Now that the COVID-19 vaccine has been widely distributed nationwide and socializing and dining out are no longer tainted by an association with indiscretion and shame, you, me, and everyone we know wants to sit on a patio. We want to sip garnished cocktails with classy names out of precarious glassware. We want to reserve booths for large parties of our favorite people. We want to use the words “bottomless” and “mimosas” together in a sentence!
However, despite the increased demand for bars and restaurants during this reopening period, many businesses are struggling to reopen fully, if at all. Maybe you’ve noticed the signs hanging in front windows apologizing for limited hours due to staffing issues, or worse, maybe you’ve experienced the consequences of a short-staffed restaurant in the form of bad food or service. Well, I work in a kitchen, so let me briefly stand in as an unofficial spokesperson for restaurant workers the world over by saying… WE NEED A MINUTE. Please have some patience! Trying to prepare and serve food to people right now is a maddening and ridiculous thing to do.
Here’s the situation: food service, like so many industries that were shut down by COVID-19 and then restarted, is experiencing an industry-wide labor shortage. Politicians and journalists appear to have a lot of opinions on why this is happening, with some arguing that unemployment benefits have been extended for too long, and others saying that the unvaccinated and vulnerable may not be able to perform work that involves interacting with strangers in indoor settings. These arguments don’t seem incorrect to me, but they are incomplete.
Over the course of the pandemic, restaurants were forced to close and then reopen only at a limited capacity, and then close again, and then reopen at a different limited capacity, and then close again—a pattern that continued in what seemed like perpetuity. People were hired, fired, rehired at part-time, and then laid off again. They were asked to negotiate unemployment, then partial unemployment, then full unemployment, and so on. If they were lucky enough to find one, many of these people got another job in another industry and are not looking back. A few months ago, when we were still in the throes of the pandemic, I talked to a lifelong line cook who’d recently started working in an Amazon warehouse. After getting his hours cut at the end of last summer and then laid off in the fall, he decided to leave the industry and wait until things settled down. He told me that after a short time working in the warehouse, he felt healthy for the first time in years. His hours were better, the pay was higher, and he was receiving benefits like subsidized health insurance. He’d even started to think about going back to school. That’s right: the hospitality industry is so incredibly inhospitable for its workers that some people would rather work for Amazon!
If that’s not enough of an explanation for restaurants’ current labor shortage, there’s also the fact that front-of-house workers depend almost entirely on tips to make their living, and there simply weren’t enough tips to go around last year. Back-of-house employees in cities where cost of living is high typically depend on overtime hours to cover their basic expenses like rent and transportation. There is no way to make ends meet when you’re working just 40 hours each week at minimum wage or just above it. Since overtime hours were nonexistent in 2020, most of us had no choice but to flee the major cities in droves. People found new jobs, moved in with their parents, and did what they had to do. And now, like an abusive ex who tells you they’ve changed and everything will be different this time, the industry is calling us back and dangling pitiful hiring bonuses and raises like it might be enough to make us forget what happened in 2020.
Clearly the factors that have contributed to the current shortage of service industry workers are as numerous as stars in the heavens, and I’ve pointed out just a few. However, there are a (idealistic, self-flagellating) few of us who did come back to cooking, serving, bussing, bartending, dishwashing, and all the rest of it. We are working overtime after a year or more of sitting on the bench and we are RUSTY. Most kitchens do not have enough cooks right now, but they also don’t have enough porters to accept deliveries and wash and process food, or dishwashers, or cleaning people. Front-of-house employees seem to be even more difficult to come by likely because they were not kept on in any capacity over the course of the pandemic and their connection to the industry is severed, unlike their back-of-house counterparts who may have had a role in preparing takeout food. Front-of-house staff are often people with other jobs or focuses such as acting and performance, art, or teaching, and when their side hustle dried up in March 2020, they found something new. (Or maybe surviving a global pandemic does not make working in a role that requires physical contact with the unmasked and potentially unvaccinated appealing.) In addition to all of this, those companies and businesses that serve restaurants such as food distributors, laundry services, and maintenance workers and repairmen are equally as short-staffed. Instead of receiving food orders in the early morning so that we can prepare and cook for dinnertime, food is being delivered hours after dinner service has started. Linen companies that wash tablecloths and napkins, as well as cleaning rags and non-slip kitchen rugs, are arriving days late.
All of this is to say, your food may come out late, cold, or not exactly how you ordered it. There are probably going to be streaks on your flatware because no one polished them, and your napkins are likely to be made of paper instead of cloth. You might be waiting what seems like an eternity for a table simply because there’s nobody to reset it. And, hey, your meal may even be interrupted by a server keeling over in the middle of the dining room from low blood sugar and exhaustion. No one is more frustrated and disappointed by the quality of the restaurant experience than those of us who are still working in this industry and did, at one time, take pride in our work. Food service is currently even more of a chaotic, dirty mess than it normally is!
I hope I haven’t discouraged you from going out to eat. I, just like everyone else, can’t wait to get back to my favorite table with a foamy pint in one hand and a burger in the other. In the summer of 2021, though, I think we all need to take a step back, have some patience, and simply appreciate the fact that we’re eating and drinking with friends and family once again, even if the service is slow and the food isn’t perfect. We’ll get it together soon enough.