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How to make your restaurant inclusive of LGBTQIA+ people

How to make your restaurant inclusive of LGBTQIA+ people

Pride month has come to a close, but it is more important than ever to make your support of the LGBTQIA+ community a year-round endeavor. In the past six months, legislators across 36 states have introduced more than 340 bills that would be harmful to LGBTQIA+ people. That means you are more likely than not to live somewhere that is hostile to the community.

Building inclusivity into your business model isn’t as straightforward as one might think, but the benefits are. This article will help you understand why it is so important to make your restaurant inclusive of LGBTQIA+ people and how to do so.

3 reasons LGBTQIA+ inclusivity is important to your restaurant

Businesses that are inclusive and ethically motivated perform better in every sense of the word. When businesses invest in diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), they are more productive, profitable, and innovative. Here are three more reasons it’s worth the effort to make your restaurant LGBTQIA+ inclusive.

Tip: Just starting your new business? Use a restaurant name generator for ideas and inspiration on what to name it.

1. You can improve hiring and retention rates

It’s no secret that the job market is tight, especially for restaurants. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are 5 million more job openings than unemployed workers. The hospitality sector has the most severe labor shortage, with job openings exceeding monthly hires by an average of 500,000. With that in mind, it’s vital that you are creating a safe, inclusive, and positive workplace for all employees. “You’re competing for talent, so you can’t afford to not be inclusive,” said Karen Dahms, the senior research director at Jennifer Brown Consulting, an LGBTQIA-owned DEI firm.

At a time when people have plenty of opportunities to find work elsewhere, retention can be severely impacted when you don’t build your workplace around the safety and wellbeing of your employees. Over a third of LGBTQIA+ employees report leaving a job because the work environment didn’t accept their identity. On the other hand, a fifth intend to stay at their job because they experience their workplace as inclusive.

Non-LGBTQIA+ workers expect their employers to invest in DEI, too. One survey found that nearly 80 percent of respondents expected their employer to invest meaningfully in making the workplace more diverse and equitable to marginalized groups. “You’ve got to be able to differentiate yourself as an employer these days,” said Dahms. “If people care about this, they’re going to take jobs that align with their values and social positions.”

2. You can attract more customers

As of 2021, the LGBTQIA+ community in the United States had an estimated $1.4 trillion in spending power, so it’s not a group that you want to ignore. “Word-of-mouth is an especially powerful thing for the LGBTQ+ community because it can be a matter of life-and-death,” said Justis Tenpenny, who is the community outreach facilitator for Napalese Lounge & Grille. “So, when you provide safe and affirming service to LGBTQ+ guests, they will tell others about your restaurant.” The community is incredibly diverse, so creating an LGBTQIA+ inclusive environment could improve your customer retention across other groups as well.

The thing is, younger generations are more likely to identify as LGBTQIA+ and be supportive of the community, even if they don’t belong to it. Plus, they’re conscientious shoppers who will do the research to shop from companies that match their values. “Business owners need to wake up to the fact that the population is changing rapidly and dramatically,” said Dahms. “If you’re not paying attention to these trends and adjusting your business, then you will be left behind. Patrons will go to places where they feel safe and welcomed.”

3. You can make a difference

If you’re still reading, you likely already realize that inclusivity can’t just be about the business you stand to gain. “Sometimes, it’s important to not think about what your bottom line is or what might lose you money when it’s time to take a moral stance,” said Tenpenny. “Doing the right thing, taking that moral stance matters.”

You might not think you have power in your community as a restaurateur, but providing a haven to trans people kicked out of restaurants for using the bathroom or gay people who might otherwise stumble into a bar that advocates for shooting people like them makes an impact.

Tenpenny explains that the two gay bars in his city are the only spaces he feels totally comfortable kissing his husband or holding his hand. “These are things that straight people don’t have to think about when they walk into places,” said Tenpenny. “A singular interaction at a restaurant or at a bar could just be so impactful for queer people who don’t feel comfortable in this heteronormative, cis-dominant world.”

Tenpenny standing with his coworker unveiling a Pride mural with the artist.
Tenpenny at the unveiling of Napalese's Pride mural.

8 tips for running an LGBTQIA+ inclusive restaurant

Hospitality isn’t just about plastering a smile on your face and efficiently serving a great meal. It’s about welcoming people with open arms, regardless of who they are, how they identify, or who they love. Making your restaurant safe and inclusive to marginalized groups is, therefore, central. These 8 tips will help you do so for your LGBTQIA+ customers and employees alike.

1. Use LGBTQIA+ visuals and inclusive language in marketing

One of the simplest ways to reach out to the LGBTQIA+ community and show that you’re excited to host them at your restaurant is to feature LGBTQIA+ people in your marketing—both during and outside of Pride month. “You don’t have to shoot rainbow fireworks into the air,” said Tenpenny. “Just normalize the presence of queer people in everyday society in your marketing.” Featuring genderqueer people and same-sex couples in your ads or website shows members of the community that you recognize and respect their identities.

Keep in mind that you don’t have to use the language of the cultural community to connect with the community. In fact, it’s probably best to avoid doing so altogether. Throwing in a “hunty” or “queen” may seem innocuous, but it can read as disingenuous, as appropriation, or just plain cringe. Plus, you run the risk of using the vernacular inappropriately. “Keep the language neutral, and keep it to what you know,” said Tenpenny. “You can still keep a strong stance for us and be very clear about that.”

2. Teach staff to use inclusive language

It’s one thing to say that you’re welcoming to the LGBTQIA+ community; it’s another to make sure your restaurant marketing aligns with the experience you’re offering. If a trans man sees a nonbinary customer in one of your restaurant social media marketing posts but the host referred to him as “ma’am” during his visit, he would understandably feel misled into thinking that your restaurant was a comfortable space to dine with his friends and loved ones.

To avoid offending your staff or customers, encourage staff to include their pronouns when introducing themselves and to ask guests for their pronouns. To make things simple, you can refer to everyone with they/them pronouns unless they request otherwise. Ensure that greetings don’t include binary language such as sir or ma’am, and refer to the person your customer is dining with as “your guest” or “the rest of your party” to avoid making assumptions about their relationship.

3. Educate yourself and your staff

The more you know about the LGBTQIA+ experience, the better you’re going to be at making changes to your business that are meaningful to the community. “The first step when you’re looking to establish a genuinely affirming space is to really educate yourself,” said Tenpenny. “We have to be educated to be the best advocates or allies that we can be.”

If you’re not sure where to start, The Stonewall Inn Gives Back Initiative partnered with Jennifer Brown Consulting to develop a safe space training program for restaurants and other businesses. It’s $1000, tax deductible, and easy for your staff to complete. At the end of the training, your business will receive a certification that will communicate to LGBTQIA+ people that your business is safe for them to visit.

Learning new things can be uncomfortable, so it is important to approach this journey with curiosity and to handle criticism with patience and grace. “You’re not going to be perfect, it’s not going to be easy, and there’s a lot of information out there, so it takes a lot of patience and willingness to learn,” said Tenpenny.

4. Offer gender-neutral bathrooms

Gender-neutral bathrooms aren’t just a matter of inclusivity; they’re a matter of safety. Transgender people are four times more likely than cisgender people to be victims of violent assault, and that risk increases when they are discouraged or prevented from using a bathroom that corresponds to their gender identity. Offering gender-neutral bathrooms shows LGBTQIA+ that you are aware of the discrimination they face and that you are willing to make changes to your business to make them feel welcome.

Private, gender-neutral bathrooms aren’t just safer for LGBTQIA+ guests; they’re more comfortable for everyone. Parents with children don’t have to make awkward decisions, your staff doesn’t have to supervise bathrooms, and everyone gets more privacy. If your restaurant can’t accommodate single-occupancy bathrooms, you can integrate the men’s and women’s stalls—in that case, it’s best to install higher walls to ensure privacy.

5. Look for bias in your hiring process

In the best-case scenario, your staff will mirror the market population you serve. “If the LGBTQ population is 7.1 percent of the workforce, you would want to try to achieve that in your organization,” said Dahms. Around 18 percent of restaurant workers identify as LGBTQIA+, so there’s likely an issue in your hiring or recruitment practices if none of your staff openly identifies as such.

To find the source of that issue, you need to look at every step of the hiring process. Assess your job postings, interview guides, criteria weighting, job requirements, and even your hiring manager for bias. Advertise the position on LGBTQIA+ job boards and survey recent applicants about their experience. Additionally, consider implementing a blind resume system. Estimates show that standard resume screening can increase the chances of minority and female applicants getting an interview by around 40 percent.

6. Promote a culture of allyship

You can’t be everywhere and see everything, so you’re going to need buy-in from your staff to resolve discrimination in your restaurant. Encourage them to keep an eye out, speak up when an LGBTQIA+ person is being harassed, and bring issues to your attention when necessary. Keep in mind that just because you haven’t witnessed discriminatory behavior, doesn’t mean it’s not there. After all, staff members do behave differently when management is watching.

You can’t just expect staff to be good allies; you have to lead the way. Being a good ally means listening and asking how you can support someone, so creating a safe and supportive channel for employees and customers to voice their concerns is vital. Ensuring that your employees have the tools to stand up to discrimination—through education and leading by example—is just as important, if not more so.

Finally, make sure your staff knows how important it is to advocate for LGBTQIA+ people. “Not saying something is actually saying something,” said Dahms. “Not taking action is an action.” Her team always encourages trainees to “Be an upstander, not a bystander.” Make sure your staff knows they should do the same and that you will do whatever you can to support them.

7. Create non-harassment policies and communicate them

Studies show that LGBTQIA+ people are nearly four times more likely than non-LGBTQIA+ people to experience violence. When it comes to LGBTQIA+ people who work in restaurants, 81 percent experience homophobia or transphobia, and 67 percent experience sexual harassment.

With those statistics in mind, it’s almost a guarantee that your LGBTQIA+ employees or customers will be victimized in your restaurant at some point or another. That said, you can reduce the frequency or severity of such harassment by developing clear and firm policies for dealing with it.

Once you have these policies on the books, you can describe them on your website so that customers and job applicants who identify as LGBTQIA+ know that you have their best interests in mind.

8. Contribute to LGBTQIA+ nonprofits

Flying the Pride flag in June or posting in solidarity with LGBTQIA+ people after a hate crime is great, but companies often get accused of rainbow washing, or supporting a cause to gain attention without making any tangible efforts to do so. “Customers and employees are starting to call out those kinds of performative things,” said Dahms. “What can you do as an organization to support the community in real ways?”

Queer bars have a long history of advocacy work, and Napalese follows in those footsteps. Each month, the bar donates to and partners with a different nonprofit to raise money for the causes that are important to its patrons. “Our business is people-driven,” explained Tenpenny. “We don’t just give them good service, good food, and good drinks. We also give them something that they can be a part of that’s a larger purpose.”

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