For those working in the restaurant industry, “Every day is a negotiation: of labor costs, food costs, rent, insurance, health inspections, and the art and craft of creating an experience special enough to keep people coming through the doors,” writes Priya Krishna in her Op-Ed, “How to Save Restaurants.”
The pandemic raised the stakes of that balancing act. Safety restrictions and lockdowns have put even more pressure on the industry’s already-shaky economic models, pushing staff and owners to the edge — physically, mentally and financially.
The trickling return of indoor dining across the country — including in New York this week — may offer restaurants some relief. But will that extend to workers? Can restaurant owners weather the pandemic’s long-term effects?
We reached out to people working in restaurants around the country to see how their lives and livelihoods have changed since the coronavirus.
“We’re punching above our weight so far and keeping everyone employed,” writes Robert Hoover, whose restaurant in Stowe, Vt., was able to continue service by setting up picnic tables on its large front lawn. But, he says, “winter will bring a very different economic story, and not just here.”
More accounts from restaurant workers follow. They have been edited for length and clarity.
‘Broke, unemployed and terrified’
The pandemic drilled in the message that our restaurant was dedicated to profits, not people. We did not close for a single day, and we were not provided with P.P.E. until July. There was no pandemic pay, no offer of financial assistance, no specific rules in place for shutting down if one of us tested positive. Yet our owner did not step foot into the restaurant for almost four months out of self concern. I ended up leaving. — Aubrey Schefft, 26, Cleveland Heights, Ohio
I have an advanced degree, and I’ve worked in hospitality my entire life as a choice. Now I am unmoored, searching for what’s next. I no longer want to work in a field that is so broken. I want health insurance, a 401(k) and a fair wage, and I want to know the people that work with me have job security and are also being treated and paid fairly. It’s pathetic that these asks are so far-fetched in today’s climate, and I have decided I can’t keep subjecting myself to this. I don’t know what’s next but after working in a field I love for 20 years, I have to move on. — Elizabeth Kelso, 34, Los Angeles
I quit in March. I was expected to work and endanger my health (and my family’s) for far less money. I refused and so was not able to collect unemployment. Broke, unemployed and terrified, I’m scared for my future with no financial security to speak of. I want out of the industry but jobs are scarce. — Ryan Robertson, 43, Colorado
‘Job security? Not even on the docket.’
I’m a sommelier and bar manager at a fine-dining restaurant in Hawaii and part of a management team driving the restaurant’s adaptation. I now spend very little time tableside and more time getting promotions like wine discounts onto Instagram. Like so many others in this state, we lost a major source of revenue when travel shut down. We reopened Aug. 6 at 50 percent capacity, which so far has yielded about 25 percent of pre-Covid revenue. The Paycheck Protection Program money makes this sustainable for one more month. And even if a new round of P.P.P. doesn’t come through, we’ve decided to forge ahead.
In the unknowably distant future, the return of tourism to Hawaii is dependent on an effective vaccine, economic security, cultural attitudes and politics. In the meantime, you can get a hell of a great deal on a bottle of wine. Job security? Not even on the docket. — James L. Lunchick, 61, Waikoloa, Hawaii
The restaurant where I work is inside a theme park. It was closed for four months because they couldn’t reopen until the park did. We are now operating four days a week at 50 percent capacity but our income is down 60 percent compared to before Covid because we depend on tips. My husband and I both work there, so our household income is tight. Luckily we have a union and there are policies in place that have helped secure our jobs. However the company is suffering. Financially, it’s a big gamble. — Paola Gonzalez, 33, Davenport, Fla.
‘I’m so grateful to have the owners that we do’
I was a lead server at an almost 70-year-old fine-dining restaurant in Seattle with views of Lake Union. Guests dressed to the nines, and we served beautifully plated food and an award-winning wine list. In March we shut all that down and launched three new concepts in three days: drive-through burgers, a bagel shed and family meal delivery. When the weather got warmer, we opened a casual crab shack in the parking lot. Customers now come in flip-flops, and my goal is to deliver safe service by giving people as much space as possible.
At this point, we’ve closed the crab shack because of wildfire smoke and fall weather. Almost the entire staff has been laid off with eyes toward being brought back before the holidays. I’m immensely proud of our entire team for pushing forward through all of this, and I’m so grateful to have the owners that we do. They could have laid us all off six months ago. They chose to stay open and fight. — Michael Campbell, 28, Seattle
I was working at two restaurants in N.Y.C. Both shut down on the same day in March. It was terrifying! I made a quick decision to file for unemployment that day, and it was a wise move. We’ve been taking care of each other and staying close since the shutdowns. The restaurants have offered family meals to any of us in need, and there are constant GoFundMes for staff and our regular guests have been so generous. Associations have sponsored grants, and spirit companies have given money to applicants. Just so much love.
Being locked down was the right thing to do, but it is an extrovert’s nightmare. I am ready to go back to work, precautions and all! — Monica Elliot, 49, New York, N.Y.
‘My job is so much more serious’
I went from being a server whose primary concern was people having a nice evening out, to a possible transmitter of a horrible virus. My job is so much more serious and ominous than it used to be. A lot of my time is spent gauging how comfortable customers are with me approaching the table when they have their masks off, or explaining our safety measures and our bathroom procedure. I had a Covid scare and my restaurant had to shut down for days. Several of us had to get tested. It turned out to be negative, but I’ve never felt so horrible. I know that made us lose money. — Grace Guber, 21, Maplewood, N.J.
Before all this I was a bartender. Now I’m a server-bartender-bar manager-bar back-food runner-busser-host. I ask about a hundred people a day to please wear a mask when staff is at the table and I’m forced to get within a foot of about 95 of those people, unmasked. I’m exhausted. I’m making less money, working more hours and I know I am lucky to have a job at all. Mostly, though, I’m afraid. The owners are pushing for us to reopen inside and there’s nothing I can do to stop it. I’m afraid I’m going to get sick, or worse, unwittingly give it to my girlfriend or her parents. I just wish I felt one iota of control over the situation. — Olivia, 27, Washington, D.C.
I’m a server and bartender at a Chicago restaurant that’s part of a large corporate group. We were all furloughed in March and collected unemployment. In June, when Illinois allowed patio dining again, a few of us with seniority were asked to come back to work. Our teamwork has never been better. We all hold each other accountable in a healthy way because we’re all collectively making money for each other. But I find we are also a lot angrier, stressed and cynical toward the public that wants to support us, but is also putting our lives at risk. Customers need to adapt to us. We have guests that have trouble following our simple mask guidelines. They don’t realize we’re stretched thin. They act as if everything is back to normal when it clearly isn’t.
The pandemic has taught all of us that the service industry is and has always been propped up by its lowest-paid workers. — Jeremy Mendoza, 27, Chicago
‘The model has always been flawed’
I have been professionally cooking for eight years and in love with food for much longer. The passion wakes us up in the morning, the excitement invigorates us every shift and the familial atmosphere of the kitchen sustains us. It’s how we justify our low wages, long hours and lack of health care.
The pandemic has caused me to lose faith in the traditional restaurant model. I am no longer interested in running a kitchen or having my own restaurant. I have no interest in contributing to the underlying manipulation that occurs in every kitchen that allows for low wages. I am not sure what the future holds, but this is not it. — Joshua Needleman, 31, Brooklyn, N.Y.
I’m an independent owner and operator and have spent 43 years in restaurants. I was able to raise my family on the income generated by working hard and building a strong business. Those of us who have spent a career in the business have many advantages: owning real estate, established banking relationships and rainy day funds. How will I now be able to pass that opportunity on to my employees? We are about to lose an entire generation of young restaurant owners because they will not have the deep roots needed to stay in business through the pandemic. How will the government work with young restaurateurs to rebuild the foundation of our industry? — Steven Langer, 66, Denver
These times have exposed the great inequities of the business. I have worked in kitchens for over 40 years, most recently (and luckily) as a corporate chef. We take great care of our employees, but in most restaurants pay and benefits for back-of-house staff has barely changed. Unless you achieve chef status, the money is not there. If restaurants could get out of the business model of years past, and value, pay and respect workers by offering basics — like health insurance, paid time off when ill, a 401(k) program, possible ownership, etc. — I think we could transform the industry. This is the time to do it. We are hurting anyway, so why not? — Frank Mendoza, 55, Salt Lake City, Utah