Restaurant no-shows, unruly bachelorette parties: Pandemic brings out dark side of diners

Mackensy Lunsford
Asheville Citizen Times

ASHEVILLE - It's hard to run a restaurant during the COVID-19 pandemic, but when 40 diners fail to show up for their reservations, it can make what's already an uphill battle even steeper.

That's what happened Nov. 21 at The Market Place, said chef and owner William Dissen, a usually calm restaurateur who vented his frustration on Twitter that night. 

"I wish people would see how restaurants are suffering during the pandemic and that guests would better understand how their poor choices affect us," he wrote. "I know it’s a strange time right now, but please pick up the phone and call to cancel your reservation if you can’t make it."

Dissen said he's not usually the type to take to social media to complain about customers.

"But I'm frustrated," he said. "We're doing our best to hang on. I'm confident we'll make it to the other side, but it takes two to tango, and we need both the restaurants and the guests to fulfill their commitments to each other."

No shows leave restaurants hanging

Restaurant owners and workers across the city say they're seeing similar behavior.

"People make reservations at three different places and, at the last minute, decide where they're going and don't cancel the reservation," said Michel Baudouin of Bouchon.

Rendezvous, 184 New Haw Creek Rd., has transformed their pŽtanque courts into outdoor dining.

Especially in a pandemic, those tables might not be filled with new customers. That can negatively impact revenue, particularly in a restaurant like Bouchon that has only six tables on the main floor. It also means servers walk with less money at the end of the night. 

"But we have solved that problem," said the French-born restaurateur.

More:More than 50 restaurants and breweries with heated outdoor spaces for dining and drinking

Now, Bouchon's reservationists take credit cards numbers, charging $25 for each no-call no-show.

"We're already at (state-mandated) 50% capacity, and we know a lot of people don't really give a damn about anyone but themselves," Baudouin said matter-of-factly. 

Dissen said the bad behavior doesn't end when diners show up. 

One couple didn't like the table they had reserved in the bar area. When a move couldn't be accommodated, they angrily decided to stay anyway. 

But when the bartender accidentally brought the entree before the salad, the couple went apoplectic.

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"They were screaming 'F you! You'll go out of business in a week!'" Dissen said. "We said we were sorry, took care of the bill and asked them to leave. The rest of the guests clapped when they left."

Dissen once thought pandemic-era diners would recognize what a privilege it is to be healthy and financially secure enough to eat out. He said that instead, many act entitled.

"People have shown their true colors, and it makes me sad," he said. 

More:Asheville restaurants open for Thanksgiving: Where to get takeout, order meals, dine in

Guests have shown up drunk, complaining loudly about state-mandated mask policies. Some, indignant about having to wear a mask the few steps to their table, have screamed at staff and customers so vociferously that police have been called more than once. 

Dissen said such behavior is not only rude, it poses a health risk. 

"I'm very thankful my staff have shown how strong they are and wonderful and resilient," Dissen said. "They've had to deal with a lot. This is my restaurant family and my team, and I'll do what I can to protect them." 

Tables expand seating outside of The Market Place, 20 Wall St., before service on Aug. 18, 2020.

"If I could make a plea to people," he added, "Just be kind."

Takeout: sometimes the best choice

It's not only pandemic deniers who can be difficult. Asheville Independent Restaurant association executive director Jane Anderson said some diners are so acutely persnickety about dining conditions, it can be difficult to accommodate them. 

She told a story of out-of-town customers who walked in and out of restaurant after restaurant, searching for an apparently unachievable balance of weather proofing, warmth and free-flowing air. 

"People have their own picture of what safe outdoor dining is, and it takes into account heat, it takes into account protection from the weather," Anderson said, adding that diners have a right to feel safe. "But everybody's got real specific safety needs, and sometimes it just can't be accommodated."

In those cases, she suggested, perhaps takeout or delivery might be the best option.

More:Where you can get food for dine in and takeout Christmas Day in Asheville 2020

A sign at Luella's Bar-B-Que, 501 Merrimon Ave, gives instructions on the restaurant's new layout on Aug. 18, 2020.

For those who prefer dining rooms, Anderson said adhering to state mask mandates with grace is essential. Staff, she said, are growing weary of fighting with customers.

More:Mission reports most COVID patients; WNC cases on the rise

"I'm hearing a lot of people saying they don't have the fortitude to keep doing it," Anderson said. "Given the incredible vitality of our restaurant scene, we don't want people who are good at what they do to leave the industry."

So how can people be better diners? It's fairly simple: don't argue with the staff, make reservations and keep them or cancel in a timely manner. 

"Beyond that, use kindness, common sense and tip well," Anderson said. 

Big groups a big problem

Etiquette generally demands diners tip 15-20% of the final bill, but a pandemic baseline of 20% seems more reasonable, especially given what some servers are putting up with these days. 

Ruth Rapp, one of the hospitality workers behind the newly formed Asheville branch of Restaurant Opportunity Centers United, is a member of multiple service industry Facebook groups, which double as virtual support groups.

After a plea for horror stories, she received an avalanche of answers. 

"I once politely asked a man to put his mask on before entering the restaurant I manage," one respondent told her. "He refused and told me he wished me and my family (would) die."

One told her about a customer who felt "threatened" by the server's mask.

A pair wearing a mask and a face shield walk past a parking garage with the street-level doors taken off on Biltmore Avenue in downtown Asheville on June 25, 2020. The governor is requiring face masks starting June 26.

"Like what if I robbed him and he wouldn't be able to tell anyone what I looked like," the commenter recalled. "And without missing a beat, I responded, 'What am I going to steal from you? Your sweet tea?'"

Rapp said one common complaint among restaurant workers involves large parties demanding to be seated together. 

State guidelines recommend restaurants seat no more than 10 at a table, though individual restaurants may need to seat fewer people per table to adhere to social distancing guidelines.

"Thinking that you can still gather as normal in a restaurant is a problem," Rapp said. 

It's also problematic for staff to have to police the very people they depend on for tips. 

"I think some may have given up on asking people to put on their masks," she said. 

Right to refuse service

At both Bouchon and East Asheville's Rendezvous, where the clientele is largely better behaved, Baudouin has erected two big signs that say "We reserve the right to refuse service."

Still, some ignore the signs, flout the rules and act surprised when they get the boot.

That was the case with a bachelorette party of 10, which staff of the tiny restaurant had to split into two groups, each in its own plexiglass-partitioned booth. 

Michel Baudouin, owner of downtown Asheville's Bouchon, sits behind a plexiglass divider May 20, 2020.

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As soon as the women were seated and served drinks, however, they began moving freely back and forth and around the restaurant maskless.

Staff asked them to put their masks back on. "And they said, 'We're not going to do that,'" Baudouin recalled. "So we said, 'We're not going to serve you.' They paid for their drinks and were escorted out."

Another customer who felt slighted when the hostess informed his wife she'd have to wait as the tables were sanitized took off his mask and began screaming in the hostess's face. 

A manager threatened to call the police.  

"They said, 'We'll never come back,'" Baudouin said. "And the manager looked at them and said, 'We hope not.'"


Mackensy Lunsford has lived in Asheville for more than 20 years, and has been a staff writer for the Asheville Citizen Times since 2012. Lunsford is a former professional line cook and one-time restaurant owner.

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