Coronavirus

Dallas Waiters, Managers and Baristas Share Why They’re Leaving the Food Service Biz

Service industry workers are calling it quits for good.
Service industry workers are calling it quits for good. illustration by João Fazenda
Erica Pipes had a sore throat. Normally, this wouldn’t bother her; she’s in a band, after all, and she worked as a bartender. When you have those kinds of gigs, you get used to germs and their consequences. But this was March 14, 2020, and all anyone was talking about was this strange virus that will shut life down for weeks at a time. Maybe even months. So Pipes operated with an abundance of caution: She texted her boss and said she was feeling a little under the weather but still good enough to go into work at Andy’s Bar in Denton later that day. Her boss told Pipes not to worry; they could manage without her, and she should take care of herself.

“So I gave up the shift,” Pipes says. “And that was my last one.”

Later that month, Pipes became one of the over two million bar, restaurant and coffee shop employees who lost their jobs at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. For her, it was the end of a 13-year period of tending bar.

“I absolutely love bartending,” she says over the phone in June. “I’m built for it. I’m made for it.”

But she’s not going back. Pipes is now part of a different group: people who are leaving the so-called service industry. She’s far from alone.

According to a report published in May by One Fair Wage and the UC Berkeley Food Labor Research Center, 53% of restaurant, bar and coffee shop employees have considered leaving their job since March 2020. Additional analysis by the Economic Policy Institute found there are an estimated 1.5 million eligible workers for every single job opening in the service industry. The jobs are there; people just don’t want them.

In a way, a labor shortage in the service industry is not breaking news.

“Staffing was already a problem before the pandemic,” says Troy Gardner, the executive chef at Dallas’ TLC Vegan Kitchen. Gardner is operating with 11 employees, but he needs 20. One of those employees is stealing cash from him, and Gardner has no plans to fire him.

“It’s one part empathy, two parts necessity,” the chef says. “Ironically, he’s one of my best employees, and I need him.”

But the chef knows there is something different about the labor shortage he and his fellow restaurateurs are enduring right now. The younger workforce on which this industry has historically relied now appears to have more options and less patience for toxicity. Gardner has been in this industry for over two decades, and he’s seen people get meaner, less patient and more critical.

“When you’re talking about employees in this industry, you’re talking about people who are, historically, in their 20s,” Gardner says. “And those people are just not willing to take the abuse anymore.”

click to enlarge Despite being "built" to tend bar, Erica Pipes left the industry for her and her family's health. - MIKE BROOKS
Despite being "built" to tend bar, Erica Pipes left the industry for her and her family's health.
Mike Brooks
That’s not why Pipes is done with this industry (more on that in a little bit) but it’s a big reason why Alex Hester, a former coffee shop manager, walked away.

“People act like service industry people are scum,” says Hester, who left her job at Merit Coffee in mid-May. “No one treated us like we were important, and we were being verbally abused several times a day just for asking people to wear a mask.”

Hester couldn’t take it anymore, and luckily enough, her boyfriend is able to support the couple.

Over the phone a few weeks after she quit, the former barista sounds calm and relaxed. It helps that she is dog-sitting, but she’s also just generally happier now that she has escaped what at times seemed like an endless onslaught of abuse. She has been reflecting on her time in the service industry, and she is empathetic to head chefs and managers like Gardner. Hester knows they have to keep the lights on, and they, too, are dealing with what appears to be an unendingly abusive customer base. But if companies and managers want to cut into this labor shortage, something’s gotta give.

“We just wish service industry workers were treated better and paid better,” Hester says. “That’s the moral of the story.”

“I Have to Tell You Something”

“Are you alone?”

Hester picked up her boss’ call during a shift at Houndstooth Coffee, and she knew that bad news was coming.

“Yeah, I’m alone,” she replied. “What’s up?"

“I have to lay off all the baristas.”

Thus ensued what Hester calls “one of the shittiest weeks of my life.”

“We were all on Zoom meetings, trying to figure out what’s going on, what we’re going to do, and if we even have jobs,” she says.

As it turns out, Hester did: She and one other manager set up shop in Houndstooth’s Walnut Hill location. This was late spring 2020 before Texas implemented any kind of mask mandate.

“All throughout the pandemic, I would ask people to put a mask on, then they would explicitly not tip us,” Hester recalls, noting that tips were most of her income. “One time, I asked a woman to ‘please put on a mask,’ and she looked at her friend and said, ‘I’ll be outside. Don’t tip them.’”

Hester hated the disrespect, but at the time, she thought Houndstooth was the problem. Maybe, she thought, another coffee shop would prove to be a better working environment. So she moved to Merit and worked at the coffee company’s Deep Ellum location, but her situation didn’t improve. If anything, it got worse.

“Deep Ellum was so fucking bad,” she says. “No one tipped at all, and the sheer amount of disrespect was baffling.”

Customers were often openly hostile when asked to wear a mask, Hester says, and sometimes she was blatantly ignored. Meanwhile, her boyfriend noticed the toll the job was taking.

“Even before the pandemic, when I would work on bar for a day, I would come home very exhausted, because I’m talking to people all day,” she says. “But during the pandemic, I was extremely depressed. Some days I would come home then stay in bed until my next shift. It would be like that for weeks, and it was really, really bad for my mental health. I couldn’t take care of myself because I was bummed out from my job.”

Then came her breaking point. In spring 2021, Hester was in the middle of another Merit shift. A man entered the shop, picked up a coffee, then walked out. A moment later, he returned: The coffee was apparently filled too close to the brim, and he had spilled it on himself while sipping. Clearly, Hester and her team were to blame.

“I just remember him screaming at us, and late that day, I texted my boss and said, ‘I need to be gone.’”

Hester will be the first to tell you that she is fortunate to be able to leave. Others, like Jake (not his name) aren’t so lucky.

click to enlarge Hostile encounters with customers over masks and spilled coffee took a toll on Alex Hester. - MIKE BROOKS
Hostile encounters with customers over masks and spilled coffee took a toll on Alex Hester.
Mike Brooks
Jake works at a popular upscale restaurant in North Dallas, and ever since the pandemic began, he says his bosses have been subtly discouraging him and his coworkers from wearing masks because of how it might look to the guests.

“I think about quitting pretty much every day,” he says. “Especially on those days when the customers refuse to look you in the eye, then leave you a tip of zero just because you wore a mask.”

When asked to clarify, Jake said a customer actually wrote “0.00” in the tip column. Next to this “tip” was a snide comment: “Nice mask!”

Jake and Hester’s experiences are anecdotal, but data reveal their experiences aren't uncommon.

A recent survey of more than 2,600 service industry employees discovered that 83% of tipped workers have experienced a decline in tips since the pandemic began. That same study found that over three-quarters of workers experienced or witnessed hostile behavior from customers in response to staff enforcing COVID-19 safety protocols, and more than 40% of workers reported a noticeable increase in the number of sexualized comments they receive on a regular basis. Examples of such comments include lines like, “Pull that mask down so I can see if I want to take you home later,” and “Take off your mask so I can stick my tongue down your throat.”

Over the phone in late June, Gardner didn’t share any stories quite that horrifying. However, he was clearly frustrated by the lack of compassion that, in his experience, has only worsened during the pandemic.

You might know the veteran chef from V-Eats, the vegan restaurant in Trinity Groves. While he is now fully focused on TLC Vegan Kitchen, Gardner often thinks about his time at V-Eats.

“I would have many days where we had a full patio, a full dining room, and we’re running it all short-staffed,” he says. “Then I go online later, and I see people have written horrible reviews about the customer service that day.”

Gardner comes across as an easygoing, preternaturally calm guy. But here his voice rises, and even though he is laughing it off, you can tell he cares deeply about the way his work is received.

“How does someone go into a restaurant and see there’s only two people working and not think, ‘Huh, I bet someone didn’t come in?'" he says. “It’s not that they wanted only two people working! Something happened!”

He doesn’t expect his staffing problems to be solved overnight. He knows the industry he chose is a grind that is no longer palatable to many people, especially younger folks. Is it too much to ask for a little understanding? Maybe.

According to June data from the consumer research firm Lisa W. Miller & Associates, 43% of diners are frustrated with restaurants not having enough staff. That figure is up from 21% in February, which could be attributed to the fact that — as Miller’s data show — over three-quarters of surveyed diners feel comfortable regularly eating inside a restaurant.

“I wish people could be empathetic to the plight of the service industry people actually wanting to make them happy,” he says. “If people can be observant and empathetic, that’s all I want to come out of all this.”

“It Was Inevitable”

Speaking of numbers, there’s one stat that mortified Ethan Metcalf. The cook has been in the service industry for nearly six years. He’s always known that restaurants operate on slim margins, and thus, the industry doesn’t offer the greatest perks or the best job security. But he’s never feared for his life at work, at least not until this year.

Metcalf recently read about the mortality rate for line cooks, which, during the pandemic, has been higher than the mortality rate for any profession — even healthcare workers. That’s just one reason why Metcalf has plans to leave his job as a cook and work as a teacher. He’s working towards his teaching certification.

“A part of me regrets that it had to go this way,” he says. “But for me, COVID became a catalyst for things I was already moving toward. I was becoming unhappy with the low pay and the lifestyle. I’ll definitely miss it, but it was inevitable.”

What will he miss the most? Certainly, the freedom to swear freely, which probably won’t fly in a classroom. More important, he’ll miss the kitchen.

“As much as it has issues, the kitchen is definitely a special place to be,” he says. “Sometimes it's hard to explain, but it’s something everyone who has been in that job or situation understands. It’s satisfying to get through a shift, and you build a strong camaraderie with other people. But part of that is being in a shared negative experience with other people, and shared negative experiences create bonds.”

With the freedom afforded by furloughs and layoffs, many workers have found other passions or simply realized the low pay isn’t worth it anymore.

Justin Mostaffa, an experienced service industry professional managing a pizza place in San Antonio, saw this new strand of the labor shortage coming and acted accordingly. He focused his hiring efforts on employees aged 16-20, and because of that, he got close to full staff.

“However, now that I’m staffing 18- to 24-year-olds again, I’m not even getting interviews,” he says.

For him, kids going off to college are as much of a drain on staffing as anything else. Like other managers or owners interviewed for this story, he’s not relying on the state or federal government to raise wages or provide additional relief for small businesses; he has to get creative to keep the lights on, let alone retain people.

“Because I went delivery and pickup only, I wasn’t able to take advantage of all of the loans and grants available to larger corporations,” Gardner explains. Ironically, one of the reasons he opted for the pickup model was to keep his employees safe, healthy and sane.

“When you have chef-owned businesses or larger entities, the larger entity will be able to take advantage of those loans and grants, but the chef-owned business will be left in the cold.”

Like Gardner, Valéry Jean-Bart of Val’s Cheesecakes has struggled to maintain a full staff. In fact, Jean-Bart was recently forced to temporarily close his location on Maple Avenue. His cheesecake business has been booming (his team had its biggest-selling month in July 2020) but he just didn’t have the staff to man Maple.

“We’re trying to find people who know people,” Jean-Bart says. And he also needs people who are reliable.

“There’s been a lot of frustration, and [the pandemic] has exposed people to what they can change in their lives. It’s also exposed people who were not doing a good job and needed to move out of the industry. So, yeah, there are days when it's frustrating, because you’re put on the schedule, and you’re not doing your job. But I talk to myself, and I ask the question, ‘What are you gonna do?’ Are you gonna be frustrated ... or are you gonna find solutions?’ Because I am married to Val's Cheesecakes. Through sickness and health, I am married to it.”

click to enlarge Valéry Jean-Bart of Val’s Cheesecakes has struggled to maintain a full staff. - MIKE BROOKS
Valéry Jean-Bart of Val’s Cheesecakes has struggled to maintain a full staff.
Mike Brooks
Being married to your business also means taking care of your employees. Over the last year-and-a-half, that’s what Jean-Bart has tried to do. He’s cut down on specials so shifts are a bit less complicated. He’s fine-tuned the hours of operation, opening a bit later to ease the burden on his people. And he’s had more one-on-ones than ever, trying to gauge how his employees are doing, how they’re feeling, what they’re going through.

“People think you’re just paying employees, but there’s a lot that goes into that,” he says. “It's a relationship, and you gotta work at it every day.”

Those tactics are part of Jean-Bart’s efforts to keep the people he still has. They’re also his way of honoring his late mother, who was the inspiration behind this whole wild cheesecake dream.

His mom, Marie, got her start baking cheesecakes in New York. After she was diagnosed with stage four breast cancer in 2008, her passion became a refuge. Each Sunday brought new cheesecake flavors for her boy Val to try. After Marie’s death, Jean-Bart opened the first Val’s Cheesecakes store, sharing his own flavors with anyone who walked through the front door.

“When I look at that building, when I look at the flowers, I see my mom,” he says. “That’s why I need [the Maple location] to reopen. It has to reopen.”

Erica Pipes is also driven by her fierce, unyielding love for a parent. For her, it’s her dad: a Navy man, a Vietnam veteran and the strongest guy she knows.

Roughly five months after she was laid off from Andy’s Bar, her dad had a stroke. He lay on the floor of his home for six hours before mustering every fiber of strength to make it to his phone and call 9-1-1. Like losing her job, this was yet another catalyst for Pipes to, as she puts it, “get my shit together.”

“I became his second power of attorney, which was a wake-up call to start taking those baby steps to better myself,” she says.

She started walking five to 10 miles every day, and she started following a workout program assembled by her buddy, a bartender from Deep Ellum. With walking came a clearer headspace and a more fluid pen. Pipes composed poetry, music and lyrics at a clip far outpacing any previous output. Armed with that clearer mind, she decided to step away from bartending.

At first, she was nervous about contracting the virus and giving it to her dad, who was at that point in a care facility. But eventually, she realized she just wanted more out of her job: more benefits (like insurance) and more flexibility (like something remote).

“I loved bartending,” she said, “I loved it with everything I have. But if I had still been bartending, I wouldn't have had the time to make as much music as I have, or see my dad as much as I have.”

When interviewed for this story, Pipes had just recently overcome some serious medical issues of her own (making that coveted insurance all the more valuable). In spite of a looming threat of medical bills, she was happy. Her band Temptress had some studio time booked and some shows coming up, and Pipes had just spent Father’s Day weekend hanging out with her dad and sister. In a week, she and her partner (“an amazing woman”) would celebrate their six-month anniversary.

“This,” Pipes says, “is the happiest I’ve ever been.”
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Tyler Hicks was born in Austin, but he grew up in Dallas. He typically claims one or the other, depending on which is most convenient. His work has appeared in Texas Monthly, Truthout, The Texas Observer and many other publications.
Contact: Tyler Hicks