Alex Knighten started working in food service at age 18 with her first job as a host at a South Asheville restaurant. More than a decade later, there’s still a lot she loves about the business, she says, but rudeness and disrespect from customers have always been a common drawback for front-of-house workers.
“The things people say and the way they act will leave you gob-smacked,” she says. “People get mad, they yell, they threaten; there’s a sense of entitlement that has built over the years.”
Before COVID-19, bad behavior from diners was an unavoidable annoyance that restaurant workers navigated as part of the job. But in pandemic times, the challenge of dealing with difficult customers is exacerbated by mask rage and compounded by the additional stressors of financial insecurity, the risk of contracting the virus on the job and the ongoing instability of the industry in general.
Up in smoke
For many in the food and beverage industry, financial insecurity became a constant, nerve-racking reality overnight on March 17, when the state shuttered bars and dining rooms. At the time, Knighten had her dream job as front-of-house manager at Reza Setayesh‘s restaurant BimBeriBon. “I loved the environment there, my work family and our regulars,” she remembers. But that dream went up in smoke with the stroke of Gov. Roy Cooper’s executive pen when BimBeriBon closed its dining room.
Knighten’s husband and their roommate — who also worked in the restaurant industry — were all in the same boat, scrambling to apply for unemployment and find other income opportunities. Although she says navigating the online application “was like pulling teeth and took a while,” all three were eventually approved. As a couple, Knighten and her husband decided he would stay home and pursue his degree as a full-time online student while she cobbled together some part-time jobs to supplement their benefits. “We are all high risk for various reasons, so I had to be really careful,” she says. “It was rough but we were able to get by.” Eventually she went back to work at Bear’s Smokehouse BBQ, which started serving from a food truck on Coxe Avenue in November.
Similarly, bartender Karina Lee — a mother of two — and her boyfriend/housemate relied on the same employer, Poe House in Hendersonville, for income. When Poe’s closed temporarily in response to the shutdown in March, one of the things that drew her to the industry — cash in hand after every shift — was gone in a flash.
“Unemployment was hard to get, so we had no income for a month and a half. We were eking out ways to survive,” she recalls. “It was really scary.”
Unlike Knighten and Lee, Sean Cudmore did not have to miss a day of work last spring. But the position he had accepted in December 2019, as operations manager for Eric Scheffer’s planned venture Jettie Rae’s Oyster House, changed significantly when the pandemic caused the restaurant’s opening to be delayed by several months. Cudmore, who had worked as a server at Scheffer’s other eatery, Vinnie’s Neighborhood Italian, five years before, segued back to his old job, while also managing operations there.
“Vinnie’s moved to takeout only, and I became an order taker again. It’s amazing how quickly that muscle memory comes back,” he says with a laugh.
Yet, while the mechanics of the systems were much the same as when he’d last worked at Vinnie’s, some of the things Cudmore loves most about hospitality — interacting with people and forming connections — were compromised by COVID-19 distancing and mask policies, sometimes testing his warm nature.
He sighs deeply when asked about the challenges of dealing with the public during the pandemic. The past year, he says, “required a lot of adaptation and flexibility,” particularly when Jettie Rae’s and Vinnie’s reopened for on-site dining. “There were a lot of new rules that needed to be communicated constantly and not a lot of time to fit those into the dining experience,” Cudmore explains.
When the restaurants started with counter service, staff discovered that in order for guests to follow the mask policy, it was necessary to repeat it three times: while waiting in line, at the counter and again at the table. “We’ve been lucky to have gotten very little pushback,” says Cudmore. “But I understand that is not the norm, and we have heard some horror stories around town.”
Lee, who eventually found a new job at Postero, a fine dining restaurant in Hendersonville, says some customers balk at the sign on the door saying masks are required for entry. “When I do a double [shift], I’m wearing a mask for 11 to 12 hours, yet they don’t want to put on one we provide for the 30 seconds it takes to walk from the door to their table,” she says. “If they refuse, we can refuse them entry, but they [might] leave and post a terrible Yelp review. So, you weigh the risks of losing business you need to survive or risking your health. It’s not a good choice.”
Michelle Bailey, executive chef at Smoky Park Supper Club, says the industry as a whole has faced “a pile of crappy choices.” After the initial state dining room shutdown in March, her restaurant remained closed entirely until August, then reopened for outdoor dining and take-away only with a revised menu of dishes that could be put in a box and eaten with biodegradable cutlery.
“We had people get really angry with us for not opening our dining room, but that was the right choice for us,” she says. Smoky Park is currently closed until March.
Chef William Dissen, owner since 2009 of the 41-year-old Market Place restaurant on Wall Street, closed his restaurant completely for some time, then started offering takeout in May before reopening for outdoor and indoor dining June 10. “One of the biggest challenges was getting enough staff back,” he says. “I get it: Everyone has to make a decision for themselves. But I had to reopen my restaurant because it supports me, my family, farmers and other suppliers.”
Dissen says seeing people return to the dining room was glorious. “I missed that Saturday night feel of a packed bar, live music and tables full of friends eating, drinking, laughing and talking,” he says. “We are in the business of hospitality, of giving guests a respite from the world outside.”
But guests are not always hospitable in return. “This year, my opinions of people have been tested,” Dissen admits. “Most people who come in are kind and respectful, but the ones who act horribly are really, really horrible. I have had to kick more people out of the restaurant and call the police on more people this last year than the whole 11 years before that.”
The physical distance staff must keep from one another and the disconnect from guests, particularly regulars, is psychologically tough on the kitchen staff, says Bailey. “We miss getting that gratification of hearing from a server how much guests loved a dish or their meal. We miss regulars waving at us as they come in or leave. We miss those connections that restaurants create.”
Knighten says that at her new job at Bear’s Smokehouse, she also misses personal connections. “It’s hard to get to know the people you work with under the current restrictions,” she says. “Because of masks, I’ve only seen one-third of their faces. It’s pretty surreal.”
Cudmore has struggled with the limits masks place on hospitality workers as well. “I have a very expressive face, and I’ve had to learn to transfer that to my eyes and tone of voice,” he explains.
Noticing that small children seem to be afraid of staff members wearing face coverings, Cudmore bought some masks decorated with giraffes and elephants. “What we are doing is important,” he says. “We want to welcome people as warmly and comfortably as before, even if it’s from a little farther away.”
Dissen urges diners to return that warmth. “Restaurant workers are under an exorbitant amount of stress,” he points out. “I would implore people to be kind, to be patient and to be generous. We are going to stick with it and get through to the other side. And when we do, I’m going to throw the biggest party I’ve ever thrown in my life.”