Complicated feelings follow the hardest year our industry has ever seen
By Laura Creasy
I don’t have to tell any of you that this past year has taken a toll on our industry. More restaurants have closed than at any other time in recent memory. According to the National Restaurant Association, 17% of U.S. restaurants either closed permanently or long-term during the COVID-19 crisis last year.
That 17% amounted to 110,000 food-service businesses as of the time the NRA’s report was published in December 2020. The study went on to report that 37% of the remaining operators said it was unlikely their restaurant would still be in business 6 months later if they didn’t get some sort of additional aid. And here we are at that 6-month mark awaiting a report on the next wave of closures. I don’t have updated stats from the NRA as of press time, but it’s safe to say that our industry has not recovered.
None of these statistics are surprising to any of us working in restaurants. Our establishments have all been struggling over this past year. But with all of the talk of “the industry” struggling and “businesses” failing, I keep coming back to the same questions over and over this year: How are we, the people who make up this industry, feeling? What has been the toll not just on the businesses, but on us?
Looking around at my peers in the industry and reflecting on the staffing crisis we are all in, the answer isn’t an easy one, but however you look at it, that the effect has been devastating.
Fear and Uncertainty
I was lucky enough, after a six-week furlough last March and April, to get called back to work. I didn’t lose my job, unlike the 5.9 million other restaurant workers that did. One in 4 jobs lost during the pandemic were restaurant jobs, according to Restaurant Business Online. I consider myself fortunate all the time that I wasn’t one of those casualties.
But if I’m being honest, when I did get called back to work, it just felt … weird. And it just wasn’t fun anymore. At that time, in the early days of the pandemic, there was still so little known about the spread of COVID-19, and there was so much fear. We had to wear masks to work all day every day, and at that time, disposable gloves were required, too.
In the beginning, we were only allowed, by state regulations, to offer take-out. And we had to bring everything to the curbside for minimal contact.
I’m a beverage director, but there was little need for my actual skill set at that time. Since establishments were not allowed to invite guests inside, bar business was a moot point. I was bagging take-out like the rest of my team.
To say that my spirit was struggling on a daily basis is an understatement. As I masked and gloved up each day to do work that was not really what I was hired to do for “guests” that I couldn’t actually interact with, sometimes I just wanted to cry. But the guilt I felt about complaining, and the gratitude I had for making the living that many others were not, kept my head in the game.
Overlooked and Undervalued
Once guests were allowed back into our dining rooms, a whole new cycle of emotions began to surface within our teams. It was nerve-wracking for many of us to be in a dining room, even at reduced capacity. Unmasked guests surrounded us on all sides, eating, talking, laughing – doing all of the things that the CDC told us spread COVID.
I wondered daily when the news media lauded grocery store employees and delivery drivers as frontline heroes, and I wonder now as I read the lists of who is a priority to receive the vaccines based on exposure risk, why hospitality workers are so often overlooked.
There have been times during this pandemic that I’ve felt really invisible, not just to the policy-makers that allow us to work but don’t acknowledge the risk we’ve taken, but also to the guests in the dining room, for whom I typically use a smile to communicate care. Smiles seem a wasted effort behind the mask, and the deflated way that we feel inside must surely come across to the guests.
I’ve had moments during COVID when I’ve felt more belittled than I ever have in my career, as guests going through their own emotions and fears put us restaurant workers in our place.
I’ve apologized to a guest who asked for a new server because her first server touched his mask, and I had to resist pointing out that she was talking to me without a mask on, and that we would soon be clearing her utensils and glassware and plate of half-eaten food, which were all covered with her microbes.
I’ve had grown adults yell at me about how stupid mask mandates are and how uncomfortable it makes them, but not seem to care that my co-workers and I are in our masks for 8 or 9 hours just trying to serve them and do our jobs.
I’ve watched an unmasked man lean on the host stand, inches from one of our hosts, talking directly at her and invading her personal space, as she felt powerless to ask him for her 6 feet of distance.
Not Everything Can be Boxed
When government officials offered take-out as an option for restaurants to try to keep them afloat, part of me was deeply grateful, but another part of me was fairly insulted at the idea that what we do in restaurants could be put into a box or a bag and that anyone thought it would be the same.
When local governments decided to allow cocktails to-go as an additional revenue stream for restaurants, I, for one, had mixed feelings. I’ve tested and developed every cocktail I’ve ever created so that it’s served in the perfect glassware, with the appropriate garnish, ingredients measured precisely and shaken just so for this long to attain the perfect texture. When we get to the final product, the magic happens when the bar guest sits in front of me or a member of my team, and we stir and we shake and we flame that orange peel to the oohs and ahhs, and they laugh at our dumb jokes and we share an experience.
You can’t package that to-go. Nor can you guarantee that the person buying the cocktail will follow any preparation instructions or ice it the way you suggest or even put it in a glass. You have to assume that every cocktail you send out might be gulped from the plastic to-go cup, and if it doesn’t show well, it reflects badly on you.
I’m sure chefs feel the same way, as they put their expertly crisped edges and grill smoke aromas and cooked to temperature perfection into a box knowing the garnish will be wilted and the breading will be soggy and the magic will fall flat.
Doing to-go food has kept many of our establishments alive, and I’m sure there are many operators who love it. I’ve seen some of my industry peers gearing up for take-out drinks, talking about the crown cap machine they bought to bottle up cocktails, Instagramming the adult “Capri-Sun” bags they’re planning to fill. They are digging deep and trying to make those cocktails special for bar guests they’ll never meet. I’m sure I’ll eventually do the same, especially since at press time, Georgia’s legislature had passed a bill to allow to-go cocktails indefinitely. We’ll do what we have to do to take advantage of that situation for the revenue. But I’m sure there are many more of you out there like me that feel it’s a mixed blessing.
Taking Everyone’s Temperature
There have been moments lately when the crowds in our restaurants have gotten so big on a Saturday night that it almost felt like pre-COVID times. As of press time, Georgia has lifted all COVID restrictions, meaning restaurants are allowed to go back to operating at full capacity. Most people in our industry couldn’t wait for this moment when restrictions are lifted, volume is intense, people are three-deep at the bar … and we’re back!
While I also looked forward to these days, there have been moments, when I have caught myself in the middle of this increased mass of people and noise and busyness, that I have felt very overwhelmed. This past year has forced us to spend time alone, forced us to be quiet, to slow down, and forced us to be apart from each other. I’ve thought all along that I couldn’t wait to get back to where things were, to be around all of the people and the action again. But when I feel that action starts to approach pre-COVID level, my quieter inner self isn’t always equipped to handle it. Can we really be expected to just turn these feelings off one minute and then amp them back up the next? Can we be expected to forget that COVID hasn’t gone away, and in fact that many health experts feel we may be facing a fourth wave? The way it all feels is, well, complicated.
We, as humans, have had to make an extraordinary number of adaptations in order to just survive this past year. Our emotions, our goals, our finances, our headspace have all had to shift and try to keep up. We can’t assume that the way we, or our service team or our kitchen crew felt last year, or even yesterday, will be the way they feel today.
Numerous members of my team this year have bowed out due to their mental health or no longer being able to handle the pressure, and it’s often people who we don,t expect. We don’t always see it coming, but should we?
My establishments, like most restaurants right now, take every employee,s temperature each day when they arrive at work to make sure they are healthy enough to enter the building. How many of us have been regularly taking the temperature of our team,s morale, or checking on their mental health, their ability to simply meet the demands of a tough shift, amidst all of the rest of the concerns we’re all dealing with?
Crisis Brings Needed Reflection
We are in a major staffing crisis in our industry, with every single restaurant I know of severely short-staffed and constantly hiring. This puts added pressure on the rest of the team in the building, who are constantly picking up the slack. Many of us won’t be able to throw the doors wide open with restrictions lifted, because we simply can,t manage to fill all positions required to do so.
I hear many people blaming their hiring woes on the extension of unemployment benefits or lazy workers in the job market. But I have to ask, has our industry taken a good look at itself recently and asked, are restaurants a nice, pleasant, or even still viable place to work?
This past year has forced a lot of people to take a hard look at their lives and ask themselves a lot of questions. Many of the 5.9 million restaurant workers who lost their jobs in 2020 chose to pivot to new careers, either believing their jobs would not come back or choosing not to wait around until they did.
Restaurant work is hard even during normal times. It,s dirty; you don’t get to take breaks; you feed others but go all day without eating; you give up most of your weekends, holidays, special occasions.
But during these abnormal COVID times, when the easy money isn’t there, when the flexible hours are less flexible, when you are afraid going to work might get you or your family sick, when restaurant work just isn’t that fun anymore, the level of hard required starts to seem too much.
On top of that, a whole generation of young people who would have entered the industry for the first time last year may have chosen not to, because there were none of the usual lures to draw them in. All of us in restaurants started off our journey and the passion for what we do with an ah-ha moment: a dinner prepared by an exceptionally talented chef, a bottle of wine that blew our minds, service that made us feel like royalty. A whole generation of young people missed out on that this year while restaurants were shut down or operating at a handicap. A whole generation of people now views restaurants as a precarious, iffy and less-than-desirable career path.
Is working in restaurants even worth it anymore? For many of us, the answer is still yes. What we need to do right now as an industry, and as the caring individuals that make up this industry, is stop, look around at the others still working by our sides, and figure out how to forge the path forward together. The answers might not be as simple as getting back to the way things were.
Lara Creasy is Beverage Director for Rocket Farm Restaurants, overseeing 8 Superica locations in 4 states. She loves tequila so much that she has made multiple pilgrimages to Mexico to witness the magic of agave distillation.