When I interview restaurateurs for an article, I always ask for their official title. More often than not, they reply that they do whatever is necessary, from cooking on the line to bookkeeping, to mopping floors.

“I’m a handyman who knows how to cook and has the keys to the place … invisible but always there,” is how Greg Gilman, chef and owner of Portland’s Treehouse Café described himself to me in 2016. It’s a common refrain.

Four years later, owners and managers across Maine find themselves getting involved in their businesses in a more visible way. They still pitch in behind the scenes, but these days, their skills (and authority) are being marshaled to help waitstaff, bartenders, bussers and hosts (collectively called the “front of house”) navigate the choppy waters of pandemic-era customer service.

At Anju Noodle Bar and The Wallingford Dram in Kittery, the person greeting you and discussing safety protocols might not be just a part-time host. Just as likely, it’s Kate Mitchell, the general manager of both restaurants. “All the boundaries are blurred, people are taking on more responsibilities than ever, and everybody is stretched thinner,” she said. “Here, I end up giving everybody the spiel about the bathroom and wearing a mask when you go. I’m trying to cut it off before people do something that isn’t safe.”

Other restaurants extend gatekeeping farther by moving reception stations and hosts outdoors, where ground rules can be established before diners even enter the premises.

Approach the double doors to 18 Central in Rockport, and Jessica Duffy, co-owner and front-of-house manager, is there to meet you. “I personally am greeting everyone on the steps,” she said. “If people come and aren’t giving us or other people enough space, I say something. I’ve taken that on because I don’t want to ask staff. As an owner, it’s important to do it myself rather than ask people to do it for me.”

Moses Sabina, co-owner of Portland’s Hot Suppa! shares Duffy’s perspective, positioning himself outside, side-by-side with his host, “like a quasi-bouncer,” the pair welcoming guests from behind a Plexiglas-and-wood barrier and communicating with the rest of the front-of-house team via walkie-talkies.

Moses Sabina prepares to wheel out a shelf and clear-plastic barrier to the Hot Suppa’s entrance, pandemic precautions. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

He considers such vigilance a necessity, albeit an exhausting one: “We’ve learned that we can’t ever leave the host stand. It would be a mob scene and people would start flooding into the restaurant,” he said. “People don’t want to be told no. And you’re on a bad foot when you have to reprimand them right out of the gate. How can you be hospitality and police at the same time?”

Indeed, while owners and managers view redirecting stubborn or non-compliant customers on behalf of their staff as important and necessary, they also struggle with the calculus of when and how to confront rule-benders.

And intent matters. Karl McElligott, Director of Food & Beverage for Union at the Press Hotel in Portland, takes a generally optimistic view of his diners’ motivations, viewing each small rebuke as an opportunity to educate customers. “When we (managerial staff) have had to confront people, we usually get an apology, rather than an ‘I can’t believe you’re making me do this,’” he said. “When you point it out to them, people seem to appreciate how hard it is to do what we’re doing on a daily basis.”

Managers like Mitchell also chalk up many infractions to overexcitement or lack of familiarity with new safety procedures. “I think it’s more that people can sometimes be kind of clueless, just not thinking. They’re just so excited to have their favorite cocktail or ramen again, so maybe they’re not purposefully infringing on the rules, they just don’t know what to do. It’s new, so it’s an adjustment,” she said.

But there’s no getting around the fact that 2020 has forced owners and managers to bear the brunt of some terrible behavior. “People are not nice this year,” Katherine Conley, the chef and owner of Lighthouse Inn & Restaurant in Seal Harbor, told me. “We had to close early today because my hip went out and I need to get treated. Two people came in, and when my manager apologized and informed them that the chef is injured and can’t stand, the woman got furious and said ‘I’m gonna go online and give you the worst review you’ve ever had.’ What makes a person act that way? It’s been a hard year and everyone is doing the best they can. At least my waitress didn’t have to deal with her. We just wished her well and said good-bye.”

This season, Liz Hamilton, general manager at Café Roma in Portland has also faced down her share of customer tantrums with a smile. “We’ve had to change the menu around and no longer have some of our old guest favorites,” she said. “We definitely have people who come in expecting these things and lash out at staff and be verbally loud and angry that we don’t have that on the menu. So I just try to step in and carry on with positivity and give them the best service so that they’ll still enjoy what they do order.”

Sometimes though, solicitous service is still not enough to shield front-of-house staff from frustrated diners.

“I’ve been in this business for 40 years. This summer, for the first time ever in my entire life, I had to intervene and ask someone to leave,” Conley told me. “A guy was upset that his order didn’t get put in, so he pounded his fist on the table and shouted at the waitress. I mean, how dare you? I didn’t shout, but I wanted to. I’m protective. It’s part of my job. Mess with my staff, and boy, I sure won’t be one of the nice ones.”

Andrew Ross has written about food and dining in New York and the United Kingdom. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is the recipient of three recent Critic’s Awards from the Maine Press Association.
Contact him at: [email protected]
Twitter: @AndrewRossME

Related Headlines


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.