Last year, I started to notice a particular phrase cheerfully uttered in my direction when I entered a store, hotel, restaurant, yoga studio — even the venerable halls of the JFK Delta SkyClub: “Welcome in!” I heard the greeting for the first time about five years ago on a trip to Los Angeles, but since then it has seemingly made its way across the country and taken hold in every corner of the hospitality industry in New York. Curious if others had noticed the same thing, I asked my Instagram followers: “Death to ‘welcome in’,” one friend said. “It’s so cringey!” said another. Like me, others felt it had come out of nowhere and was suddenly everywhere.
How did this happen? How did this phrase replace the classic “welcome!” as the standard greeting in hospitality spaces?
Last year, the radio show and podcast A Way With Words fielded a question from a New Mexico caller who wondered why they were hearing “welcome in” everywhere. After searching online and through their own records, the show’s hosts, Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett, reported finding references to the phrase as far back as 2014, mostly from places in the South and West. They weren’t able to pinpoint the exact origin, but wondered if perhaps the widespread adoption of the phrase was due to a corporate training manual instructing employees to specifically say “welcome in.”
While not exactly a training manual for a national corporation, Carol Ann, who asked to be identified by her first names only, did tell me that the phrase was officially part of her training in 2012 at James Beard Award-winning chef Stephan Pyles’s Stampede 66. “That is where I first remember hearing the ‘welcome in’ stuff. It kind of made this switch, I think around the 2010s, where instead of this huge stark difference between ‘servers’ and ‘guests,’ they wanted it to be more inclusive and warm and welcoming.”
In a .PDF of the training manual which Pyles sent me, there’s a page with the header “Savvy Language,” and right under that (emphasis his): “To EVERY guest that walks in the restaurant: Good evening. WELCOME IN.”
“I have a saying that hospitality was born in the South and perfected in Texas,” Pyles says. “And so ‘welcome in’ was very much a part of an inclusive and hospitable approach to dining. It’s always about: we’re here to make your day happy, and so ‘welcome in’ is a phrase we use a lot here in the South.”
Pyles says he grew up hearing the phrase. “My family had a truck stop cafe in Big Spring, West Texas and I remember that word from when I was five years old sitting at the counter. That was the first thing when somebody walked in the door: ‘Welcome in.’”
Certain kinds of language change are easy to map: iconic lines from movies (“As if!”) or tech terms that cross into the vernacular (the verb “to Google”), but the origins of “welcome in” are murky. What’s more, the phrase seems to have spread almost subconsciously, with people saying it without realizing they’ve changed the way they used to greet people.
A teacher at the hot yoga studio I frequent has a very deliberate spiel: “Welcome in. My name is Erin and my pronouns are she/her.” When I asked her recently when she started saying “welcome in,” she was baffled — she didn’t realize she was saying it.
E.V., an independent coffee consultant, said that she first noticed the phrase while working guest shifts at the Coffee Project’s Chelsea location. Her colleague Greg had been saying it, and one day curiosity got the best of her and she asked him why. His reaction was the same as Erin — he was saying it without realizing. “I feel like once I attuned to Greg saying it, I started hearing it fucking everywhere, which is insane. I don’t know where it came from.”
Gregory Guy, a professor of sociolinguistics at New York University, says that phenomenon is “called change from below, meaning below the level of conscious awareness. It’s the way most linguistic changes start out.” He continues: “The mechanism for that is considered to be accommodation. If we put two strangers in a room and they talk for 15 minutes, some little things about the way they speak might become more similar.”
Carol Ann, who told me she doesn’t say the phrase in her current job at a Lake Tahoe restaurant, had a startling realization when she heard about my yoga teacher unknowingly saying it. “That is so interesting,” she exclaimed. Then after a bit of hesitation: “Okay, I have taught yoga for a long time and I do use it in the studio! Wow. I’ve never thought about that. I must have picked it up from everyone else.” Change from below in action.
While we might never be able to definitively say where “welcome in” started, if I had to guess I’d say it started as a bit of Southern vernacular that crossed over into widespread usage as a result of the pandemic. As lockdowns lifted and indoor dining returned, people were craving hospitality again, and servers at restaurants across the country obliged by putting a little something extra on their usual greeting.
Will Guidara, co-founder of Eleven Madison Park and the NoMad hotel and author of Unreasonable Hospitality: The Remarkable Power of Giving People More Than They Expect, had not heard the phrase. But he did offer some perspective on the philosophy of welcoming. “If I’ve noticed a shift in the culture — and this is not specific to restaurants — it’s been like a slight loss of civility. And I think welcoming someone, however you choose to do it, is a beautiful return to something that I feel is important.”
John deBary is a semi-retired bartender turned drinks and hospitality expert who spends most of his time writing about drinks, including two cocktail books, Drink What You Want and Saved by the Bellini. When not writing he consults for private clients and hangs out with his husband and two cats.
Nicole Medina is a Philly-based illustrator who loves capturing adventure through her art using bold colors and patterns.