For many Americans, dining out is no longer reserved for special occasions—it's become more of an everyday occurrence. But just because it's quite common doesn't mean customers want the experience to be lackluster. Those who dine out frequently go back to their favorite restaurants time and time again for the friendly and professional service, the clean and comfortable atmosphere, and, of course, the delicious food.
So when a restaurant doesn't live up to its customers' expectations, whether it's something as small as an order mix-up or as significant as a rodent sighting, that can cause harm to its reputation.
It can be entertaining to watch unsavory moments happen to others from a distance, like during the popular TV show "Kitchen Nightmares," but how funny is it when it actually happens to you? Once those restaurant nightmares become a reality, you won't be laughing any longer.
We surveyed 994 people who dine out at least once a month to see how they would react if some restaurant horror stories came true. We looked at what these diners would let slide and what are absolute deal breakers when deciding on where to eat. Keep reading to see what we learned.
When a customer walks through the doors of a restaurant, ready to enjoy a nice meal away from home, the last thing they expect is to be surrounded by health hazards, long wait times, and awful service. Unfortunately, this happens more often than we'd like: 82.8 percent of frequent diners said they've had poor service, 81.8 percent have seen filthy bathrooms, and 80.2 percent have spent way too long waiting for their food.
But this isn't even the tip of the iceberg when it comes to restaurant horror stories. Around 64 percent of those in our survey reported receiving the wrong dish. Hopefully, their waiter offered to make the error right, but sometimes, customers will find that their server actually argues with them about what's on their plate.
There are also quite a few instances where customers find inedible things in their meals: 61.4 percent of people in the survey reported finding hair in a dish, but that's nothing compared to other things diners have come across: Cigarette filters, condoms, cockroaches, and even chicken heads have been fished out of food. Finding rodents or insects in your food is seriously disgusting, but it's also disturbing to see them crawling around the floor of a restaurant—this is something that more than 1 in 5 respondents had actually witnessed.
Unsanitary practices at the restaurant are something that should not be tolerated either, but it happens more often than you'd hope: 74.4 percent of diners said they had sticky or dirty tables, while 66.3 percent complained of dirty floors, and 57.6 percent got dirty utensils or plates. Lastly, an unacceptably high rate of diners (31.1 percent) had seen restaurant staff handle food without wearing gloves, which goes against basic food safety practices.
Restaurant owners need to be on top of their game to ensure they keep customers happy and, thus, keep them coming back. One of the most important things owners and management need to do is keep up with all health standards, especially anything having to do with pests, as over 82 percent of diners said they would never return to a restaurant if they saw rodents or insects.
However, millennials seemed to be the most forgiving of restaurants with pest problems. About 22 percent of millennials said they would give a restaurant another chance even if they saw rodents or insects inside the establishment. Also, 81.4 percent of diners said they would not set foot in a restaurant after getting food poisoning, the second-most unforgivable offense.
Although 45.3 percent were turned off by receiving undercooked food, 44.2 percent would not go back after being given unclean utensils and plates, and 31.2 percent were disgusted by dirty bathrooms, a bigger reason people would not return to a restaurant had to do with the service. Fifty percent of diners said they would not return to a restaurant if they received poor service.
Restaurant owners and managers should keep this in mind when hiring their front-of-the-house staff. These are the people who will be representing your establishment and, ultimately, will have significant influence over whether your customers come back for more.
While diners may agree on what gives them the heebie-jeebies about a restaurant's practices, they don't always react or respond to these issues in the same manner.
When met with unhygienic conditions, baby boomers took the most action by requesting to speak with a manager, posting to social media, and even reporting the restaurant to the health department—something that could result in a restaurant shutdown. Millennials, on the other hand, tended to take a more passive approach. When confronted with unhygienic conditions, 56.7 percent of millennials said they didn't return to the restaurant, and 22.9 percent did nothing at all.
Women were also quite nonconfrontational with employees in a dirty restaurant. Only 38.7 percent would bring a problem to the waitstaff, compared to 41.9 percent of men, and 27.2 percent of women would request a manager, as opposed to 33.7 percent of men. Women were also less likely than men to ask for a discounted or free meal.
We also found that 1 in 4 people posted an online review after eating at a restaurant with substandard hygiene conditions, which can really make or break a restaurant's success. Customers often turn to review sites like Yelp, TripAdvisor, and Google to read reviews before deciding to patronize an establishment. Word will spread if a restaurant is not meeting guests' expectations, and it likely will not be good for business.
There's no denying it: Being a server is not easy. Yes, on the surface, a server's job is to answer questions, take orders, bring out food, and refill drinks. However, the real job of a server is to make people happy—and that is one of the hardest jobs of all. The No. 1 thing that matters most to restaurant guests is how their servers treat them. Across the board, respondents felt the worst thing the waitstaff could do was be rude.
Women were more offended than men by servers who had a dirty or unkempt appearance; however, men took more offense than women when their servers were just plain inattentive or asked for a bigger tip.
Millennials were the most upset out of the three generations by servers who rushed them to finish their meal. Millennials consider dining out to be a communal, social event, and being rushed through their time with friends or family can ruin that experience.
We've looked at the various things that restaurant guests find unacceptable, but where are these things happening the most? According to 62 percent of diners, the worst restaurant experiences happened at mid-priced restaurants, with a range of $11 to $30 per entree, and 22 percent happened at fast-food venues.
There have been some pretty horrific things found within the walls of fast-food restaurants—and we're not just talking about the insanely high amount of calories, fat, and sodium found on the menu. Back in 2005, a woman found a severed finger in her chili at a Las Vegas Wendy's; another diner found a Band-Aid in his Pizza Hut pie, and another person found a syringe in her Burger King breakfast sandwich.
While the majority of restaurant nightmares happened at restaurants serving American food (23.7 percent), there were quite a few diners who cited places serving Chinese or Mexican food in their restaurant horror stories: 9.1 percent and 10.7 percent, respectively. A 36-year-old Wisconsin woman said that while her server at a Chinese restaurant made her a milkshake, she wiped the cup with a dirty wet rag she'd used to clean the counter. "The rag slopped in my milkshake, and then she licked ice cream off her hands all before handing it to me," the woman said. "I immediately threw it in the garbage."
Buffets were another top contender at 5.8 percent, especially when it came to sanitary conditions. "The staff [at the buffet] saw a young child touch and cough on everything in the salad bar," witnessed a 49-year-old man from Utah. "They did not change any of the food but just put new food on top of contaminated food." Aside from buffets not always being on their game when it comes to cleanliness, they also draw quite an interesting crowd, as evidenced by an actual brawl that recently broke out between diners in an Alabama buffet over crab legs.
Restaurant owners need to take careful precautions when it comes to cleanliness and professionalism. As evidenced through our respondents' stories, they have to hire the right team members and stock the restaurant with the proper equipment, as well as provide proper uniforms and even gloves. With over 2 million products, Zoro has everything a restaurant owner needs to run a successful business and keep customers coming back.
For this study, we surveyed 994 people who eat at restaurants at least once per month. 49.9% were men, 49.9% were women, and 0.2% were nonbinary. The average age of our participants was 36.9, and they ranged in age from 18 to 81. The standard deviation was 11.6. Our study was conducted using Amazon's Mechanical Turk.
This survey does not include every possible negative situation that can occur in a restaurant. We generated our list of restaurant scenarios by researching various internet articles, online forums, other online resources, and even personal experiences. Additionally, the worst restaurants only include restaurants that respondents have actually been to. Lastly, there are some inherent issues with survey data, such as forgetfulness, incorrect memory, exaggeration, and minimization. Results were neither weighted nor statistically tested, and our claims are based on means alone. This is purely exploratory content.
Know a restaurant owner, manager, or even a server or bartender who would find this information useful? Go ahead and share it for noncommercial purposes! Just be sure to link back to this article so that readers can see that some kitchen nightmares are a reality.