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Drunk diners, penny-pinching patrons: Fargo-Moorhead service industry workers share stories of customer mistreatment

Josh Hajek stands at the bar at Wurst Bier Hall in Fargo. As a manager, he said he sometimes deals with unruly customers. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

FARGO — Like any other industry, the service industry has its ups and downs — and those downs for servers and bartenders can include everything from harassment to customers' overconsumption of alcohol.

That's not to say alcohol is always problematic in this line of work, but when customers take it too far, the very people tasked with serving thirsty and hungry patrons can become targets of harassment and low tips.

North Dakota's minimum wage for servers is $4.86 an hour, about 67 percent of the standard hourly minimum wage of $7.25. While servers depend heavily on tips to make a living, under-tipping is not uncommon in the Fargo-Moorhead area and sometimes people don't tip at all. But that isn't the only downside to working in the service industry, according to locals in the field.

Vinyl Taco server Katie Granger recalled a shift where she endured inappropriate comments from her intoxicated customers. She was going to report the incident to her supervisor, but the guests had left without paying by the time she returned to the table.

"Vinyl is a small restaurant, so when I would pass by these guys, they would grab my butt and make disgusting comments," Granger said.

Cassie Kania, a manager at Wurst Bier Hall, reported similar experiences. "When suggestive comments are directed at me, it is genuinely shocking every time. Sometimes, I shut down. I just want to finish that transaction and move on," she said.

Jeongdoo Park, an assistant professor in North Dakota State University's Hospitality and Tourism Management program, did his dissertation on customer mistreatment. He said the well-known "the customer is always right" policy can actually be detrimental to the well-being of service workers.

"Employees who experience customer mistreatment may make them think there's something wrong with their service," he said. "If they attribute the customer mistreatment to their skills and work, then it may negatively (affect) their perceived self."

Park said organizations should give more autonomy and discretion to their employees so they can better handle these situations on their own.

"If no one addresses customer mistreatment, then their attitude toward their workplace as a whole will decline and the restaurant will be negatively affected," Park said.

Josh Hajek, another Wurst Bier Hall manager, said sometimes a customer will order a type of whiskey the establishment doesn't have, and the news from a server or bartender is met with anger from the customer.

Hajek has also been a bystander to harassment on multiple occasions. He said when paying customers are involved, it can be hard to tell where to draw the line.

He said it usually comes down to this decision: cut their alcohol supply or ask them to leave.

"It's a really weird gray area because there are some people who can drink a lot and still act like a civilized human being, but then there are people who drink three beers and lose all control," Hajek said.

Kania said it is almost always the more intoxicated customers that make suggestive comments. Both she and Granger agreed it is more common to experience things like mistreatment, poor tips and harassment on pub crawl nights.

"I think mass media has glamorized hitting on your bartender, but no one actually wants that to happen," Kania said. "If we find a phone number on the receipt, no one is going to call it."

She said harassment is fairly uncommon, but still common enough that she struggled to recall every incident she's experienced over the years.

Park said restaurants can help educate customers on how to be more considerate by addressing conflict right away whenever possible.

Granger had a tip for customers, too, suggesting that they plan their meal budget to include the tip when they're ordering. In general, local service industry workers said, kindness, understanding and tipping your server or bartender for their work can go a long way.

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