Photo: Getty Images
Dozens of websites are littered with complaints from fast food and casual restaurant staffers who say that customers show little regard for them when it comes to closing time. Should a restaurant that stays open until 10 p.m. take all comers until they lock the front door? If customers come in at 9:55, should the staff be compelled to stay until those customers devour their last morsel?
Some restaurants try to accommodate their clientele even if it's right at closing time or slightly after. Seating customers after closing time is "possibly the worst policy... that I have seen at a restaurant" according to the Insane Waiter, one of the many blogs that chronicles the travails of the food service industry. The "waiter" told a demanding couple that expected to be seated at 9:55, when the restaurant was closing at 10 p.m, "I'm sorry, but we have people that need to get home to their families, that's why we have posted hours." Typically, most customers argue that a restaurant is there to serve their needs and that as long as the door is open, they should be treated with as much courtesy, respect and good service as they would get at any hour. Corporate management agrees. For some big fast-food chains, like McDonald's, which operate many 24-hour franchises, closing time doesn't even exist.
"It is our standard operating procedure to serve every item on the regular menu until the last minute of the business day," says Ashlee Yingling, a spokeswoman for McDonald's. "More than 95 percent of our 14,000 U.S. restaurants are operating on some form of extended hours."
But that isn't the case for most fast-food and casual-dining operations. Megan Hadden, a former restaurant employee who until this winter worked five years at an Arby's franchise in Bradford, Pa., believes that every customer is entitled to order food as long as "the lights are on and the door is unlocked." That doesn't mean she and her former co-workers have to like it -- and we don't blame her.
"Of course every employee dreads that one customer that comes in five minutes before closing," she says. "It's usually the time you've already taken everything down, thrown away the food that needed to be discarded or wrapped up the food that is to be used for the next day and put it back in the cooler."
Crew members who work overtime are generally not paid overtime. Donald Baillargeon, a 24-year old crew member at a Wendy's restaurant in Durham, N.C., says that customers who order food near closing time need to realize that they may have to wait longer to get their meals. Fresh food has to be cooked from scratch and culled from what's already been stored for the next day.
To make sure customers get the message, the Wendy's lights are automatically timed to go off shortly after the doors are locked. "If anyone still happens to be in the store when it's almost time for them to go off, I go out and let them know that dining room lights... will be turned off shortly," says Baillargeon.
Lindi Cox, 25, a former server who worked at Ivar's, a casual seafood chain in Seattle, says she never shows up at a restaurant right before closing because of her own experience with inconsiderate stragglers. Late dining carousers repeatedly caused her to take cab rides home, because mass transit had already shut down. There was even a night she spent sleeping in a co-worker's car so she could be on time for the 6 a.m. shift, after working until 1 a.m. to accommodate customers who didn't want to leave.
"I no longer wait tables and probably never will," she says. "But it taught me to respect those working in the industry. They are not just meaningless people serving you food. They have a life and usually a very busy one at that. If I ever happen to stay a few minutes past closing time, I always tip 25 percent."