We hate to have to be the ones to tell you this, but the customer isn’t always right.
There was the morning, distracted by a message from the office, that you didn’t actually ask for almond milk in your half-caff macchiato. The noisy night out when you misheard your date’s drink order and returned to your two-top with a gin drink rather than a rum one. And there was, probably at least once, the time you hazarded a guess at the gender of your server—throwing out a tentative, “Excuse me, miss,” as you tried to track down your check, issuing what you thought was a polite, “Thank you, sir,” as someone slid your beer across the bar—and guessed wrong.
It’s why, at Powderhorn’s May Day Cafe, a small sign taped to the counter bears a polite request: “The May Day Cafe asks that you use gender-neutral language when addressing its employees. Thank you.” A similar note, modeled after May Day’s, went up next to the cash register at Taco Cat’s Midtown Global Market stall in September: “Please use gender-neutral language when addressing our staff. Thanks for being a pal.”
“I think gendered language is pretty integrated in restaurant culture,” says Taco Cat co-owner Tristan Jimerson. “I’ve been working in restaurants for a long time, and sir-ing and ma’am-ing people, that’s just how you’re taught.”
For Jimerson, who in interviews asks potential hires their preferred pronouns right after asking their name, it just made sense to extend that same courtesy to customer interactions. Following May Day’s lead, the bike delivery taco joint became one of the newest practitioners of this emerging language movement in the service industry.
That movement got its start in the Twin Cities at Cafe SouthSide. More a community gathering hub than just somewhere to hunker down and suck up the free WiFi, the Powderhorn cafe was a place of radical hospitality, one that actively welcomed LGBTQ+ customers and served as a safe space for trans and non-binary folks. Co-owners Roxanne Anderson and Anna Mayer intentionally created that trans-friendly environment—it was always as connected to their mission as brewing coffee or selling sandwiches.
“It was really important to us, from the very beginning, to make everything—including our application—reflect that in a way that was fair and equitable,” says Anderson, an educator and activist who’s worked with organizations including OutFront Minnesota. “One of the very first things that we did was to put, right on the register: ‘This is a trans safe space.’” Elsewhere throughout SouthSide, buttons encouraged guests to ask about pronouns, radical literature lined the walls, and customers held events like “stitch your pronouns” crafting workshops. And while the cafe is currently closed as its co-owners work to find a more sustainable way to run the business, they’re still spreading that message: Anderson now trains others in the restaurant industry to be more trans-inclusive.
Considering a June 2016 study from the Williams Institute found that 1.4 million American adults—roughly 0.6 percent—are transgender, it seems likely that many Minneapolis-St. Paul restaurants have at least one trans person on staff. What’s more, given that the Williams Institute findings doubled statistics from just five years prior and didn’t factor in other gender-nonconforming or non-binary groups, there are likely plenty more places like Taco Cat, where roughly seven employees aren’t cisgender, meaning their gender identity doesn’t match the sex they were assigned at birth.
But not every eatery doubles as a community space in the way SouthSide did, and speaking with people whose names you don’t know is inherent to food service, perhaps more so than in just about any other industry. Lacking a name to use in those interactions, gendered language—both terms of respect (your ma’ams, your misters) and those of friendly familiarity (dude, bro, lady)—becomes a de facto placeholder.
“Working in the service industry, people think they have to gender you to respect you,” says Tiger, who works the line at Taco Cat and uses gender-neutral they/them pronouns (and who prefers to be identified by their first name only).
This is where the signs come in—they were meant “to broaden the context in which the staff felt comfortable, not just with their co-workers, but with everybody, so they didn’t have to repeatedly correct people or feel it was a personal burden they had to bear,” explains May Day cook Reema Bazzy.
Reactions have been mixed, but largely positive. A bearded, burly, non-binary Taco Cat staffer named Q uses xie/xem pronouns, and says that before adding the small sign, xie got “duded and bro’d all day.” That’s stopped, for the most part, and Q’s unscientific estimate is that 87 percent of people have been receptive to the message. Some excited customers have taken pictures of it, others have said they wish their restaurant would implement something similar. Those who have had no idea what it means or why a taco joint would ask such a thing of diners have, for the most part, reacted with curiosity or questions, not malice or negativity.
That other 13-ish percent? Well, there have been a few scoffs, and one person who laughed and told Q, “I like your joke.” One older customer—speaking to a cisgender employee working front of house—gestured to a non-binary cook working behind the counter and asked, “Can you tell it what I want?” This was Jimerson’s trepidation when Taco Cat’s sign first went up: that the person working front-of-house would bear the brunt of customer confusion, that the reactions would be negative enough to be more traumatic than comforting for the staff. At May Day, Bazzy explains that the sign has been a quick, easy way to address the topic up front, but theirs is a high-volume cafe, and often, there isn’t really time to give thoughtful answers to genuine customer questions.
Besides, it isn’t easy to be constantly positioned in the role of educator, and Q says xie is still trying to settle on a short, quick pitch for people who want to know more. After all, “They’re just trying to get a taco,” Q says. “And you’re just trying to live your queer life,” adds Tiger.
Both Bazzy and the Taco Cat team say they could see this language popping up elsewhere in Minneapolis, though Bazzy acknowledges that south Minneapolis—and in particular, the diverse Powderhorn neighborhood May Day calls home—might have to lead by example. Would Bloomington and Richfield respond the same way? It remains to be seen. All agree that what’s important here is the effort, the acknowledgement: trying to honor co-worker and customer pronouns, acting gracefully in the event that you (inevitably) get them wrong as you rewire, going from “you guys” to “you all,” from “hey, miss” to “hello, there.”
“Even as someone who—I am the thing, I still make mistakes. I still screw up,” says Q. Jimerson, too, falters ever so briefly when explaining how the Taco Cat team worked together to draft language for the sign that was in line with their style: “I had these guys—these people,” he quickly corrects, “look at it.”
But there are no hard feelings following the foible, only peals of laughter from the group. “We’re all learning!” Tiger says. “The best thing is just, you catch yourself, you back up, and you do it again.”