While most of the world has struggled with COVID-19 for the past year, many incredibly wealthy people have continued to indulge as they did before the pandemic. I know this because I work at a fine-dining restaurant in a ritzy ski town and it’s my job to provide a luxurious dining experience for the guests who walk through our door.
As millions of people have hunkered down in their apartments, eating frozen pizza, binge-watching Netflix and trying not to think about how or if they’ll be able to afford next month’s rent, our wealthy restaurant guests have been enjoying $500 bottles of wine, lounging at tables for three hours or more, and generally acting like the virus doesn’t exist.
I admit that I profit from their behavior. I am able to pay for health insurance and food and lodging because of the people who can afford to dine at the restaurant where I work. As much as that fact bothers me, I am also grateful to make a living and to catch a glimpse of these alien lifestyles during what has proved to be one of the most challenging moments in recent history.
“You know, I just don’t like the ambience in here,” a middle-aged woman weighed down by her diamonds told me one night as I showed her to her table. It was late July in our little mountain town and I had assigned this guest a spot in our outdoor tent — our effort at safer and more comfortable seating after a limited capacity law had reduced our small restaurant’s indoor dining to only five tables.
Because it is my job to please our patrons, I swallowed my snarky response and brought her back inside, where I offered her a table in the corner that would soon be free.
“Hmmm, could you maybe just add another table in the center of the dining room? The lighting is much nicer there,” she asked me. When I explained to her that, due to the pandemic raging around the world, we were required to keep diners 6 feet apart and, so, there was no room for an additional table, she conferred with her husband and then responded, “It’s just that we own hotels all over the world and had higher expectations.”
And then they walked out the door.
Since I have worked in restaurants in this resort town for nearly two years, I am no stranger to the entitled behavior that some of our VIP guests flaunt. Even before COVID struck, many of them were pushy and rude when making their inane requests, convinced that they were above reproach or certain that rules ― and even the law ― did not apply to them simply because of their financial status.
I would venture a guess that most of these difficult people have never worked in customer service because if they had, they wouldn’t treat us the way they do. Many of them barely make eye contact as they toss their demands at us. Some have mentioned their celebrity friends in the hopes of getting preferential treatment or made requests like “best table in the house!” on their online reservations and then express scathing disappointment if their outlandish desires aren’t fulfilled. One customer threatened to get me fired because the drinks I made him weren’t “strong enough” and he was friends with the ski resort owner. Other guests refused to take their vaping outside when I asked and cited “spending quite a lot of money here” to justify their illegal activity.
“I would venture a guess that most of these difficult people have never worked in customer service because if they had, they wouldn’t treat us the way they do.”
A few times during the past year, I was hired to work private dining events in some of this town’s grandest mansions. At one home, a sign by the door instructed me to take my shoes off and I wandered the large open hallways in my socks with trays of food, seeking out the guests in the hosts’ game room, full bar, sitting room, or one of three decks, each of which was twice as large as my pricey studio apartment.
While the hosts were friendly enough, they made no attempt to wear a mask when they came near me or other hired staff and didn’t seem to think it was problematic to throw a large dinner party when in-person meetups were being restricted in our town and around the world. Once they were seated, I was forced to listen to them talk about their recent travel to COVID hot spots like Florida and Texas for business or to renovate their multiple homes, all the while worrying that because of their careless behavior I was being exposed to the virus.
This past year, as COVID regulations were put in place and then changed every few weeks, I was tasked with enforcing these rules in order to keep our staff and diners safe. So, instead of concentrating on providing our guests with the best possible service, I’ve been forced to come up with creative ways to satisfy their needs while also abiding by state laws. The high demands of some of our entitled patrons, coupled with these new rules designed to lessen the potentially deadly risks of dining out, made for some tricky interactions in the restaurant.
Many guests have seemed unable to accept the refusal of service they feel they deserve, even when it is the county law that restricts their experience. There was the man whose wife was cold while dining outside in her fur coat, so he asked how much he could pay me to sneak them inside, even though he knew it was illegal to be seated indoors at that time. There were the folks who were outraged when I explained I could only accommodate a party of 10 or fewer guests due to the town’s pandemic guidelines. And there were the people who left a terrible tip because we refused to serve them a fourth round of cocktails after the county-appointed last call of 8 p.m.
Many of my interactions with the wealthy during the last year have revealed just how ignorant these people are about the harsh reality of living through a pandemic that the rest of us are facing. One night, a table of diners reeled me in to lament about how they’d been stuck in their house in Switzerland when lockdown first hit. When they were allowed to leave the country, they had to deal with splitting their time between their homes in New York City and Houston before they could finally escape to the mountains.
Meanwhile, my co-workers and I have been taking extra time to frequently wash our hands and sanitize the bathrooms and other high-touch surfaces ― not to mention reminding guests to wear their masks when walking through the restaurant ― all while continuing to provide excellent service. We’ve had to stay informed about and then follow the new regulations the county disseminates every few weeks ― going from busy dinner service to just takeout and then running around in bitterly cold temperatures when outdoor dining was the only option. When we reopened after being furloughed for several months, the threat of shutting down again and having no income at all always loomed behind every new restriction.
On top of all this, we’ve spent the last year fearing that any of the maskless guests we’re serving might infect us with COVID, thereby forcing us out of work for a couple of weeks (or more), sending us or someone we love to the hospital, or worse. I have a preexisting condition that puts me at high risk for complications if I contract the virus, and early in the pandemic I was forced to make the tough choice between staying home to protect my health and not making any money or putting myself at risk in order to pay my rent and afford a doctor appointment if I were to catch the virus.
As a former boss once told me, people go to restaurants to get an experience they can’t create at home. Since many people’s home lives have been less than pleasurable lately, I understand how special it is to be waited on and to eat something you would never cook for yourself. Still, I believe that should make us all the more grateful when we do get to go out. We should savor every moment of an event that was once commonplace and is now precious.
Instead, many of our wealthy guests seem to assume that their financial status places them beyond the realm of pandemic restrictions. I pity them for that. The reality is, as many have learned this past year, there are certain kinds of suffering that no stack of hundred dollar bills can fix. Sometimes, it’s my job to make that reality clear. Our entitled patrons are visibly frustrated that their money cannot manipulate the system in their favor and I recognize in them the very human pain of being unable to control their circumstances.
“The reality is, as many have learned this past year, there are certain kinds of suffering that no stack of hundred dollar bills can fix. Sometimes, it’s my job to make that reality clear. Our entitled patrons are visibly frustrated that their money cannot manipulate the system in their favor and I recognize in them the very human pain of being unable to control their circumstances.”
Still, I’m happy to report that not everyone has been so demanding. Our restaurant was able to stay open and adapt to COVID protocols thanks to people who have donated to the town’s restaurant assistance funds. And there are guests who have been absolutely wonderful. Like the ones who leave incredibly generous tips ― sometimes over $1,000. Or the gentleman who called to tell us he couldn’t make his reservation the next night but insisted on tipping the staff anyway. Or the guests who simply put on their masks when we approach their table and ask us how we’re holding up with genuine interest and concern. There are the guests who thank us profusely for staying open and allowing them an enjoyable night out ― who seem to recognize how privileged they are to drink wine and eat caviar during a pandemic. They treat us well because we are giving them that opportunity and that goes a long way.
No matter how much or how little we have, I’d like to think this pandemic might teach us all something about humility, that we might be humbled by the unpredictable way this virus has shaken our lives. There will always be those who think that being rich places them above the rules, and I feel truly sorry for them. How tough must life be if you can get so disappointed by “ambience” or the strength of your drink?
In the wake of the pandemic and these experiences, I’ve decided to take some time off and try to find a career that isn’t dictated by the desires of the wealthy. While some of the behavior I’ve seen has disheartened me, I’m choosing instead to focus on the generosity and empathy I’ve witnessed some of our other guests offer. They’ve inspired me to make my own much smaller acts of giving when I can. Maybe that will set off a kind of trickle-down kindness. Maybe not.
Regardless, I’m thankful to have had a job during the pandemic ― I know many people did and still do not. No matter what has happened or happens going forward, I’m grateful for the beautiful sense of community I’ve seen fostered among so many different kinds of people, all of whom seem to recognize that we’re all going through something difficult together. May we keep that spirit alive long after the pandemic is gone.
Mera Viglia is a travel writer and essayist.