TORONTO -- A Toronto restaurant manager is trying to offer customers a more inclusive dining experience by encouraging servers to use gender-neutral greetings so not only "ladies" and "gents" feel welcome, but "friends" across the gender spectrum.
General manager Ginger Hunt said she wants everyone -- including trans and non-binary customers -- to enjoy their dining experience at Hey Lucy's Cabbagetown location, which means asking waitstaff to avoid addressing customers with gender-specific language.
The Italian eatery's efforts to adapt to society's shifting understanding of gender came about after Hunt served a customer who was deeply upset about being referred to as a "lady."
Hunt, a 20-year veteran of the food industry, said the encounter stuck with her.
"I've never given it enough thought, I don't think, to realize I'm actually offending people sometimes, which is not my goal on any level," she said in an interview.
Hunt said she started to pay more attention to how servers interacted with guests, noticing the frequency of greetings like "welcome, ladies" or "good evening, gentlemen." She was particularly irked by the ubiquity of "guys" as a catch-all term to address groups of any gender makeup.
It was time to make a change, Hunt said, but she wasn't sure how to go about it. She turned to her fellow service workers in the Food and Wine Industry Navigator Facebook group to ask for guidance about how to wean Hey Lucy's servers off of gendered greetings.
"My team has been trying really hard and are mostly successful in breaking the habits of days gone by," Hunt wrote in a post earlier this month. "How do you want be approached? How do you want to be served?
"We are in the business of serving everyone!!"
Dozens of group members responded to the post by offering suggestions for gender-neutral greetings like "good evening, folks," or "how is everyone tonight?"
Nicole Gauthier, who worked as a server and bartender for 15 years, told Hunt she had been working to eliminate gendered vocabulary from her speech for some time, and the adjustment was "tough but doable."
"Don't make any assumptions," she said in an interview, of her approach. "Let the guest lead you as opposed to you leading the guest."
In response to a handful of negative reactions to Hunt's Facebook post, 19-year-old barista Matt Isaac wanted to make it clear that being misgendered can be a "make-or-break" experience for trans customers like him.
"Often, when I go out with my friends, they will refer to us as ladies, and immediately, the experience at the restaurant will go rotten. We either won't want to come back, or we won't come back at all," he said in an interview.
"It hurts to be misgendered because it just kind of reiterates that I don't look like what I want to. I'm trying to present a certain way, and it's not coming across."
He said he wants to reward Hunt's initiative by grabbing a meal at Hey Lucy, hoping it will send a message to other restaurants that a gender-neutral approach is not only respectful, but can be profitable too.
"When people get happier, it makes them want to spend more money. When businesses take this approach, I think they'll thrive just a little bit more," said Isaac.
"I definitely think it's very worth advertising the approach, because it also advertises that times are changing, and if you haven't gotten with the schedule, it is time to get with it."
Sitting in a bustling Glad Day Bookshop, Toronto Trans Coalition Project chair Susan Gapka said the continued success of the world's oldest LGBTQ bookseller -- which in recent years has expanded to include a restaurant, bar and event space -- shows there is a demand for spaces where trans and non-binary customers don't have to educate staff before they dine.
Gapka said restaurants should accommodate these potential customers with more than just language and update their washroom facilities to be more gender inclusive.
Hunt said waitstaff at Hey Lucy are experimenting with addressing customers as "friends," but she wants each server to pick a greeting that feels natural to them, and she doesn't expect perfection.
"We didn't get a big neon sign saying, 'We won't call you ladies,"' she said. "But if you don't know, don't assume anything."
It's a work in progress, Hunt said, but she hopes other restaurants take note of how many standard service pleasantries are loaded with gender-based assumptions that can offend customers, and hurt a business's bottom line.
"This is bigger than I thought it was," she said. "I think maybe there's just not enough people, enough restaurants, enough service places being cautious of it.
"I certainly learned a lesson, and I've been in this industry a long time."