Chapter Twelve: Patron Relations

The desire and motivation to start or expand a soup kitchen stems from one’s compassion to help people whom we call the less fortunate. Most folks who frequent a soup kitchen just want to come in from the cold or heat, eat a meal, maybe socialize a little bit and then leave to go about their business. However, occasionally you will encounter someone with a personality and mental health disorder whose behavior or attitude is not what you expected. This is part of the climate of a soup kitchen. Try not to be put off by this; just know it will happen from time to time.

The fact is that the vast majority of soup kitchen patrons are very appreciative of your service. Many patrons say thank you and it is not uncommon to see people saying a prayer of grace before they begin to eat.

There are many challenges and rewards when serving meals to the less fortunate. This chapter will discuss some of the more common challenges that you will face in the general area of patron relations.

Creating a sense of community is key to running a good soup kitchen. You should try to create a friendly, homelike environment. For example, birthdays of patrons could be acknowledged with a song and cake. As discussed in the facilities chapter, the dining room should be welcoming and attractive. If possible, a nice touch is to have posters and/or artwork on the walls.

You should stress hospitality and service with a smile. Try to remember patron names and use them. Look people in the eye. The most important tool in your tool-box is a smile. Your volunteers and staff and patrons are observing your reactions.

Staff and volunteers should treat patrons with dignity and respect at all times. In general, 99% of your patrons will appreciate your efforts and service, and that rivals the best percentage in most restaurants.

You should tell volunteers and staff that they should be courteous and honor patron requests if at all possible, but at the same time, they should not tolerate abusive behavior by anyone. Volunteers should immediately alert someone in authority if they encounter any unacceptable behavior. You should also stress the importance of maintaining proper boundaries with soup kitchen patrons. Volunteers should not become overly friendly or give patrons money, rides or gifts.

Don’t be a push-over. What is required is a combination of empathy and following the rules. Be flexible when flexibility is called for but don’t undermine your own rules (such as the rules you gave the volunteers to follow).

Set the bar high regarding patron behavior. Have clear, high standards. Spell out what constitutes bad behavior – cursing, threatening gestures, fighting, etc. Don’t tolerate serious deviations from the standards.

Make it abundantly clear that there will be consequences for inappropriate behavior. There should be an incremental approach to addressing bad behavior. Sanctions should reflect the seriousness of the violation, such as you can’t come inside and be part of the community of the soup kitchen for a week, or a month, or six months. In those cases, either a hot meal or bag meal may be served at the side door.

If kindness and then firmness don’t stabilize the specific situation you are dealing with, you may need to look to law enforcement support. This subject will be addressed in the following chapter on Safety and Security.

Floor Manager

Your floor manager is key to setting the tone for the dining room whether he/she is a volunteer or a paid staff member. Assuming that you do not have sufficient volunteers to serve as waiters or waitresses for a sit-down meal, the floor manager’s primary responsibilities will be to issue meal tickets, oversee the flow of patrons through the serving line, insure table turn-over if there are more patrons than seats, and operate a clicker that counts the number of patrons who are given meal tickets.

In addition to seating patrons in an orderly fashion, the floor manager is responsible for ensuring people leave once they have finished their meal (to allow for the serving of additional patrons and cleanup of the room).

The floor manager or director should make general announcements to the patron population each day. Make announcements before the meal – it helps to set the tone for the dining room. Include thanking the volunteers for the day – say where they are from, be it a business, a school, or a religious organization. You should also mention any upcoming activities, information or deadlines relevant to your patrons.

Specific Challenges

Patrons generally have multiple problems in their lives that can be brought into the soup kitchen. These problems include relationship, family, financial, possible drug and alcohol addiction, mental health and anger management issues. People often have been traumatized by violence and extreme dysfunction in their lives. Patrons may be struggling and are practicing survival skills to get through their day. It often takes courage to live their lives. In the world outside the soup kitchen, patrons are usually treated with hostility or are ignored. The soup kitchen represents a safe space where people can be treated with respect and dignity.

The following are common patron challenges you might face:

Suicidal patron – this is a medical emergency and you should contact 911 for transport of the person to the nearest crisis center.

Hostile patron, people jumping in line, very noisy behavior – there is such a thing as ignorable behavior; that being said, depending on the specific behavior, security support may be necessary (see Chapter 13 for a full discussion of safety and security).

Mentally ill and those with a dual diagnosis of mentally ill and chemically addicted (MICA) – response depends on the severity of the behavior, ranging from tender loving care (TLC) to requesting support from security.

Intoxicated patron – it is best to seat the person away from others and have a volunteer go through the serving line and deliver the meal to the person.

Sick patrons – again, it depends on the severity; kindness and assistance up to a call for medical support.

Disabled patron – be of assistance in seating and delivering the meal to their table.

Bad parenting behavior (such as hitting or yelling at their kids) – this is particularly difficult. Treating the family with extra care and attention often helps. If it is a serious situation, security support may again be needed.

Complaints about bad food – examine the food, get a new plate, alert the cook that a complaint has been lodged and that there may be a pan of bad food.

Misplaced meal tickets – provide a new ticket if you feel the person is sincere. Question in a polite manner if you suspect you are being taken advantage of by the patron.

Requests for seconds, for take-out, for food for their driver, their sick parent, child, spouse, friend, for alternative food items, for dessert only – you should decide ahead of time what your policies will be for these requests.

Requests for money – in general it’s a bad idea to give people money.

Patron Relations Tips

TIP # 1 – It is not unusual for some patrons to want to be volunteers at the soup kitchen. Allowing patrons to be volunteers has to be done carefully. You must be selective. It is not uncommon for patrons, who have been given even modest authority, to abuse it and start ordering people (other patrons, volunteers) around. While many patrons are sincere in their desire to help and are trying to give back, it is best to monitor the person until you are sure that they are helping for the right reasons.

TIP # 2 – Solicit patron feedback on the quality of the meal and the services provided. There are a variety of strategies that can be implemented to secure patron input, e.g., suggestion box, patrons serving on a patron advisory council or your board of trustees.

TIP # 3 – At some point you may consider appointing a patron to your board of trustees. If so, it is important to recognize that he or she may not be familiar with parliamentary procedures and other meeting protocol. If you are going to have patrons serve on the board you need to make a commitment to training, orientation and on-going mentoring. Just appointing them to the board and letting them sink or swim is generally unproductive and unfair.

TIP # 4 – You will sometimes get requests for immediate service because the person must get back to their job. A good way to handle these requests is to ask the person to provide proof of employment and then provide them with express service.

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