Navigating Pandemic Restaurant Work in One of the Busiest Seasons Yet
by Zanny Steffgen
Zanny’s article appears in episode 32 of The Dirty Spoon Radio Hour.
Up until March of 2020, life in the small ski town of Telluride, Colorado may have seemed like a dream come true for restaurant workers. First, there were the mountains. Towering peaks form a box canyon that hems in the historic town. Then there were the numerous outdoor recreation areas accessible within just a short drive: everything from ski slopes and mountain biking trails to hiking paths and lakes teeming with fish. As far as work goes, restaurant employees enjoyed excellent pay (thanks to the crowds of wealthy tourists that filter through the town each winter and summer), and three months off each year in between seasons.
Then COVID pounced on the town in spring of 2020, bringing along with it the biggest crowds Telluride had ever seen and leaving fear and uncertainty in its wake.
After working in restaurants for five years, two of which were in Telluride, I left my job as assistant general manager of a fine-dining eatery in April of 2021. While there were many factors involved in my decision to quit, perhaps the greatest was my experience of restaurant work during the pandemic, when the novel stresses of adhering to a flux of COVID regulations were coupled with the crush of people coming in the door each evening. To put it kindly, some guests were less than understanding about our situation. These challenges came along with ever-present worries for my safety and job security.
Even for those food and beverage workers who were not driven to quit their jobs during this time, the pandemic has been rife with challenges and unforeseen burdens. I sat down with three restaurant employees in Telluride to get their take on this last year and a half.
Luke, general manager of a fine-dining bistro:
There was a time where I thought all restaurants might end up having to close. We made it through, which was really, really surprising honestly.
Luke is telling me about the challenges and rewards this era has brought him as a restaurant manager. It has been a long and winding road since the town’s initial lockdown and stay-at-home order during the second week of March 2020. With one month left until the end of the winter season, all business in Telluride ground to a halt. Restaurants opened again for dine-in service two months later, but were limited to 50% capacity with no bar seating. Throughout the rest of 2020 and early 2021, regulations shifted by the week, ranging from outdoor dining only during the holidays to 75% capacity in the spring. Restaurants this summer have remained open for dine-in service at 100% capacity, despite a spike in COVID cases. A mask mandate for the small town of nearly 3,000 was imposed early and then lifted this past June, only to be put back in place in September.
Challenges…would be obviously having to be the enforcer. Even though it’s a state-wide or county-wide mandate, it falls upon the shoulders of the employees to be the enforcement on things like that. And in the restaurant industry, your main goal is to provide a high quality level of service and having to be the person who’s the bearer of bad news–if you will–regarding telling someone to put their mask on, is kind of challenging, you know? It’s like there are these moments where you’re trying to be friendly with these people and amicable, and you also have to kind of be brash with them regarding mask wearing or any other mandates that might be in place at the time. Rewards… I mean, we made it through. Additionally, we figured some stuff out. At my particular venue, we made things happen. We added seating, and ended up this summer with more seats than we’ve ever had for what is the busiest summer we’ve had on the books yet. The challenges I think outweighed the rewards this time around, but making it through, in theory–that kind of felt like an accomplishment.
Kaylee, fine-dining server:
Honestly with the volatility of everything in the world, there were many times I was thankful to have a job at all. I switched restaurants in the middle of the peak of the pandemic, because my previous restaurant job of nearly four years told me that I couldn’t have a second job and keep my employment there.
Having two jobs is somewhat standard for those working in Telluride. Not only does life in Telluride push the limits of the meaning of the word “affordable,” but also a severe labor shortage caused by a housing crisis has meant that there is a surplus of work to go around. During this last year and a half, employees felt the pressure to step up.
Colleen, line cook:
I’ve always been a workaholic, but [the pandemic] has taken it to a new level, mainly because I feel guilty. Everyone is understaffed and coverage is hard to come by, so I never want to take time off, and I have a very hard time saying no. People are working themselves too thin, especially when, like myself, they have two jobs.
Kaylee: I would say Telluride is getting steadily busier and busier; in fact, I’m not sure how much busier it can be… It’s easier than ever to get a job in fine dining here, as long as you have a place to live, and almost every restaurant is grossly understaffed. Basically every night of service throughout the summer was, for lack of a better word, a beating. Late nights, incredibly high volume… But, it was better money than ever. The owner of the restaurant that I work for had her most profitable month ever last month, shattering her previous all-time record, which was set the month prior.
While major cities in the US became plague-ridden ghost towns, Telluride was experiencing its busiest seasons yet. When a good chunk of the country’s workforce was pushed into remote work, thousands of Americans fled cities for remote areas with a slower pace of life. Second homeowners, who before only spent a few weeks of year in ski towns, transferred their lives full-time to the mountains, and people who could afford to move from COVID hotspots picked up and headed for small towns.
Luke: This is a one percent town. I think a major challenge was the Zoomers who all came in and bought up all of the housing, driving the housing prices up, pushing any long terms out of the picture. If you can do your job via Zoom in New York but live here in Telluride, why wouldn’t you? Why would you stay in a city when you can come here in these beautiful mountains and do your job online? That’s a no-brainer. But, when you can afford $20,000 for the whole winter for rent… there goes housing.
Kaylee: I think all resort towns, small towns, or even desirable areas of big cities are experiencing similar circumstances. I think if anything, the fact that we’re in such a beautiful setting improves the experience. Sitting outside is stunning and preferable in the summer anyway; people are generally pretty happy to be here. When people are on vacation, generally they’re in a better mood, and [post-lockdown], people seem to be more thankful to be eating out than ever.
Recently, two hallmark eateries in Telluride closed their doors. The closure was not due to a lack of business, but rather a staff shortage during a time when crowds of visitors were unrelenting. Even if employers have little control over the lack of affordable housing behind the labor shortage, they have begun taking steps towards positive change more within their reach.
Kaylee: Many restaurants are working to offer more traditional benefits, like cheaper insurance, bonuses, paid training, et cetera, because they know that they have to work harder if they want to retain their employees, and to help them be able to afford to live here.
But are these actions enough? Or too little too late? And can these additional benefits compensate for how grueling the work has become? Personally, I struggled with meeting the needs of demanding guests in a time when COVID placed obstacles in my way. Restaurant work often felt like an uphill battle, as we were all spread thin in an effort to keep everyone safe and happy.
Luke: I would think that [the guests] received different service. For example, in the past we used to package to-go food in the back. Moving forward, it was like, ok this plate was on the table, we’re not gonna bring it back to the back until it’s completely empty so we can put it in the dishwasher, which is where it’s going to get completely clean. So we would bring a box out. I think the level of service definitely depleted a little bit, it suffered in some ways. And yeah, [the pandemic] definitely affected my motivation. A little bit more dread going in because you know you have all of these tasks and you know you have to be the mask enforcement as well as the sommelier. Like, those two jobs are not at all the same… That was something on my mind every day–how am I going to address this? And then we kept reviewing what the mandates were. So what’s it gonna be like next week? Are we going to have to have more spacing, less spacing, 50% capacity, 75% capacity? Wine and alcohol cut off at 10 pm not 9 pm? Food cut off at 9 pm not 10 pm? I was required to do different tasks that previously weren’t on my shoulders. Including, but not limited to, walking around sanitizing the door knobs. I mean, that is something that has never been done ever. And now it’s a commonplace practice. We used disposable menus for all of winter 2020. That was wild. That was not something I had ever expected to do at a fine dining restaurant.
Colleen: This summer has been brutal for me, I won’t lie. But with all that, I think I’ve grown closer with a lot of coworkers, and I’ve gotten opportunities that I wouldn’t have had. There were definitely negatives to come from this, but from my two [workplaces] people really bonded together to try and get through all this craziness. This last year has for sure made me want to break down after service far more than before, but I’ve really learned a lot, and have made some really great friends, and honestly I wouldn’t want to change any of it, except possibly add a couple more days off in there.
Another aspect of working in restaurants during a pandemic was the burden of knowing what was at stake. First, there was a fear of the deadly toll COVID could take if it spread within our restaurant. There was the anxiety that accompanied serving people without masks on, and the understanding that the establishment could close at any moment. Then there was the threat to financial security. With shift work, if an employee is contact-traced and sent to quarantine, they lose their income for all of the shifts they miss. While a law passed in the midst of the pandemic required employers to issue paychecks for any hours of work missed due to COVID-related reasons, those paychecks were just a fraction of what they might have been had an employee actually worked.
Kaylee: At first, of course, in the immediate aftermath of the lockdown, I think we were all scared. No one knew quite what the virus could do to us, I didn’t want to be forced to be in close proximity with other people who might be sick. The vaccine definitely changed my willingness and comfort with being close to unmasked patrons, and now it doesn’t really bother me much at all. I know that there’s of course a chance of breakthrough infection, and while I don’t want to get sick, it doesn’t feel as mysterious and life-threatening as it did before. As an otherwise very healthy individual, I no longer feel that restaurant work is “risky” or “like being on the front lines” like I used to.
Luke: We could close at any moment. We could be shut down at any moment and we never knew. March 13th 2020–closed. That was it. Nobody ever saw that coming. We lost out on a month of service. That’s make or break for people who, either way, had an upcoming month of closure in this town. Fortunately, I think everybody made it through. And I remember when vaccines were first rolling out and people were fully vaccinated by the time they were coming in the restaurant, and I was mind blown by that. They got access. We got pushed, I remember when service employees got pushed back. We were behind multiple [industries] that I was surprised were allowed to get vaccinated first. And I don’t want to discredit any professions, but the fact that restaurant workers and dentists are the only people who are required to work with their clients without a mask on, and we weren’t prioritized?
Since my personal experience with pandemic restaurant work prodded me towards the decision to quit, I asked these restaurant employees if their experience had affected their relationship to the job.
Colleen: Honestly, I don’t think my relationship to my job has changed. I always do too much and I still very much love what I’m doing. I’ve learned different ways to look at things which is interesting and helpful. As of yet I’m not jaded, but depending on how much longer the pandemic lasts, it might change. Who knows anymore.
Luke: I think that I have become more cognizant of cleanliness…I mean I’ve been in the restaurant industry for 22 years now, it’s not like having clean hands is new to me, but having to wear a mask through dinner service? All of that is so new, and it was new for all of us. I think I’m gonna do a lot of things differently. I’ll never wait in a queue the same. I probably will refrain from dining inside a restaurant as much as possible. Right now I pretty much only dine outside, unless I can find an edge table. I haven’t been to the movies… and I’m not planning on going to the movies any time soon. Because I know I have three months off a year. Being that I have two months off coming up right now, I don’t even want to jeopardize that. I don’t want to go into a theater in late October and then leave town and be sick and not know it. Or be sick and not be able to enjoy those three months off.
Kaylee: I wouldn’t say that it necessarily affected my personal motivation to work, but it did make me torture myself with questioning my career path. I still am. Very few people, at least in front of house positions, do this kind of work for the passion. Most people do it for the quick, low-commitment money, daytime freedom, and always with the hopes that they will eventually be able to have enough of a financial cushion to take action towards something else… There’s always the great “something else” waiting out there that everyone is striving for, or at least thinking about. I am looking forward to transitioning to a “something else” now more than ever. Not because of rude guests, but simply because of more time to reflect on my position and my future. But it’s very hard to make a change. Serving is still “golden handcuffs” for me.
Last but not least, I wanted to hear: What do you wish guests knew before coming in the door?
Luke: I wish that they knew their actions affect everyone around them. Their choice to not wear a mask or not get vaccinated has nothing to do with them. It has to do with your server who is then interacting with the next table next to them, who’s then interacting with their friends and family way outside of [the restaurant.] I had someone tell me they were dissatisfied with where they were seated last summer. And I had to reiterate to this person that almost a million people have died from this pandemic and the fact that you’re dissatisfied with where you’re sitting in a restaurant is your biggest concern?… That’s my thought. It’s not just about you. And I understand when you go out to a restaurant you’re supposed to feel like you’re the only person there. But that’s not the way it is. There is a whole back of the house that you don’t even see. And there’s a whole subculture that exists. There is the prep guy who’s there at seven in the morning until noon. There’s the kitchen staff, there’s a dishwasher who’s there until midnight, soaking wet in their clothes, and that doesn’t register to you, what registers to you is “my seat was drafty on an autumn evening.”
Kaylee: No one in the service industry wants to enforce the rules. We don’t care if you believe in masks, or in vaccines. We’re not here to make this political. We’re not here to fight with you, or get yelled at. Please give us a bit of patience. I know that you just ordered a $300 bottle of wine and foie gras, and I want you to give you the best experience possible, but we’re incredibly, incredibly busy. The manager, who will be here to open your wine, also has to seat tables, light heaters, greet guests, answer the phone, and generally keep the place afloat. In addition to you, I have eight other tables–three of which just sat down in the last five minutes… Your lack of tips won’t “change the system” if you don’t believe in them. It will simply ruin the rest of my night, and if it happens consistently enough, ruin the profitability of restaurant work enough so that more and more establishments will disappear.
And it was just that–the future of restaurants–that danced through so many of our minds this year.
Original artwork by Alex Knighten
About the Author
Zanny Merullo Steffgen is a former restaurant employee who switched to full-time writing in spring 2021. She currently lives in Telluride, Colorado with her husband, where she has used the lessons she learned from her pandemic restaurant work experiences to become the best restaurant guest possible.