I’m not going back to work in restaurants — but only because I have a choice

The coronavirus has made me reconsider service, and a career in hospitality

Published July 25, 2020 7:30PM (EDT)

Cocktails at the bar (Getty Images)
Cocktails at the bar (Getty Images)

Maybe you've seen this photo floating around social media: A woman is seated with her friends at a restaurant. She looks over her shoulder into the foreground, open-mouthed, hand raised as if just having brushed her highlighted locks behind her ear. It could be a photo of any ordinary brunch, except the server wears a face shield, a mask and protective latex gloves. The contrast between the diners and the server is ludicrous, obscene, nearly impossible for our brains to synthesize for its dissonance. And it ignites real fear in my heart.

Part of what kept me in the bartending and hospitality world until now was the idea of family. When I was hired at my first cocktail bar, I had previously only bartended in divey places. The idea of craftsmanship and care threaded throughout our training lured me in. We were fed the binding ethos that we were the heirs to years of tradition, taught the properties and mythology of each obscure liquor we would be selling. (If you've ever wondered why people who have just gotten into cocktail culture are obsessed with Chartreuse, look it up.) And through that notion of family ran the notion of service.

We were in service to each other, to our hodgepodge restaurant family during outrageously busy nights when tips were pooled, yes. But most importantly, we were in service to the people who would walk through the door each night.

We were to be the facilitators of magic, the gatekeepers to the world of exquisite pleasure and decadence for each and every guest who entered our section. Guest, not customer. The idea of commercial transaction was meant to be erased or at least minimized as much as possible from the way we understood and spoke about our role in the restaurant.

We were expected to have an answer for every question, no matter how detailed or inane. We were required to have "personality" and "quirk," but only within certain parameters, subsuming our own feelings at the risk of making guests uncomfortable, despite how they might make us feel. This is what emotional labor looks like.

I can't tell you how often I was told that I was "too serious" and a "bitch" while working in the service industry, because I had failed to smile enough at a customer. This is why the concept creep of "emotional labor" irks me. It doesn't mean you're pouring your heart out on Instagram live or being the one to initiate hard conversations in your relationships. It's the inability to express authentic emotions while at work for fear of losing your job, which impacts women to a higher degree. Now that the original understanding of the term has been erased, what do we call this irrevocable tenet of servitude?

If family was the idea that bound us together within the restaurant world under punishing hours and a pay structure that was created in feudal times, servitude was at once the entire point of what we were doing and a necessary evil. The social contract between server and customer was that we existed in service to their experience, to their physical and metaphorical hunger. Emotional labor is damaging, but doable. Don't get me wrong, there were sparkling, singular services when patrons pulled their weight and gave as much or more than they received emotionally, made my job feel important and needed and appreciated. But there were many nights when I was, at best, a human facsimile, and at worst reviled for not capitulating to whatever idea of a bartender — a woman bartender — the guest needed in that moment.

Once, as I worked a private party, a man claimed he didn't "like my vibe," despite the fact that we had only had cursory, polite interactions. He went to the bathroom, where perhaps he indulged in other substances, and returned with a friend to tell me that I sucked, hated my life and that I should go fuck myself. I tried to talk him down as calmly as I could — not because I am a saint, nor because I was afraid of losing a tip (suffice to say it was gone at that point), but because I had a deep fear of losing my job if I didn't. I feared that I wouldn't be believed, and even if I was, there would be some way to spin the narrative to make it seem like I had done something egregious to provoke the guests.

Had I? Their vitriol made me feel culpable. I berated myself for not displaying friendlier body language. I finally alerted a manager who asked the host of the private party to please encourage his guest to leave. Only one man was asked to exit the party that night, and under great care to keep his dignity intact. I was offered sympathy, but was expected to work the rest of my shift with the other man leering from across the room. 

I don't blame my managers for enabling and upholding this requisite dynamic. I don't blame the partners in the company. I don't blame my co-workers, and I don't even blame the customers. The family/servitude narrative is offered to all of us within and without the restaurant industry, especially once you reach a particular echelon of the industry. It's what makes the whole thing work. And work it does. There's usually no dearth of passion, from the chefs to the managers to the bartenders. Being around those passionate people is something I will truly miss. We would often make it through a busy night and feel a profound sense of pride and accomplishment, of togetherness. I would offer that many of the line cooks have a different view, but that's not my story to tell. And I recognize my privilege: as a white woman I got in the door as a bartender when some might not even be considered. 

Enter Covid-19. Many of my friends and co-workers in New York City have been out of work for the past four months. Some were lucky and received unemployment, with additional stimulus payments. Some, many of whom work in kitchens, were not so lucky. Lucky is the right word because it exposes the arbitrary and deeply flawed nature of how people are valued in capitalist consciousness.

Little by little, our restaurant group began asking us back. I am lucky, and I am privileged to a different degree. Because my partner can support us for now, I am not going to return to serving. I want to try my hand at something that does not require so much self-sacrifice, of my body or my emotions. I want to continue to go to bed at a reasonable hour. But if I were still single, I would have to weigh what it means to try to go it alone with no safety net, or else return to serving once the additional unemployment checks stop at the end of July.

Some of my friends are eager to return to work. Some don't have a choice. They must consider whether or not it's worth it. Do they have the resources to search for new work? Is it even remotely safe to return? New York City is trying its hand at outdoor dining, but what happens when summer is over, when they might have to serve people inside, where the risk is heightened?

And here is where the notion of servitude and emotional labor gets turned on its head. It's one thing to present a benign face while patrons belittle us, make rude comments, hit on us, try to touch us. Trust me; I'm not exaggerating. The idea of being "waited upon" has made monsters of many.

Have you ever seen the manager of a New York City restaurant try to explain to a hungry or thirsty person on a Saturday night that they can't just sit anywhere they would like? Hospitality is not far from childcare, most nights. Staff will go to elaborate lengths to ensure that guests don't feel stupid for acting, well, stupid, even when in in return they offer rudeness or incredulity. But what about now, when careless patrons can endanger lives? What happens to the notion of servitude with a smile now when patrons lack respect? When they refuse to wear a mask, refuse to disperse outside of a bar, and feel entitled to the same type of service they had in the "before times"? When that makes our work not just unsafe in the abstract but in the physical? Now our aggressors are not only leering, they're leering and spreading a potentially deadly disease. 

This is a conversation that Black, Indigenous and people of color — many of whom are essential workers — surely have every day to varying degrees as they navigate a white supremacist society. I will never know nor pretend to know what it is like to speak to that experience, but I do know what it is to weigh the cost of going to work. 

Many restaurants in other cities and states have been open throughout the pandemic, or have opened back up after a shutdown, and have had to close again after employees get sick. The White Horse Tavern in the West Village had its liquor license suspended after repeat violations of the social distancing guidelines. (In bars and restaurants with liquor licenses, there's additional risk in mixing alcohol with entitlement.) And yet many restaurateurs feel as if they have no choice but to be open at the capacity they can manage or that is allowed by local orders. Even successful restaurants, as detailed by Prune owner Gabrielle Hamilton in an April essay for the New York Times, operate on thin margins. The larger government systems in place don't afford small businesses the luxury of staying closed, and our lack of a robust safety net means many restaurant workers won't have the luxury of living off an unemployment check that will soon become too meager to pay rent. 

The last several months have offered time for reflection, if privileged guests choose to take it, that might direct them to leading with empathy in their daily interactions with folks in service industries. I'm sure it has for many. I know many people who are choosing to support restaurants that offer takeout or window service, in order to maintain as many safety protocols as possible. Because I understand that the choice of going out to eat is a complicated one now, and that people want to spend money at their local hangs, I merely ask that we ask ourselves some questions before we go out.

What do you feel is owed to you by your server who might literally be risking their life to bring you French toast? What level of friendliness, of servility are you expecting from restaurant staff?

And to the managers and owners, I ask, what kind of hospitality do you demand from your servers, and under what conditions? How might your expectations and desire to accommodate as much business as possible under less-than-ideal circumstances be contributing to a new intersection of mental and physical violence in the restaurant industry? Is it worth prioritizing the comfort of guests if it comes at the expense of your workers' health? It's time to reflect on what a cultural entitlement to "good service" could end up costing those who serve. 

By Nikki Ervice

Nikki Ervice is a writer and professional dancer from Alaska who has worked in the hospitality industry for over a decade. She lives in New York City.

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