eric Finkelstein and Matt Ross, the owners of a small string of sandwich shops called Court Street Grocers, came to the rescue. They took over the deli, renamed it S & P Lunch (after the original owners) and last September reopened the place.

They were careful to keep the old red vinyl stools lining the 40-foot counter, and lightly reworked the big, eccentric menu, which includes what many argue is the best tuna melt in town. To the relief of regulars, they rehired Jodi Freedman-Viera, Eisenberg’s longtime, unflappable cashier, whom every diner has to pay before they leave.

But most on their crew were new, and many of them started out in hospitality at a time when service meant touchless ordering, policing face masks and staying as far from customers as possible.

At S & P, the style of service is casual, friendly and as analog as possible.

“The conventional business wisdom is telling us everything is the algorithm,” Mr. Finkelstein said, “but what people really want is humanism.”

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