Restaurant workers are a unique breed. Cagey veterans are durable, resourceful and irreverently funny. They’ve seen and heard it all. They put their game face on and deliver great hospitality shift after shift, double after double, week after week. Despite their resiliency, it’s hard to be the life of the party when they’re running on fumes, the laundry and errands are piling up at home, and funds are tight. The daily grind takes its toll on even the most seasoned servers.

A good friend of mine was working a double last week on an outside patio during the heat wave in Boston. When I touched her back and kissed her cheek to say hello she was sweating so much that she was clammy. The air conditioning was so ineffective at the restaurant that she spent her forty-five minute break in her car with the AC cranking. Despite her predicament, she was still joking and smiling—a true professional.

I’ve been working with and talking to restaurant workers for more than twenty eight years, and one thing that keeps them going, along with their sense of humor, is their good, repeat customers. Regulars can be lifesavers, or be the bane of a server’s existence.

Frequent flyer credits don’t guarantee you good regular status in a restaurant. Many repeat customers are loathed by the staff. The very sight of them evokes a visceral reaction nearly impossible to disguise. I’ve heard several of these gems bragging to their friends about what a “regular” they were, while the staff ridicules and curses them. A lot of bad regulars are clueless.

So what separates a good regular from an irregular?

I used to frequent a Boston restaurant so often that the GM put my name into the Micros computer system under “Maintenance” as a joke, and told me that he had punched the time clock for me if I was running late. (Hopefully I wasn’t high maintenance.) An extremely eccentric woman, with darting eyes, also frequented the same restaurant. She always sat alone with her book at the bar and rarely said a word to anyone. Without fail, if you sat close to her, she would lift her head from her book, stare into your eyes, and lean in to listen to your conversation, never looking away—very awkward and creepy. Naturally the staff dubbed her, “The Listener.” (All restaurant regulars have nicknames.)

At another restaurant I frequented, a very loquacious, clinging regular was notorious for sidling up to customers at the bar, befriending them, convincing them to let her try a bite of their food, and then eating a good portion of it. She was a mooch, and I was often a victim until I caught on to her ruse. I distinctly remember her saying, I love this place. Everyone shares their food. I bit my tongue, but wanted to reply, No they don’t, you steal it!

Kat, a reader and commenter on my blog writes, Regulars, the kind that make you smile when you see them sit in your section, who remember your name, just like you remember theirs, who take an interest in you as a human being, not just the purveyor of sustenance, are absolutely the best. The ones that have cared enough to ask for my name (I don’t generally volunteer it) and to remember it, who notice that I love my job and genuinely appreciate the way in which I do it, those people are the reason I go to work. These stupendous customers are probably about 20% of the total, just like the truly difficult ones, but they make it so much easier to deal with the other 80% and are always a great reminder of the reasons I’m in the service industry.

Serving fellow human beings food and drink is an intimate and personal experience. Great hospitality is a two-way street. If you frequent a restaurant, it is incumbent upon you to know if you’re a good regular or just a regular pain in the ass. Let’s open the discussion up to restaurant industry experts, and every other service industry worker to clarify the difference.

Please describe your favorite regulars. What do they say and do that makes them enjoyable to serve? What sets them apart from other guests?

Please describe the irregulars that make you cringe when they walk through the door. What makes them so difficult? Do they try to use their frequent flyer status to curry favor? Do you think they have any clue that they’re a royal pain in the ass? How do you and your co-workers deal with them? What are their nicknames and why? What would you tell them if you could?

Please forward this post to anyone who might want to join the conversation. Thank you.

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