Chefs, cooks, servers, managers, and more on how their jobs—and their lives—have been altered by the coronavirus.

By Nina Friend
July 14, 2020
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The restaurant business has never been more challenging. For our F&W Pro Guide to Reopening Restaurants, we've been collecting wisdom and best practices from leaders in the hospitality industry to help you navigate this unprecedented time.

After four months of only being able to offer carry-out, restaurants are beginning to reopen for outdoor dining—and in some states, indoor dining, too. Yet reopened restaurants look a lot different today than they did before the pandemic. Tables are spaced six feet apart. Servers wear masks. Menus are disposable, digital, or diligently sanitized. Restaurants have changed, which means the experience of working in a restaurant has changed, too.

We spoke with dozens of restaurant workers, from servers and managers to executive chefs and line cooks, to get a feel for what it’s really like to work in a reopened restaurant right now. Rachel Gaylord, the pastry chef at La Mercerie in New York City, summed up what many people are feeling by saying that reopening has presented a series of anxiety-inducing challenges. “There’s finding new ways to get to work because the subway feels unsafe, creating new systems designed to keep the guests safe and our staff safe then making sure both sides are following through with it, and just getting back into the swing of long days after months of no work,” Gaylord said.

Here’s more on the new realities that restaurant workers are facing, and what they're doing to adapt.

There’s a constant need to juggle hospitality and reality

“I want the person who feels the least comfortable to feel the most comfortable, and that’s how we’re approaching reopening. It’s a lot to put through your mind. You are literally in charge of people’s lives—and you always are. There’s a lot of other high risk factors, so we’re always on alert, but we don’t want fear to be attached to that. It’s our job to communicate, both by placement of items such as sanitizer and wipes, and to translate the most warm and genuine hospitality through a precautionary measure such as a mask on your face.” — Douglass Williams, chef/owner of MIDA in Boston, MA

“I had reservations about coming back to work during a pandemic, but I felt lucky to have a job at all. In an industry hit hard, I am fortunate to work with a staff of kind and cautious people. Management answered all of our questions without judgement and, as always, has fostered a work environment that feels hospitable and understanding. The guests are, for the most part, understanding, but some take liberties that make others uncomfortable (like moving tables and chairs or seating a party more than what we can allow).” — Jessie Bulger, server at Cafe Lift in Philadelphia, PA

“The hardest part of trying to operate now is this: If what we provided people before was an escape from reality, what can we now expect from them as they return to us in the midst of a pandemic? What I've seen so far was initially surprising but now I understand, guests just want to escape reality, same as before, but now with a fervor after being cooped up for a few months. Escaping reality is dangerous right now. Integrating reality into our business model is the only way forward, going back to the way things were before is impossible.” — Andreas Pejovic, general manager of Corrida in Boulder, CO

“You can see the fear in customers’ eyes. It felt awkward and it still does every day. You see two types of guests, the very laid back relaxed ones and the very nervous ones. I just keep telling my staff to be patient and be very understanding during these times. We are trying our best to make everyone feel as comfortable as possible.” — Monica “Mika” Leon, founder of Caja Caliente in Miami, FL

“It has been a pleasure to see familiar faces—not only my colleagues but also my regulars who were waiting patiently for us to reopen. My main concern was how guests would read my hospitality and warmth with a mask on. I look forward to a beautiful summer filled with friends and neighbors dining together experiencing the delicious cooking of chef Marie-Aude Rose, and reconnecting in a safe environment.” — Elizabeth Lynch, server at La Mercerie in New York City

The physical and emotional toll is grueling

“In my personal life, I avoid seeing people, because I consider my job an essential service. You have to take extra precautions. Wear masks when you’re cooking, wash your hands a million times. The kitchen is hot and you get sweaty. I take two or three masks with me and switch it out every few hours. It doesn’t feel organic to do all of those things, and it’s hard to taste stuff when you’re cooking.”  — Mimo Ahmed, pastry chef at Glen Ellen Star in Sonoma, CA

“Working with masks has been one of the biggest challenges with communication. We’ve learned to adapt and still convey our hospitality and let our guests know we are here for them and care about them.” — Stephen Lloyd, manager of Dinosaur BBQ in Harlem, NY

“Our wait times are longer than ever. Half the people are understanding, the other half are angry and overly needy. ‘Why do have to wear a mask to move around?’ ‘Why can’t we come in as a party of 20?’ Most of the customers seem to not understand that not only is this a very new situation for us and all restaurants, but we also do not have the proper workforce to handle everything being thrown at us. It truly feels like opening a brand new restaurant. New standard operating procedures. New employees. New rules to be aware of.” — Joshua Dillard, executive chef/owner of Bhramari Brewing Company in Asheville, NC

“It is hot in the mask and I am breaking out a lot. Sweat rules my life considering we only have outdoor tables, but I am happy to be back and feeling like a functioning human.” — Jessie Bulger

“With our team being off their feet for months, there was an adjustment in terms of getting used to standing all day. A few cooks commented that they never knew their feet could hurt so much the first couple of days back! Some even bought new chef shoes.” — Steve Redzikowski, chef/partner of OAK in Boulder, CO

There’s a heightened sense of urgency and a greater feeling of community

“So much has happened so quickly. All the things that need to get done in a standard opening that take weeks or even months are condensed into days, or even hours. With distancing and safety the top priority, we have had to change the pace and policies of what we do. Orientation and training, for example, was held in three hour waves in a single day to keep the number of people in each below 10 and appropriately spaced in the dining room. The orientation itself was different, too, as its sole purpose was to discuss safety and sanitation, while at the same time opening the floor to the staff to talk about their concerns, fears and to share ideas about how to find that balance between doing what has to be done to keep everyone safe and what makes the most sense for practical operations. The team needs to feel confident that they have one another to lean on while we work through the challenges each day.” — Troy Weissmann, general manager of La Mercerie in New York City

“We see now how much we are a family. It’s brought us closer together because we’ve banded together to make sure we’re here to keep feeding people.” —Sylvia Vasquez, prep cook at Dinosaur BBQ in Harlem, NY

“The biggest challenge for me as General Manager has been staffing. When Nashville entered Phase 3 of the county’s opening plan, we had an official opening date and jumped on the hiring process trying to find those who could join our small team. More than that, I wanted to make sure we found people who were interested in making their position more than just another job, but a solid career path. Right now, we are lucky to have a few folks joining our team that believe in our company so much that they are willing to wait. Just when we had a comprehensive schedule for training and an official opening date, Nashville was pushed back to Phase 2, so we were forced to delay our training and opening date. It pained me to send those emails to my brand-new staff explaining the situation. We have some team members that left other positions because they were so excited to join us, but now they are lingering without pay. Having people who rely on us to make a living and being unable to provide that for them at this moment weighs on me, even knowing the situation is out of my control.” — Ashley Dehnke, general manager of Standard Proof Whiskey Co. Tasting Room in Nashville, TN

“We’re all doing the best we can. We are thankful for our health, so we can continue feeding people. We have grown closer with our colleagues who have been in the trenches with us.” — Kenrick Bloyce, pit boss at Dinosaur BBQ in Harlem, NY

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Restaurants themselves have changed completely

“From a front-of-house perspective, reopening Le Crocodile for outdoor dining was like creating a completely new restaurant. Recapturing that full-service dining experience that we had become known for, while keeping our staff and customers safe, in a space where we had never really worked -- what was really just an event space -- and in such a compressed time frame, was a big lift, but our team really stepped up on all sides and pulled it off.” — Jon Neidich, CEO of Golden Age Hospitality and owner of Le Crocodile in New York City

“It is important to not only bring back what was before but also to create something new, because the COVID-19 crisis has an insidious tendency to cut down any sense of flair, panache and vivacity. In the case of La Mercerie, we have fulfilled a bit of a dream, which was to bring the life, light, and freshness of La Mercerie and the Guild outside and around the corner almost to Canal Street. I am very proud to be a part of this project and very proud of the restaurant team in the kitchen and service are giving of themselves to make it feel alive, welcoming, and delicious. I have tried to create satisfying dishes with a direct simplicity that I hope will add a dimension to the way people enjoy this new element of La Mercerie.” — Marie-Aude Rose, executive chef of La Mercerie in New York City

“We’ve covered, modified, or completely added patios to four of our seven concepts.  We are doubling down on outdoor seating, working on a partnership with a local online ordering and delivery company to alleviate the astronomical fees the national delivery companies charge to restaurants, and changing operations of several stores to focus on efficiency and functionality regarding quicker, safer service for guests and our teams.” — Rachel Cope, founder and CEO of 84 Hospitality in Oklahoma City, OK

The business model is totally different

“Every day is a lesson in endurance. The goal is to stay healthy, keep the vibes high, and feed people in the best way we can. We launched our provisions shop mid-March and have been expanding ever since. Now we’re building a street side patio and offering counter service. Often, we’re reminded to not look back at what we were but instead to focus on what we will be. Sometimes that’s hard, but it’s the best way forward.” — Deborah Williamson, founder of James Provisions in Brooklyn, NY

“With a large portion of our business coming from corporate lunch and catering, we had to plan to reopen knowing that business would not be there initially. Instead of being discouraged by this fact and waiting around for that business to return, we used the time we were closed to expand our concept. While still keeping our famed paninis, which we've served since 1945 in Florence, we brought in an Executive Chef with a fine dining background to spearhead a new dinner menu, focused around pasta. The changing restaurant landscape has forced creativity across the industry, and we have created a fine-dining quality dinner menu that is designed specifically for take-out and delivery.” — Jeremy Miller, director of operations at Antico Noè in New York City

“For us at Acorn, the most difficult part of COVID has been not being able to see or converse with our fellow teammates. We are a small group and we consider ourselves more like family than work friends. While we were once predominantly known as a ‘destination spot,’ we’ve really evolved into a neighborhood spot and for that we feel fortunate.” — Justin Dano, general manager of Acorn in Denver, CO

“Reopening has been an adventure. From a slightly unexpected closure in March, shutting down a kitchen within 12 hours (many staff members lucked out with groceries and juices that would go bad), to a month later re-accessing our space, and creating a food and cocktail menu for take-out only. We reopened our backyard for phase two and then started curbside dining a week later, and it felt like a grand opening all over again.” — Grace Rivero, general manager of Wayla in New York City

“On July 7, I convened our management team for our first in-person, masked up, socially distanced meeting since March 16. I knew I had to begin my address with a summary of my idea of the future of dining and how we are going to succeed. I told them ‘We have to be realistic about the style of dining and what that looks like for the next 6-9 months. Quick service, outside sales (takeout and delivery) and outdoor dining are the immediate future.’” — Rachel Cope

“We used to have table service before the pandemic. Now its an interesting mix of bar and table service. Before patrons are seated we take their food and drink order at the host stand. Then the next round is taken at the table. We also still do take out. The one interesting thing that has come out of this is we can control the flow, much better than before, depending on our size of staff on at the time. Meanwhile in the kitchen, we can barely keep up at half capacity. We are less than that in staff. We have ads out but little to no response. I’ve never seen it like this. I had to figure something out. My staff and I are past exhausted, but we have to stay open. I ended up reducing the menu size, which doesn’t always mean less prep, but less of multiple prep items.” — Joshua Dillard

“When we were allowed to reopen our dining room, we switched our concept and went with a six-course tasting menu, which we’re still doing. We always wanted to offer a tasting menu but got overwhelmed with opening the restaurant and were unsure if people would be into a coursed meal. I was wrong – it’s been super well received and it allows us to be more cautious when safely interacting with our guests. We know who is coming in and when. Each table gets a new tablecloth, silverware is sanitized for each course and ultimately is a way for us to provide an even safer and unique dining experience. One of the most rewarding things for me has been hearing people say that our tasting menu is the best meal they’ve ever had in Mississippi.” — Hunter Evans, executive chef/co-owner of Elvie’s in Jackson, MS

It’s still impossible to predict the future

“I think the biggest challenge with opening back up during this time was that we didn't know what to expect. We started with pick-up and delivery orders. We didn't know how busy we were going to be so we just had to take it day by day. We ordered product carefully every few days and had to deal with many of our regular suppliers being out of stock of what we needed. We really had to utilize social media and outdoor signage to get the word out that we were back open. Once we were back for a few weeks, familiar faces started showing up and it was great to get the support from our regulars. Now that we are slowly able to hire our staff back, things are starting to feel closer to normal.” — Sophie Bell, office manager of 13th Street Kitchens in Philadelphia, PA

“We are continuing to offer takeout even though our dining room and outside patio are open. Just in case things shut down again, our takeout business offers stability (especially with the restrictions of indoor dining). Come fall and winter, there's even more unknown. How will we operate our patio and extended outdoor seating?” — Steve Redzikowski

“The most frustrating part has been how unexpected each and every day is. You can plan something in the morning and by evening, everything is completely different. In addition to abiding by the guidelines provided by the CDC, we’ve added one person whose sole responsibility is to clean all high traffic areas.” — Maneet Chauhan, executive chef/owner of Morph Hospitality Group in Nashville, TN

“MADRE is going to reopen on August 5. Throughout these past months, the MADRE team has discussed different strategies for our reopening. We landed on ‘open the doors’ with outdoor seating. As a neighborhood restaurant, we felt this approach would help us connect the most with our loyal and supportive community. That being said, one fear is that NYC will go back into a full quarantine, therefore requiring us all to pivot again. One challenge is defining what our restaurant and industry will look like on a day-to-day basis and long-term. The unknown makes it difficult to stay rooted in one idea.” — Matt Migliore, executive chef of MADRE in Brooklyn, NY

“Our biggest challenge has been to provide our customers with an experience that is both safe and yet still feels like a repose from the restrictions and limitations imposed by the pandemic. Our staff and loyal customers have helped us become resilient. Still months after, we are facing a severe spike in cases in South Florida and with this constant changing reality, we now face more uncertainty. Our local governments have also shown an unsteady hand in dealing with this crisis and despite all our efforts and investments dedicated to following government guidelines, the industry has been singled out and the consequences will be a hard hit.” — Coco Coig, managing partner at Le Chick in Miami, FL

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Though the challenges are many, there are moments of joy, too

“With our whole world coming to a pause, we came to appreciate the truly small joys in our new routine. The laughters during the team squats and plank challenges during the slower hours which soon would be broken up with the ‘ding’ alert sounds when we'd get Caviar delivery orders. The lobsters that were gifted to us from a vendor, that made for one of the most memorable staff meals. Zoom calls with team members that we hadn't seen in 3.5 months. And I will never forget this one particular day in the Upper West Side in our delivery van, rolling the windows down to hear the loudest and the most beautiful 7 p.m. essential-workers cheer, and the time when we delivered to Greenpoint and caught the most amazing sunset over the Manhattan skyline. I can choose to remember the devastating moments, but I think I'll stick to these fond memories for now.” — Ahris Kim, general manager of Atoboy in New York City

“The feeling of having people tell you that they missed your food the most out of anything else they missed during quarantine is something that is so special, because I had my own feelings of wanting and longing for things close to my heart. To be in that category makes me feel like a true member of the community.” — Dan Krohmer, chef of Other Mama, Hatsumi, and La Monja in Las Vegas, NV

“It was amazing to see so many of our regular guests come back and tell us how much they missed our hospitality and to see my employees back with renewed enthusiasm towards their job and their colleagues. It's important we stay hopeful so we can set our goals and have the drive to fight for them so we come out of this stronger. Sometimes it looks bleak, but I do believe eventually things will go back to normal.” — Lalo Durazo, managing partner of Jaguar Hospitality Group in Miami, FL

“The thing that has changed the most is the customers themselves—not that they were ever very many rude ones, but a lot of them seem to be much more understanding of the situation and in general supportive. Three different regulars gave myself and the staff a ‘tip’ to help us get through this. My wife, Kati, and I also received a very nice letter and gift card from the staff thanking us for keeping them employed and saying that our appreciation for our staff members had not gone unnoticed. This was for sure the best thing that came out of this pandemic for us.” —Zac and Kati Jenkins, owners of Main Street Café in Jonesborough, TN

“We had a couple of our regulars come in and cry because they were so happy to feel like there was some kind of normalcy when they first came back for takeout.  They said it was like being able to be with family again, and I thought that was so touching because ultimately that’s how we see ourselves as a restaurant.  We are family.” — Abigail Doyle, manager of Dinosaur BBQ in Harlem, NY

“The best part of reopening was welcoming back those familiar faces and just catching up with them. It gave me a sense of community again and that we all went and are going through this together. Also just being able to thank them in person for their support and ordering take out from us during quarantine was huge for me, definitely a great feeling.” — Monica “Mika” Leon

“The love, appreciation, and support we've received from our regulars has helped us get through the tough times. We had one patron in particular who led the charge of getting as many people as possible to show up whenever we were offering curbside pickup on the weekend after the onset of COVID. Not only did he buy lots of food, he would come bearing gifts, from amazing bottles of wine to cupcakes. Another patron would call before he picked up his to-go and ask who was working and would give a personalized envelope with a very generous gratuity to all who were working.” — Vivek Deora, founder & CEO of Morph Hospitality Group in Nashville, TN

Amidst it all, there’s hope 

“In this industry, it’s easy to burn out, to start to lose your sense of hospitality through the daily grind; but here and now, there is a rebirth of sorts. There’s an air of enthusiasm and a spirit of giving that is at the core of all the work we have done. Everyone is just so eager to get back out there and welcome back the community and see old guests and friends. It’s beautiful to watch! And it’s also a chance to make things even better than before, to explore old ideas that never got off the ground and to tap into a new layer of creativity. With a whole new dining area in the outdoor café, the world is our oyster. We are out in the open, talking to people on the sidewalks, hearing what they have to say. So many people have come over to tell us how grateful they are to have us helping reinvigorate the neighborhood and community. The feel of the restaurant is lighter, fresher. It feels like one big hug.” —Troy Weissmann, general manager of La Mercerie in New York City

“To be frank, reopening has been even more challenging than the full closure. Restaurants cannot make the ends meet at 50% capacity and people are still afraid to dine out. Combined with the increase in labor due to PPP stipulations, the numbers just don’t add up. Thankfully, there is a light at the end of this tunnel. First of all, we have phenomenal employees who keep this machine going; our team is dedicated to our success and feel like they are part of this vision. Secondly, our guests love us for the most part. We have been blessed with a loyal following. Just as we see their faces week in and week out in our dining room, we also see their names and take out tickets even more frequently now supporting us now while we try to figure out this new normal.” — Ani Meinhold, co-owner of Phuc Yea in Miami, FL

“Once we are able to open, we can't have the usual big grand opening party that most new businesses indulge in. Usually, you would have friends and family come for free drinks, give the staff a chance to practice service, and have folks in similar industries check out the new space. This is no longer the way things will work, so we’re looking at creative yet safe ways to get people into space. It’ll actually be a fun challenge, and I'm looking forward to the outcome.” — Ashley Dehnke

“I think the biggest challenge I face personally is understanding that this is the ‘new normal.’ The mask-wearing doesn’t bother me, as I’m happy to help keep our guests safe. Bar culture as a whole has been deeply affected by social distancing, staying seated, and all of the other guidelines. I’m still processing what it looks like and how the operations go from here on out. What changed the most, I feel, was a little bit of perspective. We’ve always done our jobs with a lot of love, but since we’ve been able to reopen, we all have been able to really focus on what’s important to us: our guests, integrity of our product and the professional relationships we have with one another. We are getting along as a team more than ever and that is translating to the guest experience in a positive light. Our passions are able to really shine. Moving forward, I feel like we are on a wonderful trajectory of continued success. Creating new regulars and seeing the same faces multiple times a week has been super rewarding. We aren’t just serving them; they’re becoming a part of the fabric that makes Fable Lounge what it is.” — Ellen Talbot, lead bartender at Fable Lounge in Nashville, TN 

“I’m keeping my hopes alive that we will find more employees. Then we can get back to having the freedom to spend more time on being creative. We can handle more turns and keep creating an environment for people to come enjoy and escape what life is now.” — Joshua Dillard

“As Bellegarde navigates how to bake, what to bake, and when to bake, I realize more and more that bread is the strongest gravity in my life—no matter what’s going on around me. I have to hold onto its compass otherwise I’ll truly lose my direction. And because of this, the most heartening medicine for me during the pandemic has been bearing witness to the ritual of life. Because despite the rhythms of human life being severely disrupted, the patterns of nature are intact: fruit still grows, fish still swim, grapes still ferment, bread is still baked. And being able to participate in this ceremony gives me both comfort and hope. Food is the evidence for our commitment to life continuing, to life going on, no matter our attempts to disrupt it. I’ve spent eleven years cultivating Bellegarde—and we will never reopen like we were before. The key now is finding a business model that ensures our passion is relevant and that the integrity of our process matches the integrity of our ingredients. Because the financial burden of the pandemic has insured our bakery will never be the same—so now it’s not a matter of reopening. It’s a matter of accepting, of adapting, and of making the most with the ingredients we have to work with. I think the best chefs and bakers are those who respond to ingredients, not those who react to them: this is my path forward, in both the bakery and in life.” — Graison Gill, owner of Bellegarde Bakery in New Orleans, LA

To continue operating safely, restaurants need guests to do their part—now more than ever

“To those of you enjoying the privilege of dining out, please be respectful, patient, and kind. We all want to continue doing the work we love but in order to get through all of this we need to do it safely!” — Nicole Gazeta, the front-of-house manager at Bhramari Brewing Company in Asheville, NC