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Not holding their tongues: Up North restaurants report rise in rude behavior

Taylor Wizner
Interlochen Public Radio
Anna Serrano, co-owner Spanglish, said customers have been unkind to her staff over the past two years.

It’s been a record-breaking summer for Spanglish, a Mexican restaurant in Traverse City.

But it hasn’t been without its problems. Co-owner Anna Serrano said some of her customers have been frustrated with wait times.

“So you throw your menu on the floor and kind of have a fit about it?” Serrano said. It's one of many incidents she's encountered.

Whether it’s because of long waits, perceived rudeness or limited hours, Serrano said people are taking it out on her workers.

“What we’ve seen is that more people are at a breaking point,” she said.

The story has echoed all over tourism-supported businesses in northern Michigan.

East Park Tavern, in Charlevoix, closed its kitchen early during one of its busiest days of the summer. A sign posted to its door said it was because of mistreatment of restaurant staff.

And Joe Short, founder of Short’s Brewing Company, said customers have been rude or difficult to serving staff at his Bellaire brewpub.

“I would say to a lesser degree you get a few people who really would be loud and kind of quiet the room down with that kind of attention,” he said.

During the high-spread times of the COVID-19 pandemic, patrons reacted angrily to public health masking and distancing restrictions. But even as those rules have gone away, some people are still angrier.

William Chopic, an associate professor of psychology at Michigan State University, said some people want life to be the way it used to be.

“Even though some of those restrictions and public health measures have gone away, a lot of the kind of difficulty and frustrations about life have continued,” he said.

And people just haven’t been in public places in a while, he said. They forget social rules.

“Part of the difficulty when people are acting really rude is sort of getting outside of their own mindset and sort of seeing what’s happening in the local situation,” Chopic said. “The problem is that it takes a lot of effort.”

The Petoskey Regional Chamber of Commerce is trying to help build some of that empathy. This year they put out a marketing campaign called “We Are Doing Our Best with Less.”

“No business makes a choice to be closed three days a week,” said Nikki Devitt, chamber’s director. “It was not to upset you. It was not to infringe on your vacation. It is how they’re keeping their business open and taking care of their staff.”

Devitt said the business community is moving away from the idea that the customer is always right. Now, businesses that can’t risk alienating their workers.

A report from the Michigan Lodging and Restaurant Association found more than 80% of businesses surveyed said they were operating with inadequate labor to meet demand.

For the fall season, the chamber is planning Facebook ads targeting downstate residents and working to lower expectations.

“Northern Michigan doesn’t want to be known as the place that keeps shutting down, that turns customers away because [the rude customers] don’t know how to treat people,” Devitt said.

Corrected: August 15, 2022 at 4:51 PM EDT
A previous version of this story incorrectly named the restaurant that closed early during the city's Venetian Festival. It was the East Park Tavern that posted a sign on the door, saying the kitchen was closed.
Taylor Wizner covers heath, tourism and other news for Interlochen Public Radio.