FeaturesFeaturesStories from The Takeout about food, drink, and how we live.

In the second week of March, around the same time the coronavirus pandemic shut down schools in my state, I spoke with a woman who’s worked at the Dunkin’ in my hometown for more than a decade. Normally our town’s most popular pit stop, it was nearly empty when I entered. As she poured a coffee, she told me that in the past few days she hadn’t seen any of her regular customers. When she heard the front door open, she’d look up to see a stranger entering. The few cars that pulled into the lot were unfamiliar to her. It made her feel like a sitting duck.

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As a cook at a nearby restaurant, I had expected her to say that business had been slow, just like it had been for us. But I didn’t expect that our brief exchange would put into words the profound vulnerability, the “sitting duck” feeling, that had infected both front- and back-of-house workers once our regulars started disappearing. Even during the biggest restaurant lulls of the year—January, February, major holidays, and bad storms—regular customers show up no matter what. Naively, it hadn’t occurred to me before now that a fast food franchise (a counter-service model that de-emphasizes tipping) might have the same deep, well-established relationships with its customers as any other restaurant. The veteran employee’s concern suggested that the people she’d been serving for years were what defined her Dunkin’ experience, and because they had disappeared, she probably would too.

In the past weeks, food service employees have ironically discovered that we’re “essential workers” at a time when we’ve never felt more expendable. Because eating out falls into the loose category of “entertainment,” it suddenly feels like our work—the work we take pride in every day—is unnecessary. The restaurant where I work has shifted to a takeout and delivery model. My boss kept everyone on staff, but reduced some front-of-house workers’ hours. There are plenty of days when I feel guilty going into work because I know it’ll be slow and my presence will cost more than it’s worth. When my friends talk about stocking up on Blue Apron meals in our group chat, a pitiful voice inside me whispers, what about me? What am I going to do?

The relationship between regulars and restaurant staff is so special because it elevates the service we provide, making us feel less anonymous and dispensable. When someone becomes a regular, it establishes an implicit mutual commitment between them and the staff, reminiscent of, say, the bond between the servants and the Crawley family on Downton Abbey. Despite differences in background and class, service can create space for intimacy and connection. Within this space there’s room for greater honesty and, ultimately, better service. Guests can voice their likes and dislikes freely and expect them to be remembered along with their birthday, the names of their children, taste in music, or whatever else they choose to share. A customer’s silent dissatisfaction is feared and often discussed by both front- and back-of-house staff, but we can always count on regulars to express themselves, whether through words or actions. A couple weeks into my current job, I made eye contact with a guest passing by the kitchen who seemed visibly uncomfortable. Finally he came into the kitchen and apologized for not introducing himself to me sooner. In that apology lay the unspoken promise of a regular customer, and someone who’ll be eating there long after I go.

As a customer, I’ve always resisted becoming a regular. If I can only afford to eat so many meals out, I’d like to take full advantage of my budget and try as many places as I can. On my days off, I’m usually so exhausted that socializing seems overwhelming, and I avoid places where I’m likely to run into former coworkers and friends. Even though I love some of these people and they’ll heavily discount my order, the interactions cost me more in energy and emotion than I can give. In fact, until recently the motivations of regulars didn’t make much sense to me.

From the customer’s perspective, steady attendance might mean receiving more personalized service, and the freedom to ask for special orders or substitutions. But there’s a sense of responsibility that comes with being a regular, too: during the first week of our statewide stay-at-home orders, one customer called to explain his absence, assuring us that he was okay. He asked if we could deliver, and of course we said yes, though delivery was not yet part of our business model. Older customers stuck at home because of the virus were able to set up standing orders. One guest called us when he was missing an ingredient for his Easter dinner.

The advantages that restaurants enjoy from regular customers, meanwhile, has always been easy to parse: consistent sales and tips. But only now do we see just how deep those connections can run. As coronavirus restrictions loomed, one of our longtime customers dropped off money because she’d need to curtail her visits for the foreseeable future. Another offered to help with our cashflow by paying a retainer upfront, which we could draw from as she ordered takeout over the next few months. Some even dropped off hand sanitizer and masks for our staff.

These gestures existed before the coronavirus epidemic as well, though their true significance went by me unnoticed. One regular brought us the game birds he killed in a recent hunting trip but couldn’t cook, wondering if we could use them. I remember a butcher at a busy urban shop told me about a customer who would ask for an obscure, unpopular variety of pâté so regularly that the butcher began to make a large batch of it every few months. He’d portion and freeze it, defrosting just enough for the customer to purchase each week.

Like the man with the obscure pâté, many regulars might not even recognize themselves as such. When I was interviewing for a job at a bustling downtown restaurant, a line cook pointed out an arguing couple sitting in bar seats facing the exposed kitchen. He told me that he wasn’t invited to their wedding, but was getting a prime view of the divorce. Apparently they came in weekly and erupted into an argument by the end of every dinner. He also knew the dishes they ordered most frequently.

This is not to shame that couple for their public arguments, but to suggest that we restaurant workers are paying more attention than you might realize. The chef under whom I work asks for customers’ first names on all her order tickets and tries to memorize individual food preferences. She usually knows who is in her dining room based on the orders alone.

Does your local diner know that you want the yolk on your egg sandwich poked? Is there a waiter that remembers your dietary restrictions? There must be a barista somewhere with whom you have rapport, or a dimly lit booth that you miss almost as badly as you miss seeing a family member. Even if you don’t think you’ve reached “regular” status anywhere, there’s a restaurant somewhere waiting for you to come back. And though it might sound gloomy, there’s some comfort in the fact that as this scourge pulls apart the fabric of the restaurant industry, the threads that bind us are becoming more visible.

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