No Backup, Rude Customers — Restaurant Workers Face Pandemic Burnout

Jan 25, 2022 at 7:23 am
Naomi Roquet says there is a simple way for customers to make the lives of bartenders and servers better: Be kind. - ANDY PAULISSEN
Naomi Roquet says there is a simple way for customers to make the lives of bartenders and servers better: Be kind.

Six days a week, Naomi Roquet gets up, drinks a cup of coffee, smokes a cigarette and leaves for work at local pub Scottish Arms. But some days, she doesn't want to. Some days, the weight of dealing with harassment from customers who fight tooth and nail against wearing a mask, and the seemingly endless slog of COVID-19's impacts on her work, from staffing to supplies, is just a little too much to bear. But she carries on, greets her regulars and works her shift.

She gets one day fully to herself to reset and relax with her fiancé, who is also in the food industry. The day is mainly spent doing nothing in hopes of finding some peace.

It's a new reality for her and many other hourly hospitality employees who are involved in the production of the meal or drink that appears before you. From hostesses to cooks, from bartenders to servers, managers and owners, every aspect of your order comes down to a person helping along the way. This part of the food and beverage industry is not new. What is new is the way the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted every aspect of their working lives. As one of the hardest-hit victims of the ongoing public health crisis, the daily reality in the food and beverage industry of taking care of guests prevents them from simply being "over it," even when the rest of the world is so eager to move on.

From the outset, owners have been vocal about the challenges brought on by the pandemic, such as staff shortages, inflated product costs, empty dining rooms and the difficulties that come with navigating ever-shifting rules and regulations. It has not been easy; some were simply unable to go on after the virus caused them close their doors, casualties of a situation beyond their control.

But what about the people who work for them?

Hourly employees have experienced firsthand the impact of shortages, both in terms of staffing and from the supply chain, which conspire to create a less than optimal guest experience they must negotiate. For the past two years, hourly employees have been the first line of defense against upset customers, and it has only gotten worse as the pandemic has raged on much longer than anyone would have imagined. Stressed themselves about the seemingly never-ending crisis, customers have eschewed their "we're all in this together" mantra of the pandemic's early days in favor of relentless complaints that include frustrations with mask requirements, long wait times and product outages.

For some employees, it's not only ruining their day; it's ruining their desire to continue working in the industry altogether.

Roquet recounts a guest not understanding why she could not reserve space for twenty people; when she explained there was simply not enough staff, the woman said that it seemed to be the excuse everywhere and added that it was ridiculous there wasn't proper staffing.

"And I'm like, 'No, I completely understand why people have left the industry,'" Roquet says. "You know, because we want to be able to give every guest the best service, the best experience possible, but we are limited in what we can do. And when they start treating us like we're their help or they're above us just because we're serving them, it's degrading and it's frustrating."

Roquet has been in the industry for twelve years and currently runs the cocktail program at Scottish Arms, where she began as a hostess and now works as a bartender. A majority of the time, her customers are respectful. Her regulars? Amazing, even when they don't agree on masking but work to find common ground with her and mask up for the time they're in the pub. But sometimes, Roquet says, customers can get really rude.

Roquet details having a decent percentage of patrons battle her on the pub's mask policy, where they will make excuses, roll their eyes or say rude things to her. Some harass her coworkers, but she says she doesn't put up with that at all. Some days, she says she just wants to pretend she doesn't see patrons breaking their policies, because it's tiring. The strain of working additional hours, making sure people follow mask policies and complying with enhanced cleaning measures to keep the pub as safe as possible have added up for Roquet, leaving her mentally exhausted.

"Even though it's a small percentage, [it] outweighs the others," Roquet says. "A lot of times, it ruins your night. You know, we've been in the forefront, along with everyone in the hospitals and retail, like we've been risking our health and our lives to make sure that people can still enjoy themselves, but yet we're not being able to enjoy ourselves at the same time."

Alex Salkowski, a meat cutter at BEAST Butcher and Block, has had similar experiences. He has bounced between a few jobs during the pandemic, and he says BEAST has been great because the shop allows him a better work-life balance, with nice regulars and great coworkers. But at the beginning of the pandemic, before he stepped foot in BEAST, Salkowski was sometimes filled with doubt that he wanted to remain in the food industry.

"It was just always work, always stress, always not being able to do anything," Salkowski explains. "And for a time I was thinking about just getting out of the industry and trying to do something completely different. And the thought of that terrified me because I've been in the industry for so long. I don't necessarily have skills to do other things or go anywhere else."

Since he's landed at BEAST, Salkowski has tried to learn everything he can from the butcher shop. He's picked up skills such as crafting charcuterie and breaking down an animal, hoping to relight a fire and find a passion through his work.

But within the shop, there are more battles than the internal one Salkowski faces. Just like every other industry, they've been impacted by staffing shortages, he says. He's had a few disruptive customers, but overall, he's had a positive experience working at BEAST. The hard part, for him and other businesses, is the lack of help.

Alex Salkowski says he considered quitting the food industry before finding a better situation at BEAST Butcher and Block. - ANDY PAULISSEN
Alex Salkowski says he considered quitting the food industry before finding a better situation at BEAST Butcher and Block.

"You may have to cover somebody when you thought you were going to have some time off," Salkowski says. "And just trying to find people, you know, we [don't have] many people come in for job interviews, or if we do, they come in and maybe they don't come back because maybe they found another job somewhere else. It's really hard to even get somebody in the door because there's so many job opportunities everywhere and everybody's hurting as well."

A change of operating hours led one woman at Scottish Arms to leave an already short staff due to conflicts with childcare. While some are returning to the workforce, like Salkowski says, it's hard to retain people when they're hired on.

These staffing shortages may have an impact on the guest experience, but they are felt harder by restaurant workers. Roquet is one of three people who can bartend, but two of those are also servers who are needed on the floor. The shortage leads to it being near impossible for those on staff to get a day off or cover shifts when they get sick — Roquet says it's usually a scramble to find the reinforcements needed on those days.

As far as why there's a lack of help, Roquet points to the fact that sometimes, the food industry isn't the most stable or financially sound. But her coworkers and regulars have been her saving grace throughout the struggles.

Wil Pelly, owner of Rockstar Tacos, recognizes the struggle of staffing in not just his industry, but in every industry. In order to keep his staff happy and healthy, as well as make sure they are fairly compensated for how much work they're doing, he took himself off the payroll in order to give everyone a raise.

"Staffing is a bitch," Pelly says. "And so making sure everybody's compensated for what they do is the reason I did that. It also felt like the right thing to do to take care of my people. Because it is hard, especially right now. And then with this, I don't want to say that there's bad stuff coming, but I have a feeling there's some bad stuff coming, you know, that I'm sure that there's gonna be some new mandate coming down the pipe. So it's a scary time, man."

But it's not just up to owners to keep staff happy. Salkowski, Pelly and Roquet all say the same thing: Customers being kind makes a world of difference, and patience and kindness are their biggest pleas.

"If you're going to go to a restaurant not knowing their policies and stuff, just be respectful; that's all we ask for," Roquet says. "We're not trying to convince you that you're wrong or get into arguments. We all want to try and enjoy ourselves as much as possible. If you go to a place and they require a mask, just follow it. We're not going to judge them for what they believe. All we're asking for is just to be treated like human beings, you know?" 

Follow Jenna on Twitter at @writesjenna. Email the author at [email protected]
  • Sign up for our weekly newsletters to get the latest on the news, things to do and places to eat delivered right to your inbox.
  • Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.