When the pandemic officially hit the U.S. in March of 2020, I was in the middle of a crazy work week in the kitchen at Terrain. Business had never really slowed down from the 2019 holiday season and I was within inches of giving my notice. My primary frustrations were with the long hours, overwhelming workload, poor compensation, and lack of good planning and communication. It was very normal for me to work 12 hours a day and still not finish my task list, despite using every minute of my day efficiently. My days off were truly “recovery days.” Little did I know, the food industry as a whole was about to be shaken to its core.
It has been very surreal and saddening to watch the industry come to a screeching halt and then be forced to pivot or go under. “More than 110,000 eating and drinking establishments in the United States closed for business—temporarily or permanently—last year, with nearly 2.5 million jobs erased from pre-pandemic levels, according to the National Restaurant Association.” (King) Full service restaurants were hit hardest and many struggled to switch to off premise service.
I quickly started to realize that this was a great opportunity for me to re-evaluate and switch gears if I could manage it. I knew once people were able to return to restaurants, the consumer demands would get even more insane; people couldn’t WAIT to get back to brunch at Terrain. Today’s consumer expects to receive what they want, exactly when they want it, and providing that experience with significantly less staff is very tough.
While the cost of living and education have both significantly increased over my lifetime, minimum wage and hourly pay for food industry staff has not. How is someone supposed to cover student loans, rent, groceries, a car, gas, etc. every month when they’re making $16 an hour? How do they pay for health insurance? How could they ever buy a house? How do they retire? I loved baking but did I love it enough to sacrifice all my time, energy, and future life dreams? No I did not. I knew it was time to make a change.
As we start to emerge from the pandemic, restaurants are finding it very difficult to hire and retain staff to keep up with the returning demand. They’re offering extra incentives and sign-on bonuses to entice people to get on board. I want to believe that this will force some change over the hourly pay and treatment of food industry workers for the long term, but I suspect this won’t be the case. “Since the pandemic started, 62% of fine dining operators and 54% of both family dining and casual dining operators said staffing levels are more than 20% below normal.” (King) Terrain Garden Cafe in Glen Mills had to change their brunch hours recently because they couldn’t find enough staff to cover the whole shift. As the busy holiday season approaches, I’m very curious to see how things will play out. “What many restaurant employers have characterized as a restaurant labor shortage is ongoing. The root of the issue is twofold: There are now many, many jobs to be filled and, more impactfully, many restaurant workers are deciding that a return to restaurant work simply isn’t worth it.” (Burton)
Did any of your favorite restaurants close in the past year and a half?
Have you noticed a significant lack of staff at the restaurants you’ve been to recently?
How do you think we should tackle the poor treatment of restaurant workers? How do we create a system that actually supports people and offers a financial safety net?
Burton, Monica. “Restaurants Turn to Hiring Bonuses to Entice Workers.” Eater, Eater, 19 May 2021, https://www.eater.com/2021/5/19/22442468/restaurant-hiring-bonuses-worker-shortage.
King, Rachel. “More than 110,000 Eating and Drinking Establishments Closed in 2020.” Fortune, Fortune, 26 Jan. 2021, https://fortune.com/2021/01/26/restaurants-bars-closed-2020-jobs-lost-how-many-have-closed-us-covid-pandemic-stimulus-unemployment/.