On a recent trip to St. Louis, my friends and I stopped into a buzzy new restaurant for drinks and snacks. The four of us sat down at the bar, excited to be together and to be on vacation. We had read good things about the place — it was recently voted one of Bon Appétit’s best new restaurants in America.
“What do you want to drink?” the bartender barked.
I asked about a cocktail, and he mumbled an explanation that ended with “it’s whatever.” We ordered drinks and a few small plates, and he replied with a disdainful, “So you’re just having snacks?” He was indifferent to – even inconvenienced by – our very presence, casting a gloomy shadow over our visit. Needless to say, we didn’t get a second round.
As far as service industry horror stories go, I realize that this one is quite tame. The bartender provided adequate service, in that he gave us what we ordered and kept our water glasses full. Nothing nightmarish happened. He didn’t use any racial slurs or (as far as we know) spit in any of our food.
And yet, as we walked back out into the beating St. Louis sun, I felt cheated. We go to bars and restaurants for an escape. We go because we want someone to take care of us for an hour or two, to provide us with nourishing food or a restorative drink. Though we could cook dinner or crack a beer at home, we choose to go out because we are looking for something more. And it’s up to those of us in the hospitality industry to do our best to provide it.
In Setting the Table: The Transforming Power of Hospitality, New York restaurateur Danny Meyer argues that serving good food is not, in fact, his top priority. “In the end, what’s most meaningful is creating positive, uplifting outcomes for human experiences and human relationships,” he writes. “Business, like life, is all about how you make people feel. It’s that simple, and it’s that hard.”
I’ve now been in the service industry for most of my adult life. Here in Pittsburgh, I’ve watched new bars and restaurants open at a breakneck pace, and it’s now easier than ever to find something tasty to eat or drink. The way these new places will thrive and survive is not through flashy cocktails or trendy tapas, but by focusing, as Meyer suggests, on how people feel.
And though there are exceptions, I’m proud of the passion I see in the hospitality industry today. Increasingly, these jobs are treated as proper careers and not simply an easy side gig. I hope this trend continues, because providing warm service is a noble and rewarding pursuit. While I’ll forget an under seasoned salad or an overcooked burger, I’ll remember Mr. “It’s Whatever” for a long time.