Family/Not Family: Restaurants and Relationships

There’s a restaurant I go to regularly with friends when I’m down south — I think of it like a second home. We sit at the bar and the sushi chefs banter with us and make intriguing, delightful, wonderful things. They know what we like, and they know how to present the food in the best order, with the perfect level of aesthetic detail. They know precisely how much we need to eat to feel sated, filling us with amazing food with flavours that linger in our sense memories long after we’ve gone off into the night.

There’s a bar I go to regularly with friends when I’m up north — comfortable couches, casual bar food, friendly staff. I think of it as a second home, ‘my local,’ a place over which I have a strange possessiveness (particularly over the L-shaped couch, which is ours and ours alone). The staff know us, they bring what we usually order without having to ask, when it’s not busy sometimes they’ll stop by for a quick chat.

These are all the lessons of smart customer service, of course. If you work in any kind of customer service, you’re trained to make people feel comfortable and at home — you want people to have a favourable experience so they come back and tell their friends. You want people to feel almost like members of the family while they’re there, and sometimes you even refer to them that way. In the restaurant and food service industry, there’s the added pressure of a tip-based economy and the frustrating and humiliating knowledge that people who feel like they’re getting special treatment as members of the family tend to tip more.

This is not to say that I think any of these people are faking their affection for us for tips. Nor do I think that their attentiveness is about hoping to top that baseline 20% that most reasonable people tip — and it’s not a response to the fact that we often tip more, because we particularly enjoy the service. They like us because we’re friendly and we treat them well and they treat us well in return, the great secret of customer service: Try not being a dick and you’d be surprised by the doors that open to you and how accommodating people can be. Try being a pain and you’ll find yourself faced with something else.

But there is a strange and somewhat awkward sense to it, sometimes. I do feel like part of the family, but I know I’m not — I’m a valued and loyal customer, and someone people genuinely enjoy seeing, but I’m not part of the family of the restaurant’s internal culture itself, let alone that of the individual staff members. I know many of their names, in many cases I know a bit about their personal lives and inquire after their children or horses or recent travels, but I’m not a family member. In many cases, I’m not even a friend: I’m a person with a very clear, strict, and defined relationship.

In massage school, students in some disciplines and under some instructors are warned about the baby duck effect — the tendency for clients to get attached to their therapists either after particularly great sessions, or over time. They’re warned about maintaining professional relationships with the people they work on and with, and also about how to defuse awkward situations or tensions. These clients aren’t the ones who preferentially request therapists they enjoy working with, or those who tip well (the tipping economy again), or those who express their compliments, but the ones who go a bit over the line. Maybe you’re at a spa and clients want to stop and chat after their sessions, feeling that some sort of deep connection happened and wanting to linger in the moment. Maybe clients make therapists feel uncomfortable with their level of devotion in other ways — I’m not talking about people who attempt to sexualise therapeutic massage, but other issues.

I sometimes wonder if people in food service experience the baby duck effect too, feeling as though their customers are overstepping boundaries without being aware of it, not┬ácomprehending that there’s a difference between being friendly, genuinely liking customers, having fun together, and being friends and family. It’s a line I try to be aware of as a customer, well aware that I hold the balance of power in a situation that’s too easy to pretend is equal, especially with people I come to know and like behind the counter — no matter how I try to slice it, I’m still the one with the wallet, and they are still the ones serving me.

For people who work in any service industry, dealing with overfriendly customers can be a challenge, as I remember from my own days facing off with customers. You’re trained to be polite, attentive, friendly, to never contradict customers — but it can be difficult when a customer passes a phone number across the counter, when someone gets a little too forward, when a customer presses for personal details. It’s something that people don’t always remember when they’re interacting with people they see on a regular basis preparing their food and drinks, grabbing pastries and occasionally slipping them a nod and leaving something off the bill in a friendly way.

We’re still the ones in power, not quite friends and family — and if we end up cultivating relationships outside of work, that’s one thing, but we’re not entitled to those relationships, and they don’t form automatically no matter how often we show up and how well we tip. Because you can’t buy friendship, and friendship isn’t something you earn by repeatedly showing up.