Gov. Roy Cooper’s May 14 announcement allowing North Carolina restaurants to open to full capacity for the first time since March 17, 2020, was the proverbial good news/bad news scenario for local restaurateurs. As eager as they have been to see dining rooms hustling and bustling again, restaurant owners are facing unprecedented challenges in hiring enough qualified people to handle normal, prepandemic operations.
As Jane Anderson, executive director of Asheville Independent Restaurant Association, pointed out in a May 26 Xpress story, “What is driving restaurants’ decisions about resuming full capacity is the ability to staff front and back of house.”
While the governor’s full-capacity decision was not entirely unexpected, the additional May 13 edict from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (confirmed by Cooper) stating that fully vaccinated people are no longer required to social-distance or wear masks indoors was not only a surprise but forced owners to make difficult decisions on whether to continue requiring masks for employees and guests in their building. It also presented more potential issues for front-of-house staff already weary of acting as mask police and fearing the possibility of taking on a new role as vaccination card checker.
During their pandemic downtime, many jobless food and beverage workers, supported by robust unemployment benefits, reexamined their choice of profession. Long-acknowledged industry downsides exacerbated by the pandemic — grueling hours, scarcity of health insurance and other benefits, rude and demanding customers — prompted some to research options and make new choices colored by the experience of 2020.
Xpress talked to a few local people who have left the industry entirely and others who remain but with new perspective and higher expectations.
Looking for benefits
When COVID-19 razed the restaurant industry in 2020, Caylea Jenkins had logged more than a decade in the business in Asheville. Most of her experience is in serving or bartending, but she’s also worked in the back of the house, filling in if the kitchen was short-staffed.
From the start, Jenkins saw restaurant work as a great way to make money and came to enjoy it. “It’s nice to talk to people, get a window into strangers’ lives,” she says almost wistfully. “Food and drink is something every culture shares, and feeding people a delicious meal or making them a really good drink is a simple joy you can bring to people.”
Jenkins says she had never looked at the industry as a long-term career path and figured that, eventually, she would need to find a more reliable job with benefits. But she had always thought she would be able to choose the timing of that change herself. “Then the pandemic hit, and overnight I lost my job,” she recalls. “I had never been unemployed in my life, and applying for and taking unemployment was foreign to me.”
Jenkins went back to her restaurant job early last summer. But, she says, after voicing concerns publicly and to management about the restaurant’s lack of adherence to safety protocols, she was fired. Looking for guidance for herself and other staff in a similar position, she reached out to the national organization Restaurant Opportunities Center United, which helped them file a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board. The action resulted in Jenkins and four others receiving back pay. It also inspired her and colleague Ruth Rapp to launch ROC Asheville.
Though Jenkins briefly took a serving job elsewhere that she enjoyed, she ultimately decided to try something new and started working at a customer service call center in late March. It’s a position she feels well suited for.
“For one thing, dealing with people during COVID really desensitized me to abuse,” she says ruefully. “But essentially, customer service is the same thing as restaurant service, minus the food and beverage — and with a 40-hour workweek, full benefits, a 401K which matches what I put in, and I can work from home. It’s reliable, and the restaurant industry doesn’t feel that way anymore. The pandemic made a lot of us feel very disposable.”
Jenkins’ COVID-motivated review of her career choice and future path was one shared by many service workers who arrived at similar exit strategies.
Ryan Callahan, a native of Mills River, entered the hospitality industry after high school, spending five years at the Blue Ridge Tavern in Asheville Regional Airport before deciding to pursue a culinary career in earnest with a job in the kitchen of a local downtown establishment. It was a job and environment Callahan enjoyed up until the minute he was let go. “We started hearing things in early March , and then one day we came in and all but the salaried employees were furloughed,” he recalls.
In May, the restaurant resumed some operations, and he returned to work. But the situation was “a bizarre, intense and challenging environment,” he remembers. Soon thereafter, Callahan began thinking about making a change. Three months later, a friend at Sugar Hollow Solar set him up with an interview, and he was hired last August.
The company appealed to him in part, he says, because of his longtime passion for renewable energy. Being outside all the time is a plus, too, as is the regular 8 a.m.–4 p.m. schedule and weekends off. Because he came in with no experience in the field, he took a slight pay cut, but the positives and a chance for advancement outweigh that negative. “Right now, I’d rather be on a roof than in a restaurant,” Callahan says.
Taylor Aurillo, who at age 34 has spent half her life tending bar, says the poor behavior of many customers through the pandemic soured her on a profession she enjoyed. “For 17 years, I loved what I did,” she recalls. “I loved connecting with people, especially in Asheville where people come from all over the world. [Before the pandemic], there were always difficult people, but the money was good, and that made up for those few people.”
In March 2020, COVID-19 closed the restaurant where she had spent four years, first as a server, then as a bartender. She tried going back to work last summer, but severe anxiety over serving the public in the midst of a pandemic sent her home again and back on unemployment. In October, as tourist season was peaking, Aurillo returned to the floor as a server at a different restaurant, she says, where the rudeness and negativity customers directed at staff became untenable and the stress further impacted her physical and mental health. “There was nothing we could do right,” she says. “We were doing our absolute best under really tough conditions, and people complained and wrote crappy things on social media. What do they want from us?”
As a result, Aurillo jumped at an opportunity to manage rental properties for the restaurant’s owner. “I didn’t hesitate a second to say yes,” she says. “I’m looking forward to learning and doing something new and not having to smile at mean people. The people used to be what I loved about the job and now it’s what I can’t handle anymore.”
Sticking it out
Some industry workers have opted to stay in the business, but not without making professional and personal changes. Though back-of-house personnel don’t face the same public-facing challenges as hosts, managers, servers and bartenders, the positions are not exempt from grievances.
Nicole Wolfe, a native of New Orleans, has worked in the food and beverage sector for 25 years. Two years ago, she closed her successful custom cake-making business in Nashville to move to Asheville, drawn by the mountains and a lively food scene brimming with opportunity. She bounced around a couple of places baking then tried retail at a restaurant supply store; three weeks into that job, all employees were laid off due to COVID-19.
Wolfe then took another position making pastries and desserts for a large, assisted living facility, where she liked the reliable hours, good pay and full benefits. But when management added more duties without consulting her, she left. “That just didn’t sit with me, and they did not want to pay overtime, so I was done,” she explains. “I knew there were lots of jobs out there.”
Wolfe also found herself reexamining her priorities as she turned 45. “I have worked crazy, long hours my entire career and missed out on so many milestone moments,” she reflects. “I want to spend more time with family and friends, more time in the mountains I moved here for, even if it means making less money.”
She took a 20-hour-per-week job in a bakery that allows her to keep working in pastry. And she recently had the opportunity to apply for a management role with a local brewery that is expanding, but instead, opted to apply for a part-time bartending job. “I want to show up, pour beer, chitchat with people, clean up and go home,” Wolfe says.
Paul Cressend, a chef who arrived in Asheville in 2017 from Nashville, used the Year of Working Pandemically to reassess what he is willing to accept after 23 years in the industry. Even before his pre-COVID employer furloughed his staff in March 2020, Cressend was thinking about transitioning from restaurants to private chef gigs and catering.
He took a new restaurant cooking job in May 2020 with the understanding it would lead to a position as sous chef. But while the business experienced a chaotic year of repeatedly opening, closing, then reopening again, he remained a line cook until giving a one month notice in early spring.
Cressend says navigating COVID gave him more time to focus on what he really wants to do going forward. “I’ll be working with Carrasco’s Catering and will do some chef partnerships and popups on my own,” he says. “I don’t want to go back into a restaurant kitchen unless my name is on the menu or my food is on the menu consistently, and I won’t work for less than $20 an hour.”
Room for improvement
Given independent restaurants’ extremely thin profit margins and the challenges they face in offering full benefit packages, what can be done to improve the workplace for staff and attract people to the industry?
“I understand higher wages are not feasible for every restaurant,” Jenkins says. “But restaurants can do other things to make a more humane environment. Create a sick-day plan so people don’t feel forced to work sick. Offer a paid mental health day monthly. Family meals should be standard policy; no one should work hungry. When people leave, ask them what you could have done to retain them. Appeal to your staff’s humanity.”
Wolfe also believes restaurants need to offer paid time off or make a four-day workweek full time and eligible for some benefits. She also asserts that owners should enforce respectful treatment of their staff in the workplace. “One bad person in a management position can make life miserable for everyone,” she says. “This last year affirmed to me that I will not be taken advantage of anymore.”
Callahan points out that this January, the estimate from Just Economics for a living wage in Buncombe County jumped from $15.50 to $17.30 per hour. “I have friends still in the industry that work for restaurants that boast they are living wage certified, but they have not raised pay to that level,” he says. “There’s a double whammy of being understaffed, so you’re working harder and not getting paid what you should. Restaurants need to figure out how to pay the living wage.”
Aurillo agrees. “If we’re so essential, we should be paid more. People want to work, but right now they can afford to be picky, and they should be.”
Anderson of AIR offers some advice for restaurant workers. “I believe COVID changed the industry forever, and it is changing here in Asheville because of the incredible number of job opportunities. I say to workers, ‘Take the time to think about what you want to do, where you want to build your career and who you really want to work for, who you admire in the business, then go for it. The world is your oyster.’”