Let me tell you, the restaurant industry in the time of COVID-19 is wild. I write on the weekdays, but on the weekends, I work as a waitress at a small, family-owned restaurant in a California harbor. Our restaurant, Ketch Joanne’s, reopened last week, serving only to-go food and cocktails. We have all new regulations, a whole new system of doing things, and delightful chaotic energy that comes along with what our boss has dubbed “coviding”.
California, especially the Bay Area, has had one of the strictest responses to the coronavirus outbreak in the union. We shut down quickly, and have remained under shelter-in-place orders while other states are reopening. As a result, we are successfully flattening the curve. On the other hand, the residents of this great state have no choice but to learn to survive under the new normal.
It’s All Up In The Air
That is especially true for essential workers. Everything is different now for the restaurant industry. At our restaurant, we have tables blocking every entrance. We can’t allow customers inside the restaurant for any reason and everything takes place outside. Since everything is to go and we don’t have our own tables, our system for taking orders is completely different. Our system for tips is completely different. We are often figuring things out as we go along in an ever-changing landscape.
Both customers and employees are required to wear masks at all times. The employees always follow this rule (I wore a mask for an entire ten-hour shift yesterday. It was awful). Customers, however, are not always quite so willing. A remarkable number of customers come up to the window maskless, asking when the restaurant seating will be open, and often espousing some message about what nonsense this all is.
Never in my time working in the service industry have I heard this many passionate speeches about customer’s views on an issue. Every other customer that we see makes sure we know exactly what they think about the pandemic, as they ask for fish and chips and a watermelon margarita.
Some are quick to criticize how California is handling all this. Others come complaining about how no one is staying 6 feet away from them. Regardless of my personal views, or the personal views of any of the rest of the staff, we all just have to kind of nod and smile and let people rant, as long as they are obeying regulations as they do so.
The Human Factor
Working in the restaurant industry, there are always those customers who think that it is okay to treat the people serving their food or pouring their drinks like garbage. There are always people who are rude and don’t want to follow the rules. This is not new in the era of COVID-19, but the issue is compounded by additional stress and regulations.
The restaurant I work at is located in a quiet beach town. Our beaches are open, but in a completely failed effort to stem the flow of tourists to the area, the county closed the parking lots and the public restrooms. Customers are not allowed to use our bathrooms, per the county order. A result is a belligerent group, who have often had one too many cocktails to-go, who angrily implore us about where they are supposed to go. We have no good answers.
This particular issue likely only applies to our little area. The greater issue behind it, however, effects service industry workers everywhere. We are being held accountable for circumstances so far beyond our control that it’s laughable.
Restaurant workers have no more information than you do about when we can allow seating, when our restrooms will be open, or when this will all be over. Neither do our bosses. I can put in your burger order, but I can’t make a vaccine. I can listen to you rant, but I cannot change the fact that the regulations require that you wear a mask in our area. Unless you want a boozy milkshake or an order of french fries, there’s not much I can do for you.
It’s Not All Bad
Yesterday, we sold food and drinks to several hundred people looking for a holiday weekend escape from the bleak realities of COVID-19. There was a couple out for the first time in months. They were so relieved to see another human face and not have to cook for themselves that they put a twenty in the tip jar. One man was so excited that he could have a shot of Jameson in a little plastic cup while he was waiting for his food that his whole face lit up. There were locals who came to see us, thrilled that our beloved little mom and pop restaurant has made it through this mess.
Much of the restaurant industry is chaos and uncertainty right now. But there is also certain humor in the insanity of it all. I am lucky enough to work for amazing people, with a great crew. We have each other’s backs and we’re all doing our best. Remember to tip your servers, even if it’s just a to-go order. This isn’t as easy as it looks, and I don’t think it looks easy.