The bar, restaurant and broader hospitality industry has taken a beating from the pandemic, but some business owners, advocates and workers say the time has come to tackle change in an industry they believe is in dire need of an overhaul.
After COVID-19 forced much of the industry to press pause, now it's at a crossroads. With warmer months ahead, establishments nationwide are girding for an anticipated surge in business, which means rehiring some of the millions of bar and restaurant workers who were laid off when the pandemic hit last year.
But despite a huge labor pool, owners across the U.S. say they're having trouble staffing up. It appears the pandemic spurred some people to think twice before returning to the industry. Perhaps that's not surprising given it's known for grueling conditions — strenuous work, long hours, unequal pay and a sometimes hostile environment — especially for women, people of color and undocumented immigrants.
"Restaurants have always been there for everybody all the time," says Sara Fetbroth, a hospitality consultant who previously worked as a restaurant general manager in the greater Boston area for nearly two decades. "We're that place where you come when things are bad and when things are good, where you celebrate and you grieve. But with the pandemic, the industry and all its employees felt like nobody was there for them, so I think a lot of people [viewed] it as an opportunity to leave."
She continued: "On a whole other side, if people could stay home, collect unemployment, make just as much or a comfortable amount without having to come into work and deal with the public every day, they're choosing to do that, which is also keeping a lot of people from reentering the workforce."
Now, bars, restaurants and other hospitality businesses are facing a reckoning as workers and their employers grapple with tough questions about how much they're willing to go back to the way things were before the pandemic — and to what extent that's even possible. As advocates push for fairer wages and work schedules, some owners are taking steps to improve working conditions, like getting rid of tipping to level pay, creating more advancement opportunities and simplifying menus to lessen work for staff.
While it remains to be seen whether large national hospitality companies will make moves to overhaul the industry, several bar and restaurant owners tell Salon that even as they struggle to get back on their feet, they're looking to transform the industry for the better. Indeed, they believe their relevance and very survival depend on it.
Meanwhile, advocates and workers insist that change is not only possible, but inevitable and even imminent — and that while the industry is navigating a crisis, it's also a critical opportunity for bars and restaurants to reset, and in the process create a more equitable, diverse workplace for bartenders, servers and other employees.
Molly Pachay, who worked as a lead bartender at a celebrated Chicago restaurant until March 2020, believes this is a watershed moment.
"In the past year, the industry has crumbled on multiple fronts," Pachay says. "It's reached a tipping point, and I'm hopeful there are restaurant owners and managers who are seeking change because they realize it's no longer sustainable. I have plenty of friends who chose to leave altogether and develop a new skill—or who don't want to go back, even if the money is good. There are so many harmful aspects, from lack of secure scheduling to having to deal with microaggressions, racism or sexual misconduct from guests and coworkers alike. No one wants to do it anymore."
A crucial step toward improving the industry for some workers would be ensuring they earn a fairer wage by eliminating the very low minimum wage for tipped workers in certain states, says Jeanie Chunn, co-director of RAISE (Restaurants Advancing Industry Standards of Employment) High Road Restaurants.
"The sub-minimum wage … means [workers] have to rely solely on the generosity of restaurant patrons," Chunn says, which often forces them to tolerate egregious behavior, including rampant sexual harassment, in hopes of receiving a decent tip.
Eight states have eliminated the tipped minimum wage, so tipped workers there are paid the regular minimum wage. This has led to less poverty among those states' tipped workers, who have "done as well or better than their counterparts in other states over the years since abolishing the subminimum wage," according to a Center for American Progress analysis.
But as far as policy changes are concerned, "we are fighting against a tidal wave," Chunn says. The National Restaurant Association earlier this year urged Congress against raising the federal minimum wage to $15, warning that restaurants would suffer from a fast-tracked wage hike, leading to more employee layoffs, higher menu prices and closures.
"Passage of [the Raise the Wage Act] would lead to job losses and higher use of labor-reducing equipment and technology," NRA executive vice president for public affairs Sean Kennedy wrote in a letter to Congress in February. "Nearly all restaurant operators say they will increase menu prices. But what is clear is that raising prices for consumers will not be enough for restaurants to absorb higher labor costs."
In and of itself, the question of raising wages to make the industry more equitable is a "complex topic," says Julia Heyer, a hospitality consultant who founded Heyer Performance in 2009.
"It's not that companies and restaurateurs don't want to provide different pay structures," she says. "The question is, can they afford it?"
At a time when restaurateurs are behind on payments and struggling to recover from pandemic-related losses, paying a higher wage may not seem feasible. Many businesses are "already under pressure because they're not operating at previous capacity, and it's hard when you're barely making due to then look at equitable pay," Heyer adds. "Margins in the restaurant business are slim to begin with. So many of them run on a bare-bones skeleton staff structure to survive. If labor costs go up, and other costs don't go down, pricing has to increase. Is the consumer willing to pay for more equity?"
While fighting for better wages and other reforms could prove a massive challenge, Touré Folkes, founder and director of advocacy organization Turning Tables, believes the industry is under scrutiny and that change is long overdue.
"In terms of equitable pay and the way people are hired, it's set in a very old system," Folkes says. "People that are hired into positions with higher wages and more equitable pay tend to be largely white, so I think there's an opportunity for the industry to welcome a whole new breed of hospitality worker that's excited about the industry, but also aware of their rights and what they bring to the table."
Monique Carter, managing owner of MJB Restaurant Group in Chicago, is already confronting the old system by creating her own. "For me, it's about scaling down your operation—which, honestly, I feel like the restaurant business completely needed," Carter says.
She continues:"Something that's supposed to be about gathering and food had become about awards and accolades, and we had lost a lot of ourselves [and] why we got into the business. The pandemic slowed us down tremendously."
Sticking to a smaller operation allows Carter greater control of who she hires and how she runs her restaurant, Adelaide Hall. "My staff [are] always of color," Carter says. "Because I'm dealing with such a small environment, it's easier for me to hire equally, to be fair and remain fair."
Carter is looking to put more people of color on a pathway to ownership and other top-level roles.
"The industry has been very kind to me," Carter says. "I've had incredible jobs, worked for incredible chefs, restaurateurs and hoteliers, so I want to pass that on. The purpose of my group is to bring Black and brown people into the business. I feel like too often we [view working in] the business as subservient instead of calling it service, so we don't get into it. You can turn hospitality into a productive and lucrative career."
To help achieve that, Carter is creating a hiring database she describes as specifically geared toward people of color who are interested in culinary careers. She's also putting in leg work, traveling to local high schools, trade schools and colleges with culinary art programs.
"I get in touch with students who might just want to hang out for a bit while I'm setting up the restaurant, [or] want to hang out with the chef," Carter says. "Kind of pulling it from the core — stopping by at these programs, getting them before they leave culinary school and maybe redirecting someone who might've gotten pushed into cooking [to consider] management" or more prominent "front-of-house" jobs.
Like Chunn and Folkes, Ronald Hsu, executive chef and founder of Lazy Betty in Atlanta, believes the time for tectonic change has come. It "may not happen overnight, or even over a decade, but it has to start somewhere," he says.
"The pandemic has shed a light on how precarious the restaurant business is," Hsu says. "Restaurants have suffered, not just financially but people within the industry—employees, owners, front of house, back of house. I'm all for raising the minimum wage, and I think that as chefs, restaurateurs, servers, we have a responsibility—because we have the world's attention right now, and because of all the social issues that have arisen within the last year—to push the needle forward."
Hsu seeks to set an example in the way he runs his restaurant — in part by offering health insurance, dental and vision benefits to all full-time employees which is, according to Hsu, "very hard to find" in most restaurant jobs. Lazy Betty also implements a service charge.
"Basically, it's a mandatory charge on top of the cost of beverages and food to help pay our staff, and to alleviate the disparity between" front-of-house workers, like servers and bartenders, and "back-of-house" staff such as cooks and dishwashers, he explains.
Additionally, paying workers minimum wage rather than the lower tipped minimum wage "allows the restaurant more flexibility to make sure pay is more equitable," Hsu adds.
"We pay all the servers a minimum wage, [plus] additional gratuity and part of the service charge, and we have very little turnover — which ends up helping your bottom line because you put less money into training," he says.
As for concern customers might balk at a mandatory service charge and increased prices, "if you educate guests about why we raise the minimum wage and add a service charge, people are empathetic to it," Hsu says.
Hsu notes that in a lot of restaurants, back-of-house employees can't earn tips as front-of-house workers do — which he sees as problematic.
"It's not fair that half of the restaurant gets paid more than the other half when both are, in my opinion, equally valuable to a restaurant's product," he says. Shawn Walchef, who opened Cali BBQ in Spring Valley, California in 2008, agrees.
"I think culturally we all have to start examining how tipping plays into this infrastructure that's been built for front-of-the-house workers versus [back-of-the-house] workers," Walchef says. "It's not right that somebody that does the dishes — one of the most difficult jobs in the restaurant — doesn't get to share tips in the old model."
Instead, Walchef believes all employees who aren't managers should be able to earn tips. "I know that's a sticking point for a lot of servers and bartenders, who, depending on the restaurant, traditionally tend to keep all of their tips, but if you're talking about a true sales position, which a server or a bartender is, they're making a commission on that sale. The server is one part of the chain of service. The restaurant had to be cleaned. We have a host, parking support staff, a barbecue prep cook, line cooks. The amount of work that goes into creating that experience is not just the server and the bartender, but they're making the highest wages."
But beyond re-examining tipping, Walchef believes restaurants need to completely revamp their business and service approach by embracing what he describes as a "digital-first" model, bolstering their internet and social media presence to make it easier for people to order online.
"We're three times more profitable as a digital-first restaurant than we ever have been in 13 years as a full-service restaurant and sports bar," Walchef says. "We're more profitable because we have a more efficient menu, so our food cost has gone down, our labor costs have gone down, but the labor that we do employ is more specialized. By doing that, we're going to be able to create opportunities to pay people better wages, health benefits and time off—things that have always lacked in the restaurant space because the margins were just too small."
However, owners and workers can't overhaul the industry without an enlightened public as their ally.
"As a person who goes out to eat and drink, that's something you missed—it's probably one of the first things you did when quarantine ended and you got your vaccine," Touré Folkes of Turning Tables says. "Now's the time for people to think about who brings them those experiences, and whether they're protected."
Folkes continues: "They work really long hours and should be making $15 an hour with benefits and vacation and healthcare. If the industry wants them to come back, you have to bring awareness to the consumer of what the cost of their meal is, what the cost of their drink is, and they have to [be willing to] pay for it. If that's not something they want, they should really think about it when they make a reservation or go out to have a drink."
Yet perhaps no one understands the need for change quite like Venorica Tucker, who's worked in the hospitality industry most of her life, including the last couple decades as a banquet server and bartender in Washington, D.C.
"Change is going to happen anyway," Tucker says. "The industry is never going to be the same. But I think workers have an opportunity right now, if they stick together, to be instrumental in making that change."
A $15 hourly minimum wage would be a significant victory.
"Fifteen an hour is still inadequate, but it beats what people are getting now," Tucker says. Additionally, "management, wherever you work, needs to protect us. Sexual harassment needs to be eliminated. And people need to be treated like humans, not constantly mistreated. We need to be respected. There are some owners out there who want to help bring about that change—not enough, but there are some."
After Tucker and many of her co-workers became unemployed in March 2020 due to the pandemic, they banded together and organized a weekly meeting to share information and resources navigating an exceptionally difficult time.
"We would meet on Fridays, and we still do," Tucker says. "We talk about what we're experiencing—problems we're having with unemployment, the fact that some of the people don't have money for food, many of us are struggling with bills. Sometimes we find organizations that are helping, and we share that information. But the one thing I like most about the meetings is the growth."
Tucker says that she's watched as a lot of meeting members grow stand up for themselves and become activists who never thought they had it in them.
"So that feels good—to know that if and when this industry changes, these people, and others like them, will help it to change," Tucker says. "It feels good to be a part of that kind of movement."