Karen's Diner: I trained to be a rude waiter

01 June 2023 by

The Caterer sent its nicest reporter to the world's rudest diner for a shift as an honorary Karen

"That's pathetic," I flatly tell a teenage boy struggling to fill a paper cup with mayonnaise. He giggles sheepishly and attempts to hide the tiny droplets that are all he's managed to extract from the dispenser. I stare disapprovingly and walk away.

As his designated server I probably could – even should – have helped him, but that's not how things work at Karen's Diner. Any form of assistance, particularly if given with a smile, would break the "great burgers, very rude service" promise made by the group, which launched in Australia in 2021 and has opened seven sites across the UK in the past year.

To discover how hospitality is being turned on its head I joined the team at the diner's first London site in Islington for a Friday evening service. There are 110 covers booked and at 5pm things are just building up, with a handful of families, several groups of friends and a couple on a date seated so far.

The restaurant is styled as a 1950s American burger joint, complete with red and white gingham tables and leather seats. Stepping out of the small-town aesthetic, the walls are plastered with phrases such as "Nope, Karen is not vegan" (although the Vegan Karen burger is available at £9) and a giant, neon-lit middle finger, which welcomes customers as they walk in the door.

All diners receive a bit of a bruising (not physical, of course) upon entry. Staff confiscate a vintage black flat cap from one customer and offer to throw it in the bin, while a family of three are publicly shamed for arriving two hours early for their booking ("can't you count?"). The father of the group is wearing a green and blue check shirt that apparently "looks like a tablecloth" and is promptly penalised with a forced karaoke rendition of Britney Spears' ‘Baby One More Time', which he performs to a deathly silent audience. He later tells me he decided to come here for a "different" experience.

Karen's Diner UK sits under Australian parent company Viral Ventures Global, managed by Aden Levin and James Farrell. The name of the restaurant stems from the pejorative phrase of "being a Karen", which typically refers to an entitled, antagonistic customer who is unreasonably demanding.

The term has been adapted quite freely by the staff here and extends to any form of anti-hospitality, be it throwing napkins at people's faces, sitting in guests' chairs, or picking on people who are eating the burgers (ie, everyone) – all of which I participate in. Just before I am "christened as a Karen" and sent out on the floor, I am given a final word of advice from site supervisor and lead entertainer Daniel Joseph Serra: "Just be really horrible."

Serra is an actor and joined Karen's for the Islington opening, having finished his round on West End production The Choir of Man. He initially applied to be a Karen (the name given to all front of house team members), but was offered the role of entertainer during the interview process – "I'm that much of a dick," he says, gleefully.

His ‘Wheel of Misfortune' game entertains or terrifies guests, depending on their temperament, every 15 minutes. He explains: "I'll say ‘after the count of three, I want you to give me your best animal impression'. If they go ‘moo', I'll say ‘Don't cows have four legs?' and get them on the floor on all fours and drag them round the restaurant."

Before opening, Serra and the Karens spent three days role-playing customer interactions, but he says the improvised sessions came naturally to him: "As an actor, you go through ups and downs with jobs, and I've been a waiter so many times and I've had to deal with such rudeness sometimes from customers, it's just awful," he says. "You want to say fuck off, but here you can just be yourself. You might find it quite therapeutic – there is something quite freeing about it."

Training to work at Karen's Diner

Prior to my shift, I had been given an additional one-on-one tutorial from Paul Levin, who oversees the operations of Karen's in the UK, Ireland and Europe. He has proudly trained every Karen under his remit, which amounts to "an awful lot" of front of house staff, considering there are 21 Karens at the Islington branch alone.

He says: "The first thing to do is to not react. What you've got to think and put in your head is: ‘I don't care'. If somebody says ‘my chips are cold', you don't care – you walk off." He adds that the faster you speak, the harder it is to be a Karen, because you will have to think of your next move more quickly.

"A lot of the Karens swear far too much," he adds. "They use the f-word all the time and then it's not funny. If you are a customer, you want to be entertained. You don't want to sit there and think: ‘I don't like this – all they're doing is swearing at me'."

On TikTok, where Karen's Diner has accrued 1.4 million followers and with some videos hitting more than 22 million views, the servers are hardly indifferent. They swear, they humiliate and they complain – it is, of course, all in jest, and clear guidelines prevent team members venturing into racism, sexism, homophobia, body shaming or other offensive areas.

And as customer expectations rise, Levin feels the pressure to offer something memorable. "We have a massive following on social media, so our whole business is very dependent on reviews. We are paranoid about our reviews and that keeps us in check."

He does have some concerns that exaggerated performances will change the reputation of the diner. Levin points out that the "best Karens are girls or very effeminate guys", as "macho" Karens tend to get away with less, as guests sometimes misconstrue playful jokes as unpleasant aggression.

"I can't have customers going ‘Christ, I thought it was just going to be funny. That was horrible!'. Then we've got it completely wrong. It's very much an acquired taste and it is an entertainment experience. That's what we have to drill into all the Karens, because they do get carried away, and the difference between being funny and being offensive is a very, very fine line."

But, despite his recommendation of nonchalance he acknowledges that one entertainer who is the worst culprit of ruthless insults and excessive ‘Karen-isms' is "the best entertainer we have in the whole world" because of her undeniable stage presence.

The entertainment for tonight is toned down a notch as there are several children dining. That said, it doesn't stop the younger diners being given chef hats with "knob" written on them throughout the evening, which is all part of the Karen tradition.

After about an hour on the floor, I'm asked by Serra to lead the diner's trademark birthday anthem, "happy birthday, piss off!", which is the cleaner version of the original, "happy birthday, fuck off!".

The birthday boy (who I later find out has just turned nine) buries his head in his hands as I approach his table with a microphone in hand, but seems to be hiding a bashful smile.

After the song is over, and while wondering if I should have finished with a wittier remark than the one I gave – "you're not even 10!" – I turn to ask the other Karens if he gets anything for his birthday. They smile warmly. Of course not. It's Karen's Diner.

What it offers instead is "rudeness, great food and fun times", as is stated in the job description for a general manager at the chain. The advert also explicitly mentions that candidates for the role must ensure a high standard of customer service, which Alaa Badran, general manager of Karen's Islington, says is a challenge to define, let alone maintain.

Unlike the Karens, he is out of character most of the time, so guests have the chance to talk freely with him about the food, drinks and overall hospitality experience. He says it is "very tricky" to know when to intervene as a ‘normal' manager, as some customers like to join in on the banter and have ultimately paid money for the server to be rude.

"You need to adapt everything to work here," he says. "If I go and ask every single table [about the food], I'm breaking the Karen's way."

He has overseen fast-paced environments before, but not where "you've got to manage and work with very good servers and bartenders who are also very good Karens". He points out that recruiting people who can do both hasn't necessarily been hard, because "if you work in hospitality, you really want to be a Karen, but you can't be".

That's exactly why Ebony Cameron, who has a background in hospitality and drama, applied to become a server. She says it has provided her with the perfect opportunity, because: "I know I'm a bitch; I'm a self-aware bitch".

Her proudest insult to date is calling a child a "fucking mistake" to a parent: "She started laughing. I told her I wasn't joking."

As she re-enacts the moment, she looks at me with a matter-of-fact, slightly pitying stare – a look that Levin first gave me during my training session. She says there have been instances where customers take their licence to Karen too far, as their comments venture into racist or sexist slurs. "The rules are made clear and we as staff stick to it clearly, but some of the customers do their own thing and argue back. If they keep going, we don't interact. You came here for entertainment, not to abuse," she explains.

Badran adds that as the chief safe-guarder, he has recently had to have a stern conversation with a misbehaving customer who tried to make a joke by claiming a comment was racist: "I had to go and talk to them and say ‘I don't even want that to be mentioned. You might think it's funny, but the table right next to you might say it's not funny.' We do not talk about it at all."

What is the Karen's Diner code of conduct?

The Karen's Diner website outlines its code of conduct, which restaurant guests are alerted to upon entry. It states that anyone who breaks the house rules will be "asked to pay the bill and leave the venue. You will also be banned from returning to the venue". From an HR perspective, Levin describes Karen's as a very conventional business, if not more so. "The problems we incur are the same problems everybody else does, and sometimes they come at a higher speed because it's a high-octane business."

Of course, in every other aspect of the restaurant, Karen's Diner is the antithesis of conventional. It does not offer hospitality in the traditional sense of the word, but staff certainly make every effort to ensure every table receives the attention it deserves – whether that is through carefully curated insults or providing generous opportunities for public humiliation. After all, the instructions for those dining are straightforward: all you have to do is "sit down, shut up, eat your food and bring on the banter".

For people who don't understand the concept, Levin has one final explanation: "It's two businesses, really. It's a good restaurant and then there's theatre on top of it. If I took you out to a Karen's and after 35 minutes we had no food, however funny the experience was it wouldn't be funny because you are hungry."

He adds that it is a hard job, so staff are paid accordingly, with minimum hourly pay starting from £13, regardless of age.

The theatrical element has been accentuated in recent months with the launch of the Diner's franchise pop-up business, Karen's on Tour, which enables ticket-holders to receive a taste of the Karen's experience in locations across the UK, such as Blackpool, Newcastle and Bournemouth. The food is supplied by hired restaurants, so they won't necessarily be served the same I Want to See the Manager Karen burger or the Karen's Chicken Bingo Wings, but Levin says everything else operates under the same concept.

In March, Karen's also opened its first hotel in Barnet, north London, in partnership with the Hadley hotel, which has a diner on-site and plenty of rude staff. Levin admits that the downside of expanding quickly is the perennial hospitality problem of lack of staff: "We're so short of people all the time that when we do new things, it takes longer to get them up and running," he says, but he believes there will soon be more hotels in the pipeline, because "people are enjoying it – it's a laugh".

"We can play the Karen routine sort of anywhere," he explains. "Remember, we're just escapism – that's all we are for an hour and a half."

From the Karen's Diner menu

The Basic Karen Wagyu beef with Swiss cheese, tomato, lettuce, beetroot and garlic mayo £12

Fiery Karen Wagyu beef served with onion rings, Swiss cheese, jalapeños, iceberg lettuce and peri-peri mayo £13

Karen's Best Breast Grilled chicken breast, bacon, Swiss cheese, lettuce, tomato, avocado and peri-peri mayo £12

Octoberfest Karen Plant-based vegan schnitzel, vegan cheese, lettuce, tomato and vegan aioli sauce £9

Karen's Bingo Chicken Wings Five or 10 pieces tossed with honey barbecue sauce or buffalo sauce with a side of blue cheese or ranch sauce £6/£10

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