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The Customer Service Crush: Is it ever acceptable?

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I recently rediscovered Curtis Sittenfeld's Salon piece from a few years back, Latte, tea, or me?, which deconstructs a phenomenon known as the Customer Service Crush.

The customer service crush can spring into existence just about anywhere: restaurants, banks, video rental stores, even airplanes...These people are extra friendly to us (or maybe alluringly unfriendly), and their place of employment can provide an automatic common interest: You drink coffee? Oh my God, I drink coffee, too!

Among the reasons for these crushes, certainly, is convenience. "You have this stationery target for your affection," says Jim Behrle, a currently unemployed 31-year-old who used to work at a bookstore and also lives in Boston, of his fondness for coffee shop baristas. "They're sort of stuck behind the counter and have to be nice to you."

I recently asked a few restaurant folks about their experiences with the Customer Service Crush--and heard a few funny stories.

One of my favorites was from Hillary Lewis, the marketing manager for Kieran's collection of Irish pubs, who said that back when she served at a sushi bar in college there was one particular customer who acted on his crushes--yes, he had several of them!--by frequently bringing in a few long-stemmed black(!) roses and hand-written poems(!!) for the various waitresses, who found it rather creepy. "It didn't seem to occur to him that hitting on multiple people at the same restaurant was probably not the best way to get a response," Lewis says. After some time, the restaurant's management finally decided the guy's behavior constituted harassment and banned the guy.

Michael Kutscheid, co-owner of Sanctuary, has decades of experience in the restaurant and hospitality business and has seen plenty of amorous exchanges between staff and guests (ask him about the staffer who delivered "room service" to Mike from Mike and the Mechanics at the Whitney Hotel...). Staff to guest crushes are more straightforward--Kutscheid says he once had to dismiss a waiter who was asking guests for their phone numbers--but guest to staff crushes are harder to control. (Kutscheid's hiring practices may have exacerbated the problem. Of his time at Martini Blu, he says, "I think I needed an agent on my staff, as they were always taking time off to model...I have a penchant for finding staff that's as beautiful as they are on the outside as the inside.")

Kutscheid himself was once the object of a guest's affections. Years ago, when he worked at Maxmillians, "Minneapolis's Playboy Club" out on the 494 strip, dressed in a tuxedo with tails, a woman once tried to give him her hotel room key--which Kutscheid says he politely declined.