De-escalation is the new customer service: Training to deal with angry, maskless patrons

“I used to think that a bad tipper was the worst kind of customer. Little did I know"

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Food Editor

Published October 5, 2020 5:00PM (EDT)

Dennis Kistner, owner of Mahaffreys Pub in Canton chats with customers from behind the bar July 23, 2020 in Baltimore, MD. With spikes in coronavirus infections, restaurants and bars in Baltimore have to close down indoor seating Friday. (Photo by  (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Dennis Kistner, owner of Mahaffreys Pub in Canton chats with customers from behind the bar July 23, 2020 in Baltimore, MD. With spikes in coronavirus infections, restaurants and bars in Baltimore have to close down indoor seating Friday. (Photo by (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

As a small grocery chain owner, Summer Auerbach has spent a lot of time over the last few months thinking about a particular brand of viral video that emerged during the pandemic. They have titles like "Woman asked to wear mask throws food in Dallas grocery" and "Another 'Karen' Has Grocery Store Meltdown Over Masks," and feature shoppers — often older white women — berating supermarket staff after being asked to wear a mask while shopping. 

Sometimes they throw a fit and knock over the grocery end caps, sending soup cans and cracker boxes tumbling into the aisles. Other times they simply leave in a huff, threatening to sue under their breath. Inevitably, someone films and uploads it for people to comment upon, voicing their disdain or support, and then keep scrolling 

But for Auerbach, who owns Rainbow Blossom Natural Food Markets in Louisville, Ky., her response to the videos is a little more personal. 

"The background of any of those videos — that could be one of my stores," she said. "It has started to feel like encounters with customers have become more heated, more fueled. And our staff started talking about how they didn't feel like they were prepared to deal with these customers." 

Auerbach has since joined the increasing number of members of the restaurant and grocery industry who are investing in de-escalation training for their staff to better equip them for more civil interactions with customers who refuse to wear masks. It's an ongoing point of tension for many customer-facing businesses, which feels especially fraught right now following the COVID-19 diagnoses of President Trump and several top Republican leaders after attending White House events without taking proper precautions. 

"De-escalation" is an approach to conflict resolution often used in psychiatric and social work circles. There are a variety of techniques utilized in trainings, but according to research by John Baker and Owen Price in the "International Journal of Mental Health Nursing," professionals agree that de-escalation should involve safely, calmly and empathetically supporting the client with their concerns. 

That was at the heart of the training done at Rainbow Blossom

"Our director of operations went to every store and did an in-person training with our staff," Auerbach said. "The training involved a little bit of role-playing and practicing so people can understand how the way they respond to customers also impacts the way that customers respond back or behave." 

There's a difference, Auerbach said, between asking a disagreeable customer "Are you asking me to remove you from the store?" and expressing empathy. 

"We can say, 'I'm sorry that you don't want to wear the mask, but we can offer you curbside service or will provide you with a face shield so that you can shop in the store,'" Auerbach said. 

But Auerbach acknowledges that navigating these conflicts — where people's health is literally on the line — wasn't part of many of her staff members' job descriptions when they started, and she will always have their backs during this period of increased tensions. 

"The past several months have been very stressful, just kind of all around, and it feels like everyone is just kind of on edge," she said. "So, I hope we've empowered them to tell customers, 'Thanks for sharing your opinions and we'll keep it in mind,' or 'I'll be sure to pass this along to the owner and here is their contact information if you want to lodge a further complaint, but we're not able to engage anymore on this topic.'" 

Clarissa Rodriguez is a waitress who gave up her job at a downtown Cleveland restaurant after feeling like she didn't have the skills to engage with angry customers who didn't want to abide by mask and social distancing requirements.

"Work was already exhausting because I'm worried about my health and making sure I get in enough hours to make rent," Rodriguez said. "But add customers who were just screaming at me and tossing masks on the floor . . . I couldn't do it anymore." 

Rodriguez is now working the night shift at a local supermarket stocking shelves. 

"It's not my 'dream job,' but it'll do for now, and I don't have to deal with customers anymore," she said. "But I definitely would have felt safer if I had some kind of training, which my old employer didn't provide." 

National organizations are stepping up to provide trainings that are available for individual industry workers like Rodriguez. Defend Yourself and Safe Bars have classes offered on a sliding scale like "Boundaries for the Pandemic (and the rest of life)," "Safe at Work: De-escalation for Essential Workers" and "Safe Bars: De-Escalation for Hospitality Staff." 

Last week, the National Restaurant Association and ServSafe launched a series of online trainings for industry members, including a course titled "ServSafe Conflict De-escalation: COVID-19 Precautions." 

The transcript from the course states that the easiest way to resolve a tough situation is to prevent it in the first place, and that "letting guests know about management's requirements upon arrival or even before they arrive will help do this." 

"Another thing you can do is prepare yourself in advance," the transcript states. "You don't want an emotionally charged situation with a guest to be the first time you've thought about possible solutions. A critical step is to just be aware! Recognizing disruptive behavior can help you solve little problems before they become big ones." 

And while it's admirable — and honestly essential — that organizations like these and employers like Auerbach are ensuring that food and beverage industry staff are equipped to deal with a new brand of disgruntled employees amid the "new normal," it's depressing that these kinds of trainings are even required. 

For months, essential employees have been working hard and putting their health at risk to keep Americans fed while navigating new social and sanitation regulations. Now they are forced to adapt yet again to handle customers who don't want to follow the rules. 

"I used to think that a bad tipper was the worst kind of customer," Rodriguez said. "Little did I know."


By Ashlie D. Stevens

Ashlie D. Stevens is Salon's food editor. She is also an award-winning radio producer, editor and features writer — with a special emphasis on food, culture and subculture. Her writing has appeared in and on The Atlantic, National Geographic’s “The Plate,” Eater, VICE, Slate, Salon, The Bitter Southerner and Chicago Magazine, while her audio work has appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered and Here & Now, as well as APM’s Marketplace. She is based in Chicago.

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Bars De-esclation Trainings Grocery Stores Reporting Restaurant