With roughly half of Americans vaccinated against COVID-19, masks are coming off and restaurants are reopening.
Some 16,500 food businesses reopened in April, the most in a year, according to Yelp. Nearly every state has reopened dining and drinking at full capacity, and it’s clear diners have gotten back their appetite for eating both inside and outside.
But restaurant workers are facing a new set of challenges.
The dining room and kitchen might appear to be back to normal, but there are plenty of things going on behind the scenes that diners aren’t aware of. Want to know what restaurants are facing? Here’s what industry workers across the country want you to know.
There’s a serious lack of staff.
If you’ve noticed the “Help Wanted” signs on the doors of nearly every restaurant, it should come as no surprise that the service industry is experiencing a severe lack of staff. As has been widely reported, millions of workers have left the industry over the last year, with many citing safety concerns and low pay.
Every restaurant I spoke with for this story listed this shortage as its number-one issue.
Victoria Hines, bartender at the Courtyard Marriott in Worcester, Massachusetts, says the entire hotel is stretched thin ― so thin that she is both the bar manager and the sole bartender because not enough qualified applicants are applying for the position.
“I am currently working five nights a week. People complain because the bar is closed two nights a week, but I have no one to cover if I need a day off,” Hines said.
In an effort to end labor shortages throughout the hotel, management is offering a higher hourly rate, an employee referral bonus and a sign-on bonus.
Your favorite drinks and foods might not be available.
In Los Angeles, Grant Smillie, the executive director of Botanical Group, says holdups in the supply chain are a major issue for his restaurants E.P. & L.P. and Strings of Life.
“‘It’s on backorder’ seems to be the new catchphrase of 2021,” Smillie said. He ordered and paid for stemware for E.P. & L.P. on April 23, but it has yet to arrive, and he said there is no timeline for when it will be delivered.
A chicken wing shortage made headlines in recent weeks, but Botanical Group is experiencing a different product shortage. “Good luck getting anything from the big Champagne houses or tequila brands in significant quantities, as there are supply deficiencies across the board,” Smillie said. “We’re definitely making daily substitutions from a brand perspective, and the workload of ensuring menus are correct is frustrating. Additionally, proteins are skyrocketing, if you can even get them,” he added.
Every member of the staff is likely overworked and exhausted.
Working in the restaurant industry is especially stressful and tiring right now. Sean, a bartender in the Ballard neighborhood of Seattle who wishes to omit his last name at the request of his managers, asks guests to be patient with the entire staff.
“We want you to leave our restaurant happy. The unfortunate reality is we’re all overworked,” he said.
He cites hiring reliable workers who want to stay in the industry as a big problem. “Unfortunately, a lot of co-workers and myself feel trapped in this job, having to pay rent and bills. So a lot are looking for other professions where they don’t have these added stresses. We’ve gone through two kitchen managers in two months, and today we fired someone for showing up to work drunk for four weeks in a row. We couldn’t let him go until today because we just needed bodies in the kitchen,” Sean said.
When it comes to COVID-19 regulations for restaurants, he wants people to call ahead of time if they’re unsure of the rules. “Front-of-house workers are tasked with the enforcement of COVID guidelines, but not a single front-of-house person asked for that job or is even compensated for doing it,” he said. “I can’t change the rules of the restaurant, nor will I bend them.”
Safety is still on the staff’s mind.
While most of the country has fully reopened, many restaurant workers have not had the time or resources to process the stress and trauma they’ve endured throughout the pandemic.
Michael Clement, chef de cuisine at New World Bistro in Albany, New York, says getting back to work is a welcome reprieve, but the thought of another potential shutdown looms in his mind as business levels are still down from a year ago.
The safety and health of essential workers have been a critical point of discussion for over a year, and many employees are still dealing with it. “We’re doing our best to keep our employees safe by requiring masks in the restaurant for approximately two weeks after the CDC [and] state government had said that they were not required,” Clement said.
Management has stepped in to encourage all employees to get vaccinated and assist them with finding appointments. They’re also assisting staff in how to handle guests who are unwilling to wear masks. “Customers by and large seemed to return to being more demanding and less understanding of the fact that things were still kind of scary for a lot of us,” Clement said.
They’re happy to see your smiling face.
“We have all been looking forward to restrictions being lifted. And I will say that being able to serve guests at the bar, wait on larger groups and seeing guests laugh, eat, drink and socialize together again has been wonderful,” said Chamron Brown, bartender and server at 10 West Restaurant and Bar in Cicero, Indiana.
She said that throughout the pandemic, her customers have been kind and generous. “Most guests have continued to be patient, engaging and appreciative.”