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Restaurant Life

Hospitality Will Have To Change in the Aftermath of COVID-19

Despite significant breakthroughs in artificial intelligence, technology has yet to supplant the presence of waiters in restaurants. Implementing a technological alternative would make service more efficient. Waiters are prone to mistakes. They show up late for work, they bungle orders, they give attitude to guests, they spend fifteen minutes in the bathroom checking their Instagram when they have a full section. An automated hospitality solution would mitigate the shortcomings of a mortal staff and, in theory, improve the guest experience. 

But there’s one significant reason why waiters have endured: A human touch, even a fallible one, puts people at ease. Technology can’t do that. Even though it might create efficiencies in the dining room, you won’t be seeing any android servers or touchscreens tablets embedded in your table any time soon because even the most skilled computer programmer can’t code charm, patience and resourcefulness. 

Technology makes restaurant experiences less intimate. This is why digitized menus have failed to gain traction. They save printing costs and are better for the environment, but they make perusing a menu less joyful. Guests continue to show a proclivity for the analog charms of a physical menu and a warm-blooded server. The best restaurants are disciplined in their approach to cultivating the connection the staff has with guests because they know it’s critical to their success. We don’t earn customer loyalty because we ordered people’s food correctly every time; it comes from making them feel at home, even when something goes wrong. 

Right now, it’s difficult to predict how the service industry will administer hospitality when shelter-in-place orders are lifted. Insisting that waitstaff wear masks is a forgone conclusion and obviously the prudent thing to do, but protective gear will make even the most attentive service feel clinical. Masking waiters incapacitates their personalities—negating the most fundamental conduit for great service, the smile—and makes it infinitely more challenging to facilitate comfort. 

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A Hillstone restaurant in Dallas drew harsh criticism recently when it was revealed that management was prohibiting the staff from wearing protective masks. According to an employee who spoke to CBS news, “management didn’t think that face masks complemented the restaurant’s style or level of hospitality.” It was obviously a wrong-minded decision on their part, but the controversy sheds light on one of the challenges the industry faces when it reopens. The allure of restaurants has always been rooted in the euphoria of leaving the outside world behind. The constant presence of mummified servers, swaddled anonymously in PPE, brings the outside world in. Restaurants lose their majesty when they break the fourth wall.

Federal and state governments have been indecisive about how best to move forward as the pandemic threat subsides. The CDC laid out unofficial guidelines for restaurants, offering a tentative framework on how to approach reopening. Many of the recommendations make sense for some restaurants yet are impractical for others. It’s difficult to fathom people paying hundreds of dollars to enjoy a Chef’s ten-course tasting menu served on paper plates with disposable plastic silverware. 

The industry faces the daunting task of crafting guest experiences that revolve around their safety while maintaining their hedonistic integrity. It’s unlikely to feel like pampering when we greet guests at the door by taking their temperature and insisting on their wearing masks in the dining room. Management used to bristle about enforcing dress codes out of fear that someone might take offense. Now we have to assume responsibility for policing our guests’ sanitation practices at a time when everyone is already on edge. Friction will be unavoidable.

Of course, most diners will be compliant with these new protocols, but the question becomes how will restaurants protect their staff and their guests while also creating an environment that makes everyone feel comfortable? It will require some reconfiguration of our physical spaces. One restaurant owner in Ohio installed clear plastic shower curtains overhead that hang in between tables as a protective measure.

With dining rooms filled well below capacity, the onus will be on the staff to manufacture energy to make up the deficit. The Inn at Little Washington in the DC area raised eyebrows when it announced that it would be filling empty tables with antique mannequins to make the restaurant feel busier. Servers on the floor are even encouraged to interact with them and pour them wine. It’s safe to say that most restaurateurs will not be resorting to filling their empty seats with artificial guests, but creative solutions for maintaining a restaurant’s vitality will be imperative. 

Welcoming guests back into our dining rooms may also require some drastic reimagining of how we administer hospitality. We’ll need to find ways of being attentive while also being less intrusive. Guest interaction will be abbreviated. Reciting specials, once a temptation, will become a nuisance. There likely won’t be any verbal additions to the menu until the masks come off. Hand sanitizer and sanitary wipes will become as ubiquitous on tabletops as salt shakers and pepper mills. 

To distract from the sterility, many restaurateurs are already designing custom face masks meant to blend in with the staff’s uniforms. Chefs will prune their menus to the simplify the ordering process and streamline kitchen operations to fulfill takeout and delivery orders without disrupting the flow of service. Guests may even be invited to pre-order their meals to further limit interaction with the staff once they’ve been seated. 

Hands-off service will be the new normal. Once iconic, Instagram-friendly tableside flourishes will be furloughed. “Frenching” shared plates as a courtesy to help diners divide dishes more gracefully will be forbidden, too. Staff may even allow guests to pour their own wine—something that would be considered sacrilege before the pandemic. Aside from serving and clearing, we’ll do everything we can to minimize contact. Restaurant kitchens will look more like medical labs. The sanitation protocols that will likely be implemented in the aftermath of COVID-19 will most make the dreaded Health Department inspections of yore seem like cakewalks. 

Our dining habits will have to change, too. It’s likely that when restaurants reopen we won’t be able to count on them as much for luxuriating. Initially, normalizing our dining rituals may be driven more by a primal need to socialize or to nourish ourselves. When people lament about missing restaurants right now, they’re grieving less for the inspiring cuisine than for the absence of a shared, convivial space.

The expectation to be pampered may be superseded by the acceptance of a more rote form of hospitality. It may feel more like the care you receive in a doctor’s office. You go there for diagnosis and treatment not for an uplifting, soul-affirming epiphany, and you won’t leave disappointed if your doctor doesn’t ask if you enjoyed everything. 

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Restaurant Life

Why I Might Have To Retire From Restaurants

Even the greatest athletes inevitably face their own mortality, their impermanence in the history of sport. Some players make the difficult decision to retire at the peak of their game, like Michael Jordan did after his last championship in 1998. (As a native Chicagoan, I refuse to acknowledge his brief, unsuccessful cameo years later with the Washington Wizards.) Other players stubbornly slog it out until their athletic abilities erode to the point where they aren’t competitive anymore. Retirement makes the decision for them. 

Restaurant careers follow a similar trajectory to an athlete’s. We start working in the industry at a very young age, we get caught up in the allure of instant gratification and then we get out of the game when our minds and bodies can’t take any more punishment. For every hospitality zealot who believes in the transformative power of restaurant service there are hundreds, if not thousands, of others like me who enjoy restaurant work but wish there was an easier way to make ends meet. Our feet hurt. Our income stagnates seasonally. We just can’t deal with these fucking people anymore. But most of us show up day after day and keep doing it because we have more bills due than available egress exits. 

Lately, I’ve been trying to envision what the restaurant world will look like after the Coronavirus pandemic has abated. My background as a server makes me particularly sensitive to how this crisis threatens the livelihoods of front-of-house workers who, like me, are accustomed to generating our income from tips. Serving jobs can be very lucrative, but since income is typically based on a percentage of sales the restaurant needs to remain busy to keep the cash flowing. If restaurants aren’t busy in the near term because guests are reticent about dining in public spaces, tipped workers are doomed to face serious financial shortfall. 

Though I acknowledge its shortcomings, the tipping system has endured in part because FOH workers don’t trust restaurant owners to pay them their worth. When I worked in Hong Kong, it was horrifying how easily owners could misappropriate funds from service charges that were automatically added to every check without transparency. Only a fraction of those service charges ended up in the staff’s pockets.

In the U.S., there’s been a growing resentment toward servers for their escalating salaries, some arguing that it comes at the expense of the kitchen staff. Managers—who have more responsibility but whose salaries often lag the tip pool—harbor animosity as well. I don’t think I’ve worked a single restaurant job where I haven’t been reminded regularly that I make too much money.

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But how can we realistically expect restaurant owners to pay FOH properly when they routinely underpay their cooks? Of course, many owners will cry poverty and lament rising costs or narrowing profit margins. But it’s become accepted that many of the most successful chefs and owners pay their kitchen staff below industry standards, openly exploiting the fact that young chefs will work for less money to build their resumes. Shouldn’t the busiest restaurants pay the most to their BOH staff? They should, but they don’t. 

Assuming the Coronavirus pandemic doesn’t kill tipping, the deficit in sales going forward might. It’s simple math. You can’t make money if you don’t have tables. Not only that, if restaurant owners are only legally able to fill their dining rooms at 50% capacity, then revenues will also likely be halved, and half the staff will remain furloughed. These are generous estimates. Sales cut in half mean tips cut in half. Many servers will prefer to continue to collect unemployment rather than returning to a restaurant that’s breathing on one lung. 

Assuming nothing changes in the law between now and reopening, most FOH staff still costs owners less than a minimum wage per hour. Most states have “tip credits” that apply to certain workers—some as low as $2.13 per hour—who rely on tips for the majority of their income. Some government officials have even threatened to rescind unemployment benefits for workers that refuse to report back to their jobs, as the Governor of Iowa did recently. If the same officials mandate limits on seating capacity in restaurants, they’re forcing tipped workers to walk the plank. 

As dining culture has become increasingly commoditized, restaurants have become whorehouses for capitalism. Tipped workers live off the crumbs left by the affluent diners who recklessly squander obscene amounts of money on extravagant meals. Our jobs have become increasingly geared toward enabling that recklessness. Servers and bartenders scramble for jobs in the busiest restaurants possible. If you’re lucky enough to find one of these jobs, the upper-echelon can earn six-figure salaries. I’ve been fortunate to be employed in such jobs during my career, and it’s made putting aside the years of psychological and physical wear a lot easier. 

I guess you could say I’ve been part of the 1% of waitstaff, but I’ve worked hard to get to this level. Restaurants have become so much more important than they once were, and pay should be commensurate. For people like me who’ve dedicated ourselves to the craft of table service, a future of restaurants with fewer tables or fewer guests would be apocalyptic. This situation is more lethal than past crises like 9/11 or economic downturns like The Great Recession. We’ve been stepping around these piles of horse manure for a long time. Now we’re standing knee deep in it. 

Some have suggested this would be an opportune moment for restaurateurs to introduce more hospitality-included models. Decoupling servers pay from aggregate sales could help retain more FOH staff who might be tempted to leave if business levels remain depressed. It’s hard to find a formula that works for everyone, especially when the economy is so unpredictable. The reason that many hospitality-included models have collapsed in the past is because the salaries assigned to FOH at many of these restaurants have not been able to compete with restaurants that have tipping models. The market dictates where the talent goes. Perhaps there will be less discrepancy in a post-COVID world and these models can become more viable?

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It’s important to remember that thousands of people who otherwise would’ve fled the industry through the years have stayed in the workforce because it affords them an opportunity to earn competitive wages. The fact that these FOH jobs have historically paid so well fortifies the talent pool. But the industry cannot continue to attract talent without maintaining attractive salaries for these jobs. It’s basic supply and demand. Exodus of talent from FOH ranks—especially in fine dining where most of the “white-collar” restaurant jobs are—will be a significant aftershock if business doesn’t recover to pre-COVID levels. The golden age of restaurant tipping may have come to an unceremonious end.

It may be premature to call this my Jerry McGuire moment. It’s impossible to predict the circumstances around my being asked to return to work, but the odds of restaurant life returning to normal anytime soon are slim to none. Every restaurant worker has always understood how expendable they are. We’re treated like mercenaries, and, to be honest, most of us embrace it. If we get fired, so what? We just move on to the next place.

Having fewer people to serve, however, is uncharted territory. This existential threat will undoubtedly stifle growth in the coming months but, as it always is, the restaurant industry will be resilient. The question then becomes: How long can people like me who’ve ridden the ship for so long hold onto the hull while it takes in water?

As the industry has grown—and I say this from personal experience—it’s become more than a temporary job or a supplemental income for many of us. Hospitality has become a legitimate career. But there’s a serious risk that this crisis delegitimizes our industry and undercuts the progress we’ve made. One virus may have taken all of that away, and it might take me with it.

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