“The Karens Are Giving Us a Hard Time Now”

A waiter at a reopened restaurant explains how dining works in a pandemic.

A waiter wearing gloves holds a tray of cups of water and espresso.
Tip well. .shock/iStock/Getty Images Plus

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This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with Magi, who works as a waiter at an American Chinese restaurant in Boca Raton, Florida. The conversation has been transcribed, condensed, and edited for clarity by Aaron Mak.

I’ve been working through the whole pandemic. We were doing takeout only for a while, which was a nightmare. We’re really built for dine-in; takeout is more of a side thing. We weren’t equipped for the high volume of orders. On Mother’s Day people were waiting three hours for their food.

We started letting people dine in right at the end of last month. Takeout is still pretty busy, not as bad as it was. For dine-in the whole dynamic of the restaurant has changed, because it used to be four servers on one side and four servers on the other side. Now we’ll have one lead server on each side, and then they have anywhere from two to four support servers to help them with anything that they need. It’s very stressful on the lead server. I think [the managers] feel like we’re going to be more efficient that way. It gives everybody a chance to make money, because our dining room is at 50 percent capacity. You could only have two servers per shift on each side of the restaurant, but it would leave out all these other servers. This way, they’re just trying to make sure that everybody’s able to make some money.

We had a staff meeting, and the managers basically said, “We’re going to be wiping down every surface that we possibly can every five to 10 minutes, because people are watching us. Don’t ever take your mask off when you’re on the clock.” The last thing you need is someone to take a picture and be like, “This restaurant sucks because they don’t wear masks.” Any time I touch a plate or a table, I go in the back, wash my hands, and change my gloves. That’s been a huge adjustment. We used to box leftovers. We don’t do it anymore. We’ll let customers box it themselves. And if I pick up your plates, I try to wait until the end of the meal if I can. We also used to portion out big bowls of soup and serve that to people at the table. We don’t do that anymore because of company policy.

In the beginning [when we reopened for dine-in], people just trickled in, and they weren’t quite sure. We have quite a large elderly crowd, and we’re starting to get some of those people back. For the most part, they just wear a mask. Our reservations have been crazy busy. Everybody wants to call ahead and make sure that they’re going to be able to get a table because we have limited seating. The thing that gets me is that everybody was so grateful when we were doing takeout and we were essential employees working in a pandemic. Those same people, the Karens, are the ones giving us a hard time now that we’re open for dining again.

There’s two classifications of customers. There’s the crazy people who come in wearing hazmat suits with the alcohol spray to spray everything down. They’re really, like, out there—they probably shouldn’t be out in public. And then you have the people who are understanding and have their little masks and stuff, but they’re not crazy.

There was this one Karen who went out to eat with her two friends, and she immediately wanted the manager. But she made a point to say, “Not until after we’re done eating.” It was just crazy to me ’cause she was like, “You guys reuse this [silverware]. This is so unsanitary. I need to speak to the manager.” She was mad about the chopsticks, which are made of hard plastic. She wanted the plastic forks and spoons and knives, and she made a whole big thing about it, which, again, isn’t a big deal. But she’s eating off the plates, drinking out of the glasses, sitting in the booth where multiple people have sat all night. To me, the logic is kind of ridiculous. You can always tell when someone comes in thinking, I am going to get something free from you.”

[Customers like this] have definitely evolved because of the pandemic. The thing that’s changed on our end for the pandemic is that normally it’s “The guest is always right.” Whatever they want, we’re going to jump through hoops. But now I’m allowed to tell them no. “No, you can’t sit at that booth because we’re practicing social distancing.” You know how the Karens are: “I want it my way, and I’m entitled.” I’m like, “I’m sorry, but, you know, our restaurant will get by.” We only seat tables of up to six people. If it’s more than six, they’re going to have to social distance (at different tables) or sit on the patio, where it’s really hot. People have been throwing a huge fit about that. They want to push two tables together. You can’t because you’re putting people around you at risk. And I don’t think these people are used to hearing no from us.

I feel like the fussy customers are worse than they normally were, as if they were saving these thoughts while they were in quarantine and now they’re letting it all out. But I will say that there are people who are so understanding and kind and compassionate. The good ones. We’ve got gloves on, we’ve got masks on, we’ve got long-sleeved shirts on, and we’re running around like maniacs, sweating, trying to accommodate everybody. Any normal, sane human being sees that and says, “Thank you for doing this.”

For tips, it used to be that whatever tables I have, that’s just the money I make for the day. Now we’re pooling tips. So takeout is pooling tips, bartenders are pooling tips, servers are pooling tips. It wouldn’t be fair to the bartenders because they only have six seats the bar. They’re not making any money most nights. Everybody’s coming together at our restaurant in a community spirit. We’re all just on an honesty policy. If I get a $20 cash tip, there’s this trust that I’m going to turn it in, and we’ll divide it equally at the end of the shift.

Normally we would hope for a 20 percent tip. Nowadays, generous people will usually leave 25. It used to be that before the pandemic, people did not tip on takeout. Now lots of people are tipping on takeout. That’s been really good. Tips have gone up a little bit; the people who are really grateful to just be out and about, they’re the ones who are taking care of us the most.

I personally miss when I had my own section and my own tables. There’s better earning potential, and I feel like I could spend more time with the guests. With the mask on, the guests can’t see that I’m smiling. They can’t see my expression. Some of them can’t hear me, because they’re very elderly. I definitely don’t feel the same connection at all.