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“It's not great for your self-worth if, when you approach a table, no one thinks to put their mask on."

By Nina Friend
January 14, 2021
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Waiter Wearing PPE During Covid-19 Pandemic Sanitizing Tables
Credit: Getty Images

Pivot. Whiplash. Roller coaster. These are some of the words restaurant workers are using to describe what it's been like to work during the pandemic. The new year is a time that's often filled with joy, but for so many in the restaurant industry right now, it's laden with darkness—and it can be hard to see any light. What's worse, entitled customer behavior is at an all-time high, leaving many restaurant workers demoralized and exposed to harm.

"We need your hellos, thank yous, and smiles—yes, we can tell when you're smiling under your mask—now more than ever," said Alejandro Guzman, executive chef of LA Cha Cha Cha in Los Angeles. "We need you to know that we are here with you, not for you, and ask that you don't think of us as disposable as the boxes your food is packaged in."

Restaurant workers are resilient, but they're also human beings who are living through the same scary black hole as everyone else—except without the ability to work from home, without the security of government assistance, without the assurance of knowing their jobs and lives are safe. 

Here, the folks cooking for you, serving you, and biking to you share what they want you to know about what it's like to work in restaurants right now, and how much you contribute not only to the wellbeing of restaurants, but also the happiness of workers who are keeping the industry alive.

We're doing our best in unthinkable circumstances. Please be patient if service is slower.

"Having to say 'no' to our guests and restrict their enjoyment of their experience goes against everything that we as hospitality professionals believe in. We want to say 'yes' to our guests whenever we can! But, right now we need our guests to help us do the right thing. Help us follow the rules, help us keep each other safe. Because keeping each other safe is how it will get better and that is how we will get back to being able to say 'yes.'" — Amanda Girouard, general manager of Sol Toro in Uncasville, CT

"Before the pandemic, we used to work with so much urgency and chaos but now everything has slowed down in the kitchen. We take that sense of urgency and transfer that energy into ensuring the utmost care of proper procedures for our employees and for our guests' safety." — Dara Thang, chef de cuisine of Kato in Los Angeles

"Running a kitchen is more like running a lab right now. We have to be extra careful in every step of prep, cooking, and service. Mistakes are not allowed in the current conditions. It's all about the wellbeing of our staff and guests more now than ever." — Ali Khalyat, executive chef at Gansevoort Meatpacking in New York City

"Working in a restaurant right now is really difficult because guests are still holding us to the same standards even though we don't have all of the same tools as we did before. There are staff that don't want to work because of fear of COVID, and we are putting ourselves at risk everyday to be here ... it's very high stress." — Jordyn Kazmouz, bartender at Loch Bar in Houston, TX

Customer entitlement is at an all-time high. We deserve to be treated with respect and kindness.

"In the restaurant industry, our most precious resource is people. On top of living in constant fear of losing their jobs due to another shutdown, or witnessing their friends and peers suffer irreparable losses at the hands of incompetent leadership on every level of government, they are also dealing with some of the poorest treatment from guests that I have witnessed in my 15-year career as a restaurant worker. We need your hellos, thank yous, and smilesyes, we can tell when you're smiling under your masknow more than ever. We need you to know that we are here with you, not for you, and ask that you don't think of us as disposable as the boxes your food is packaged in. When we are able to begin putting back together what remains of the hospitality industry, I want every member of society to understand that patronage is only the beginning. This generation of restaurateurs gets the opportunity to rewrite our social contracts with guests, I hope empathy and respect for one another are non-negotiable tenets." — Alejandro Guzman, executive chef of LA Cha Cha Cha in Los Angeles

"I want people outside of the restaurant world to have a little more empathy and compassion for those of us still working. Many guests are under the impression that we get advance notice of these decisions, when in reality we learn right alongside the public by watching on television. Pivoting and adapting to be able to serve our community is challenging—we have had to get resourceful and creative to keep our doors open. But we still show up everyday behind plexiglass, with masks and face shields. We're lucky to have jobs but luckier to have jobs that we love. In the hospitality industry, our passion is to serve you good food, and hopefully have you leave our restaurant a little happier than you came in. We believe food is a way to express love, and in these times, who couldn't use a little more love? So the next time your barista asks for your name a few times because they can't hear you, or your salad doesn't get the dressing on the side like you asked, or your burger comes out medium and not medium rare, just remember that we're trying our best under incredible amounts of pressure and stress. A little forgiveness can go a long way." — Ivan Rojas, barista and server at Playa Provisions in Playa Del Ray, CA

"Times are extremely tough and everyone is anxious and on edge, but taking your COVID-related stress out on essential workers isn't a solution. It seems as if the polite and caring customers we've had are even more polite and caring now, but the ones who aren't are more difficult than before." — Andy Miller, wine director and barista at Great White in Los Angeles

"I feel like we're on the frontlines, battling COVID-19, but also battling extreme entitlement, which seems to have reared its ugly head mid-pandemic. We're making less money, either getting lower tips or no tips. Honestly, if you can't afford to tip someone who's risking his or her life for you to have your enjoyment, don't bother, stay home. We also feel like babysitters, taking care of belligerent brats; I'm the mask police and social distance police. I loved this job for so many years for the social aspect and the camaraderie. I met most of my best friends via a restaurant or bar job. Now it's just exhausting. It's no longer what we signed up for." — Gabriella Mlynarcyzk, bartender/general manager/beverage director in Los Angeles

"Please be kind to every member of the staff at restaurants always, but especially right now. Our industry is one that cannot just 'work from home.' We are all putting our lives on the line on a daily basis for you to enjoy a tasty meal. Be respectful to the staff, wear a mask, and please use hand sanitizer without us having to ask. Understand that measures are being taken out of safety, like disposable plates and utensils, and while we recognize that this takes away from the dining experience, it is out of necessity and nothing more. And please keep all of this in mind when you decide to write a review on Yelp. We very much appreciate you supporting the industry, but please also support us as fellow humans." — Emshika Alberini, chef/owner of Chang Thai in Littleton, NH

"We are doing the best we can operating in an extraordinarily stressful time. A little bit of understanding and kindness goes a long way. " — Tara Glick, executive pastry chef of Porter in Weehawken, NJ

Many of us are barely hanging on.

"I want people to know that we are trying really, really hard. Trying to make guests as happy as possible given the curfew and increased restrictions. Trying to innovate and produce the same quality of dishes and drinks as before the pandemic, when we were already having to operate on a razor-thin budget. Trying to uphold the highest standards of cleanliness to protect our guests even if that means we are working three times harder for half the money. Trying really hard to put on a happy face for guests while hoisting the immeasurable emotional weight of operating on a skeleton crew and not knowing if you're going to have a job the following day or if you'll be able to afford lunch or a train home or rent. We're just trying as hard as we can, and I just want people to understand that and simply be as nice as we're trying to be." — Drew Johnson, head bartender at The Musket Room in New York City

"Working in a high caliber restaurant in normal times can often feel like a high-wire act: achieving a high level of quality service and timing, assuring food is perfectly seasoned and piping hot, making sure cocktails are perfectly balanced and icy cold, triaging a myriad of tasks that all need to get done right now, navigating guest requests and last-minute changes, knowing 100% of the details of food and wine menus at a moment's notice, all the the while maintaining the 'show' or veneer in the dining room that things are smooth, calm, and collected, never relaying to the guest for a moment what can often feel like war and chaos behind the scenes. So, imagine that scenario with COVID sprinkled liberally all over it: uncomfortable masks that make it a challenge to communicate with guests verbally and nonverbally and limit your peripheral vision in tight quarters, a whole new set of rigorous sanitation procedures that are continuous throughout the shift, enforcement of the safety procedures to guests, the lack of a good healthcare plan for most workers, and the fear and very real risk of contracting the virus itself. Right now, no one is really having what we would call 'fun' in restaurants. But it does take a person of some character, resilience, and fortitude to be working in one these days." — Kyle Kelley, general manager/owner of Bia in Rhinebeck, NY

"It is flat-out exhausting, mostly emotionally. We work twice as hard to make it half as far down the road. Obviously it is hard for everyone right now, but I mostly would want people to know how draining it is to have to continually reimagine yourself in order to simply survive. Everything we were originally built for, designed for, and planned for doesn't work like it should right now. It is not entirely bad, though; we have had an incredible response to our coffee and wine online, and the few people who come through our shops really make our day with their enthusiasm and willingness to seek us out. Finding a way to build regulars in this environment feels like an incredible win." — Ryan Fisher, director of operations and coffee at goodboybob coffee in Los Angeles

"Every day is a lesson in endurance, rigor, courage, and agility. It feels like a marathon that never ends. There's never a day off and we're constantly pivoting. Fear bubbles up and I swat it away most days. But we're here and we're going be here when the pandemic is over. Everyday, we try to focus on beauty, feed people the best that we can, and remember the power of humanity." — Deborah Williamson, founder of James Provisions in Brooklyn, NY

"Regulations are up in the air. Owners and managers are left frantic with general information. Rent is difficult to meet even without the pandemic, but now we need to spend more money to stay alive. We're being hit with fines but barely hanging on. Other things we continue to face: Following constant regulation changes and now a second wave of indoor dining closures, forcing us to cut staff again; spending more to renovate outside seating (we do not have the luxury to build a fixture in the streets—staff are responsible for putting out all tables and borders/dividers twice a day); analyzing and restructuring operations; and the kitchen staff changing prep amounts and needing to consider getting rid of items to keep quality consistent." — The team of Mokyo in New York City 

Wear. A. Mask.

"Working in a front-of-house position, you're working in customer service, and you try your best to accommodate your guests, but then you have to tell them where they're allowed to stand or not stand, and remind them to wear their face masks correctly, and it comes off as being rude. Nobody likes being told what to do. The interaction and exchange is cut to a minimum. Before writing your negative Yelp reviews based on your emotions, put yourselves in the shoes of those that are working. We would love to be able to welcome everyone as normal, but we all have families to go home to." — Janice Simeon, partner and general manager of Tin Roof in Maui

"Perhaps the most surprising and, frankly, soul-crushing aspect has been what feels like an increased sense of disregard and entitlement from some guests. We are tremendously grateful for everyone's patronage and support. We have met SO many great people over the past few months and feel more connected to our neighborhood than ever. That said, there have been some guests who refuse to put on their masks when servers approach or question—with hostility toward certain aspects of service that were created to protect the customers themselves. Everyone on our team is putting their lives at risk in order to serve our guests, to help the restaurant survive, and in order to survive themselves, and then there are some who we serve who seem to be able to conduct themselves as though they aren't affected or even aware of the current economic and health crisis. It's been occasionally dispiriting to witness this behavior at a time where restaurants are barely making ends meet and most are struggling to get through each day. But, we persevere, we keep moving forward and find strength in each other. We are grateful for the unexpected, spontaneous moments when a guest goes out of their way to show their appreciation for the staff, for a safe and delicious dining experience and for what we're doing. These moments reaffirm why we do what we do." — Mary Attea, executive chef of The Musket Room in New York City

"Nobody I know who does this wants to police people for wearing a mask. And yet we are entrusted to maintain the safety and health of not only our guests, but our coworkers. It's always been so, but COVID has thrown a different kind of light on it. We're often simultaneously glad to have you and for your support, while also judging you for not being more strict about COVID protocols. I think the biggest thing is wanting guests to know that we want things to be different too. I can't wait to cheers a regular over a beer while they tell me about their day. Making to-go cocktails is an attempt to still make money and has moments of seeing happiness, but it doesn't come close to the experience of truly tending to people sitting at your establishment." — Mike Treffehn, bar manager at Larry's in Chicago

"Working in a restaurant has put us in a strange position where we're urging people to please stay home to avoid contact and at the same time we're asking people to please come out and support our business. You can't fight either position. Yes, we do urge you to come out and support our businesses. But at the same time, we urge you to stay home if you are not feeling well and social distance as much as possible. It is also important to know that we are not only putting our lives at risk but also the lives of our loved ones at home. If an establishment has rules and regulations, please follow them. We are trying our hardest to make dine-in as safe as possible for everyone. With these efforts we can all help put a stop to this pandemic." — Melissa Valenzuela, chef de partie at Mixtli in San Antonio

The restaurant industry is broken and has to change.

"The restaurant industry is broken. The answer to lower business levels is almost always to cut prices (happy hour, half-price wine, a value menu) or lower staffing levels. These options devalue the craft that millions of workers have dedicated their lives to. Restaurants need to be part of an industry that offers insurance, pays all employees a livable wage, supports having a family, implements paid time off programs, and addresses inequalities for people of color. These are basic rights. The business plans and structures need to be re-written. The value of a chef to their business partners and the value of a server are driven by the market, as well. This cycle we are in needs to be addressed, but to do this, we must keep our doors open." — Kevin Fink, executive chef/owner of Hestia and Emmer & Rye in Austin

"We are used to the openings and closures by now. We can handle those. What we are focused on is looking forward, into 2021 and beyond. We are re-envisioning what our restaurant needs to be post-pandemic, and trying to figure out what diners will be expecting. Do they think things go back to normal? Our industry will never be the same. What we want people outside of the industry to know is that we will need to make fundamental changes in order to make restaurants more viable—for us, our employees, vendors, etc. We hope guests will understand and be supportive of those changes." — Dina Samson, co-owner/partner of Rossoblu and Superfine Pizza in Los Angeles

"People need to learn to tip for take-out food, at least until we return to normal service. Money is an uncomfortable topic, but one I haven't seen discussed enough. Traditionally, people have tipped less for take-out, because there was less 'service' involved than traditional restaurant dining. There was a logic to this at the time which was completely valid. However, the world has changed. There is not an alternative for many restaurants, and the people working there have no option but to serve take-out only, yet they still rely on those tips to pay for the basic needs in their life—food, shelter, clothing. Additionally, the government has done nothing to protect these people for several months. If you honestly care about your local bartenders and servers who work very hard to care for you, tip as you would during normal restaurant service for the take-out you are enjoying now." — Will Baldwin, director of restaurants for Foster Supply Hospitality in the Catskills, NY

"COVID has unmasked the fragility of the food service industry. Walking into the kitchen feels like walking into battle. We know there is something out there that wants to kill us, and we can't see it. That fear clouds your head. We have no choice but to armor up and face the chances that we may get sick, potentially die, and we have to fight hand to hand because the cavalry isn't coming and we have bills to pay." — Diego Galicia, executive chef/owner of Mixtli and Kumo in San Antonio

"At Recess, we find ourselves using the word 'pivot' frequently. We may not be able to solve the puzzle, but we are going to constantly move the pieces around until we have the best picture or temporary solution available. I am amazed at the resilience of Chicagoans. I would never in my life have thought that we would still have so many people coming in daily for outdoor dining in December in Chicago." — Andrew Ketchum, general manager of Recess in Chicago

"We have had to constantly find ways to keep our business afloat, our employees employed, and our L.A. project alive. We feel angry, stressed, frustrated, worried, tired and even depressed at times. But we have also been able to hold on to certain things that give us hope and confidence in the future. Lockdowns have shined a light on how essential restaurants are for the fabric of human interaction and for our communities. We have seen how people need to go out and dine, even if there is a deadly virus lurking around. At the same time, we have been there for our guests, with enormous effort, sacrifice, and risk. Extreme situations also spark creativity. It excites us to see how our industry is changing and adapting, delivering cocktails, and developing technology that facilitates safe interactions. This has us planning and dreaming about future projects, even while we are losing it all in the present." — Alejandro Marin, owner/operator of LA Cha Cha Cha in Los Angeles and Terraza Cha Cha Cha in Mexico City

"The term 'whiplash' has been thrown around a lot this year, and for good reason. It's one step forward and then, bam. Ten steps back. We are staying open during this shutdown, offering takeaway for the first time in our 14-year history with our 'Addison at Home' series—our second 'opening' in four months, conceived and constructed in two weeks. We are viewing it as an opportunity to do something outside of our traditional tasting menu experience, aiming to bring our guests a brief moment of joy. Therein we find our purpose, along with gratitude that we are still in a position to provide that hospitality, recognizing how many in our restaurant community have run out of options." — William Bradley, chef/director of Addison in San Diego

Restaurant workers are human beings. We are drained.

"This shutdown is getting to me. I feel like there is no light at the end of the tunnel. I am heartbroken that all of the adjustments we made to make outdoor dining possible are now useless. Our job security fully depends on the take out menu. We are yet again pivoting." — Mimo Ahmed, pastry chef at Glen Ellen Star in Sonoma, CA

"Those that work in the restaurant industry are people too. We have our own lives, our own problems, our own emotions that we have to put aside to make sure that your experience is great every time. Because of the pandemic and the masks, it makes it harder to be personable.  Don't take a dining experience for granted." — Tia Snowden, server at Loch Bar in Houston, TX

"It's mentally draining. We're on high alert all the time at the restaurant, reminding people to wear their masks, directing delivery drivers who slip in through the wrong entrance, and intervening when folks try to seat themselves in the bar or dining room (which are both currently closed in D.C.). Sometimes it feels like we're security guards or traffic control instead of hosts and servers. It's not great for your self-worth if, when you approach a table, no one thinks to put their mask on, which happens all the time. Your safety suddenly feels insignificant. You remind them and then you feel guilty, and you wonder if they feel guilty too." — Kelly Phillips, general manager and partner of Espita in Washington, D.C.

"Uncertainty is the overarching feeling inside of restaurants. Will we be able to have jobs in a month? Can we keep ourselves, and, therefore, our families safe? Which of our peers is closing next to get tested and clean? Who is next to close permanently? Will the job options after the pandemic be limited to hotels and chains? Does anyone care that 12 million people have suffered this crisis of uncertainty and financial ruin by no fault of their own?" — Michael Fojtasek, executive chef/owner of Olamaie in Austin

"I feel safe working at Lou Malnati's and leaving the pizzas at the door with contact-free delivery. It's been harder delivering to apartment buildings though, and I wish customers could meet us downstairs to minimize contact. I think customers prefer the convenience and safety of no-contact delivery." — delivery driver for Lou Malnati's in Chicago

We feel abandoned by the government.

"Every day, if not hour, we get hit from a different angle and need to adjust accordingly. Patience is the word I keep circling back to, as it is a difficult dance to maintain a beautiful product while handling the frustrations and limitations that we are faced with currently. I feel that the restaurant industry has been abandoned by the government. It's been absolutely gutting to mourn the loss of incredible establishments both here in D.C. and nationwide. I say this with the intention of giving a perspective as someone who both works, enjoys, and lives in the exact city that has the capacity to enact legislation to alleviate some of the tension and terror that exists within our sacred industry. It's very frustrating. I will say that I also feel lucky. I work with a group of individuals who both believe in me and their product. Whatever changes arise, we will adapt, modify, and reorganize ourselves because we value the importance of our staff, but most importantly our loyal patrons. Restaurants are places of joy. Restaurants give us something to look forward to and offer an escape from the mundane. Restaurants are vital. No matter how difficult it may be, restaurant workers are extremely resilient, and frankly, they are here for YOU. We want to survive, we want to prosper, we just need patience and action, from us, from customers, and from Congress." — Austin Young, general manager of Bammy's in Washington, D.C.

"Working in the restaurant industry right now is unpredictable. You never know when the government is going to close you down, if you will have a busy or slow week, or how much revenue you can expect to see come in. These variables are changing daily when there used to be some sort of constant. In D.C., we have experienced two mandatory indoor dining shutdowns, and there were weeks we chose to close because of protests. Not knowing in advance if you will be open or closed makes planning extremely difficult. Restaurant owners have had to take it day by day, which is the hardest part. People don't see the behind the scenes and the everyday struggle of how we keep employees employed with constant changes and not having the consistency that used to be there." — Alex Munoz, director of operations at Xiquet DL in Washington, D.C. 

Small acts of kindness go a long way.

"I like to remind myself that we're all going through it together, employees and customers alike. If there is one message I'd like to get across to customers, it is this: Now more than ever, I am so grateful for all of the little expressions of appreciation. They go a long way to making me feel like my job IS IMPORTANT. It is so easy to get caught up in all the daily struggles during this pandemic that a little bit of kindness, understanding, and human contact (even when contactless!) make it all not seem so bad." — Isaac Packtor, delivery driver at Piece Brewery and Pizzeria in Chicago

"While I've been happy to have a job I love throughout the pandemic, I'm also extremely aware of friends, former colleagues, and people within the industry who are less fortunate, and have found themselves out of work or unable to attend work, which means the loss of purpose and routine, and that leads to some feelings of guilt. I really want people to know that we appreciate the support so far and hope that momentum continues to build—the hospitality industry needs the help of clients to get through this, especially the small independent spots." — TJ Obias, executive pastry chef of Cafe Riggs at Riggs Hotel Washington D.C.

"When I had to call to advise customers we were closing our outdoor dining area and had to cancel their reservations, they were all so unbelievably supportive. It was hard getting through some of the calls, because they were so emotional. Having become somewhat numb from the whiplash of the last nine months, it was wonderful to hear how passionate our customers were about us, how they feared for us and only wanted to help. If there was any one thing I'd want people outside the restaurant industry to know it's that we need your help and support now more than ever." — Stephanie Stehling, server and catering manager at Love & Salt in Los Angeles

"We'll do whatever needs to be done to survive this."

"Like many establishments, we quickly switched gears to delivery and suddenly all of LA was our oyster, not just our immediate neighborhood of Santa Monica. I felt, and continue to feel, very lucky being able to interact with guests during the entirety of the shutdown. I might not be decanting and pouring the glass of wine while I spiel, but there is still the aspect of storytelling, even when it comes to delivering wine (though now in the form of a text message after I've knocked and dropped). These are the moments of human connection in an otherwise very (very) lonely time that I have to replay in my head when I go to that place of mourning." — Natalie Friedman, wine and events manager of goodboybob coffee in Los Angeles

"I am very grateful to be employed and healthy this far into the pandemic, especially when so many others are not so fortunate. Here in Sonoma, we are very reliant on a steady flow of tourism, from early spring through the fall. We have not seen anything like normal numbers in that regard. However, it has been tremendously heartening to see how the local community has made such an effort to patronize local establishments like ours, and how much communication and good will there is between businesses as well. It truly feels like we are all in this together, and this wonderful community is another element that inspires tremendous gratitude. I lived and worked through 9/11 in New York City. The communal sense of resilience, fortitude, and camaraderie I feel now among staff, customers, and fellow industry professionals is reminiscent of that time. As awful as 2020 was, I am confident that this too shall pass and we will all get through it together." — Martín Gobbée, general manager of Taub Family Outpost in Sonoma, CA​

"I feel like I've been broken down into my most fundamental parts. Everything I thought I wanted and worked for has been put under a microscope. Some of what was important in 2019 seems trivial now. Some of the things that were taken for granted are now at the heart of every decision. We've seen friends and peers close their doors. We've seen the darkness edge in all around us. We've lost so many friends and family members. We've seen people we admire telling us the same stories of loss and pain. We see our government selfishly bicker about casting a lifeline while the restaurant industry drowns right in front of them. We see customers act like this is not that serious or their freedoms are being trampled because they are being asked to consider someone else by wearing a mask. It has been a trying time. But through all of this we have found a new strength in ourselves and our families both at home and at work. The biggest lesson I learned this year is not to bet on the future but to bet on myself and my team. We'll do whatever needs to be done to survive this." — Rico Torres, owner/executive chef Mixtli and Kumo in San Antonio