Hospitality veteran Vinny Eng makes a simple plea to diners: show grace to the people who are feeding you.

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illustration of server bringing food to table
Credit: Franz Lang

This story is part of The New Rules of Dining Out. Read the rest here.

I was new to waiting tables 15 years ago. A guest waved me over: "Can I tell you something?" I held my breath and waited. "This is exactly as you described, but it is just not for me." I first felt immediate relief, then apologized and responded in jest, "I'm always glad to set you up for gentle disappointment." We both laughed, and then we worked together to find a more suitable dish.

I thought about this experience a lot during the COVID-19 pandemic. These past 18 months demanded so much from all of us, individually and collectively. With humility and relief, and still a bit worn down, many of us have made it to the other side of the shut-down. Timeliness, candor, directness, and kindness in communication (my take on "the four gates of communication") became important tools, not only to level-set in the face of a pandemic but also to ensure that we could preserve our energies to deliver help not just to ourselves but also to the people we were riding out COVID-19 with.

I learned those communication skills working in restaurants. During the pandemic, embattled but not broken, food workers were deemed essential. They labored: at grocery stores, in dining rooms, on delivery bikes, packing takeout orders, cooking meals, and waiting tables in outdoor shared spaces—all while sustaining heightened exposure to a potentially life-ending disease.

Food workers bring dexterity, consistency, emotional intelligence, and persistence to our roles. This is skillful work, and millions of these workers ensured that other people had access to meals while still earning pre-COVID-19 wages. And because of the past 18 months many others in the restaurant and food industry have lost careers, emptied savings accounts, strained friendships, and ended relationships; the pandemic impoverished families and tragically caused the deaths of colleagues and loved ones. So as you reenter the dining world, with relief that your favorite spot is open again, tread softly. Pass through the four gates and recognize the humanity of every worker. Greet each employee with an acknowledgment of their presence: You are sharing space with them.

COVID-19 also revealed long-standing structural barriers to the equitable treatment of workers. Women owners, gender-fluid operators, and entrepreneurs of color all faced clear impediments that kept them from gaining access to the money they needed to stave off cash-flow crises or crushing debt. Your individual choices won't solve those burdens, but the grace you afford restaurant owners and workers may help renew their motivation to see those challenges through.

When I traveled for the first time after shelter-in-place orders were lifted, I accompanied a friend to New Orleans. We were attending a memorial that was postponed because of the pandemic. At Herbsaint, we sat at the bar and succumbed to the temptation to order one of everything. And as we settled into piping hot fried oysters and perfectly dressed coleslaw, I asked our bartender what it was like to be back in service. Unlike in San Francisco, where I live, indoor dining only paused in New Orleans for two months. But public health guidance was still hard to navigate. The bartender said he was more than pleased to be working indoors without a mask, despite the boorish behavior of some diners when mask mandates were initially lifted. The staff and rhythm of the restaurant, he said, were finally returning to pre-COVID-19 levels. He then added his plea to future diners: "Don't be an asshole."