Before the pandemic took hold, about 4.4 million people worked as restaurant and bar servers nationwide, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The BLS predicted that serving positions would grow much faster than other types of jobs, forecasting that by 2030, there would be more than 5 million people waiting on tables.
We all know what happened instead. About 11 million people left or were laid off from restaurant jobs when COVID restrictions hit. Now, two and a half years on from the start of the pandemic, the industry is still down by 750,000 jobs. Even though that’s only 6.1% of the workforce, those missing people are sadly missed by a lot of restaurant diners.
These days, if you can find someone to wait on you in a reasonably priced restaurant, consider yourself lucky, because the kind of staff we long took for granted is no longer a given.
In 2022, we are approaching a split in the dining landscape that didn’t exist prior to COVID-19, a widening gulf between the service available at high-end restaurants and that of every other casual eatery. No matter what type of restaurant you were in five years ago, you could be reasonably certain that the experience would include the same cast of characters: a host would greet you at the entrance and walk you to your seat; a server would explain the menu and take your order; a runner might bring the food; a busser would fill your water glass; and the server would occasionally pop up to ask how everything was tasting.
Now, amid staffing shortages, the dining experience has quietly been dividing into classes. Unless you’re at a high-end or otherwise expensive establishment, QR codes have replaced a menu handoff in many scenarios, and you might even be tasked with placing your food order via smartphone, meaning servers essentially become food runners. I’ve eaten at three restaurants in the past few weeks where the primary interaction with the server was to drop off my meal; in two cases, the dishes were simply handed across a counter by a prep cook.
Restaurant technology has become highly efficient and ubiquitous. A lot of people like it, especially if they’re in a rush, but it’s undeniable that human interaction has been a hallmark of dining out as long as people have been dining out. When it’s not there, you feel its absence.
When I was working on my book Satisfaction Guaranteed, I spoke with Chicago restaurateur Rick Bayless, who was one of the first customers for ZingTrain, the Zingerman’s employee training program.
“They’re telling stories the way we do our best to tell stories,” Bayless told me. “You learn about the products and the dishes and the traditions.”
Think about the number of times you’ve asked your server to explain the flavors in a dish—and how many times you ordered something because of their enthusiastic description. The common question “What’s good here?” doesn’t have an immediate answer when you’re looking at the menu alone on your phone.
I’ll never forget when my mother and I dined at Poogan’s Porch in Charleston and my mother placed an order for a house specialty. “Mmmm, that good fried chicken,” our server said, sounding like she wanted to sit down and join us in our meal.
Likewise, servers can steer you away from dishes that you might not enjoy. Simple inquiries like, “Do you like spicy food?” or “Are you up for a big portion?” can give you the guidance you need to order one dish versus another.
I’m sometimes a little suspicious when a server pushes a dish too hard, like pitching appetizers “while you’re making up your mind.” I sometimes counter with, “Is it something you would order?” The speed with which they respond is an indicator of whether they’re marketing or recommending. If they seem genuinely enthusiastic, that prompts me to give it a try. In all these cases, conversing with a server has improved my overall dining experience.
At many restaurants, servers are authorized to swiftly resolve any issues that arise when your food hits the table. If a dish is undercooked, they can whisk it back to the kitchen for more attention. If special order instructions weren’t followed, they can have the dish remade or replaced with something the diner might like better. This service, previously baked into the experience, relies on that traditional server model, which some restaurants are turning away from.
Yes, you can track down the person who dropped off your food at the table, but when servers primarily become delivery people, the sense of “responsibility” for a customer’s satisfaction is diluted. This might save the server from having to deal with difficult customers, but it also makes the experience for both server and diner more purely transactional, a little colder all around.
I recently ordered a slice of pizza at a trendy new spot in New Orleans that has become an Instagram darling. When it came out of the oven, my name was called and it was handed off wordlessly on a paper plate. In a town known for its hospitality, that seemed a little off—and it also made me feel like the place didn’t care about me as a customer. I’m empathetic: it’s a difficult moment in which to be a restaurant worker, and as a diner, that stress is something you can feel as soon as you walk through the door.
But what diners are encountering is a far cry from the aura that good restaurants have always striven to create. “The business of feeding people is the most amazing business in the world,” Jose Andres, the chef and philanthropist behind World Central Kitchen, has said. Harlem-based chef Marcus Samuelsson has said that an extraordinary meal can make customers feel “honored, respected and maybe a little bit loved.” Servers, however, are a crucial link, no matter how much the industry tries to phase out their responsibilities. How can a restaurant achieve such an atmosphere when adequate resources aren’t allotted to the employees who cultivate it?
Yes, restaurants are being hammered by all kinds of rising expenses, from food to rent to utilities. But if dining out becomes less of a warm, sociable experience, and ordering on screens is fast and easy, there may be fewer people in restaurants—servers and customers alike.