While the plight of restaurants in general has made headlines during this pandemic, the experiences of wait staff at those restaurants has not been made public.
But a front-of-house veteran at area restaurants, Jake Richards of Loloan Lobby Bar in Waterloo, says he’s rarely seen such widespread work interruptions with wait staff laid off or with their hours cut significantly.
“At some bigger venues, salaried employees will take over and run the dining room and do the take out. Some people are out of a job for a while,” Richards says. “We don’t know for how long because this pandemic situation is open ended.”
Whether salaried or minimum wage earners relying on tips, wait staff are stretched trying to give their customers the dining experience they expect: extra steps are required to sanitize and explain screening, safety and personal protective equipment — and making sure customers understand when they can take their mask off and why.
It’s more work to be done by fewer people, according to James Hannigan at Korner Kitchen in Waterloo.
“We can still serve guests as we were before COVID-19, but there are more steps. The changes have been mostly in the front of house and being able to manage the flow of walk-in guests and having them understand our house policies and requirements,” Hannigan says.
He says the back and forth process adds five minutes and more to flipping tables between guests: from the moment they enter the front door and host-stand to going on the wait list, heading back to their vehicles to wait, then coming back into the restaurant, re-sanitizing, re-screening and seating.
“From the condiments and the surfaces on the benches and booths, the chairs and their arms, literally everything that has the potential to have been touched within that six-foot radius is sanitized,” says Hannigan.
Wait staff key to orchestrating process
The work load might be more taxing in smaller venues with only one or two wait staff: monitoring the door at the same time you are sanitizing (and locking and unlocking it if the dining room is at capacity or not), all while assisting customers with minimal contact, answering phone inquiries and questions at the door, and seeing to take-out orders, delivery and pickup.
Wait staff are key in orchestrating and timing the dining process at both family-style and upscale-casual venues. Loloan has been reluctant to put guests on a “time limit” in their smaller dining room to turn tables in order to seat more guests (and therefore generate more revenue); rather, the menu has been re-vamped.
“We have a bit more control timing-wise and how quickly dishes can come out of the kitchen and how quickly guests eat them,” says Richards.
Despite a tough year, Richards still has fun on social media:
If I have to wear this getup for my job, you can wear a mask walking to your table. <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/serverlife?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#serverlife</a> <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/COVID19?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#COVID19</a> <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/restaurantlife?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#restaurantlife</a> <a href=”https://t.co/wYdtmdzjTb”>pic.twitter.com/wYdtmdzjTb</a>
Regardless, both finer dining venues and family-style restaurants have been forced to trim personnel.
Before the pandemic, Korner Kitchen was an extremely busy breakfast and lunch venue. Since March, they have had to lay off “quite a few staff,” Hannigan says.
Though a smaller staff, Loloan part-time employees have lost work and, according to Richards, some full-time employees have seen their hours reduced by 10 to 12 hours a week because of the restaurant’s reduced hours of opening.
What can diners do?
Restaurants in the region have looked at ways to help their frontline staff financially. Hanningan says Korner Kitchen has put into place strategies to help balance wages fairly to at least resemble something like pre-COVID. Richards says he’s been compensated financially.
“It’s not too bad that way,” he says. “The bills are still getting paid.”
What can diners do in these circumstances that can help these frontline employees?
Dine-in at restaurants as you feel comfortable and as you are able (and while that is still allowed). It’s important to tip well, too — including for take out and pickup, and especially now as the holidays approach.
But also respect what restaurant wait staff are required to do with the restrictions.
“Generally, everyone has been great,” Richards says. “We’ve had a table that didn’t want to follow the protocols. When we asked them to please comply and they wouldn’t, we had to ask them to leave. They then lambasted us on social media.”
Hannigan adds that incidents of non-compliance are in the one-percent range, he says.
“The non-mask, whether it’s medical or a personal view, is tough to manage. It’s something that not everybody understands, but they are few and far between,” he said. “We try to explain why it’s important to the rest of the guests and the community.”