I graduated from college in the spring of 2008. If you’ll recall, that fall wasn’t a great time to enter the job market, and the advice I got from anyone who had an opinion (which was everyone) was to “go wait tables.” It was a catchall phrase for the kind of work that was assumed to be available whenever the chips were down — the guidance given to every high schooler looking for extra money, every college grad who doesn’t have a job lined up, every aspiring actor in LA. And even at that time, when the unemployment rate was somewhere around 10 percent, it was available: I got a job as a hostess and server at a local restaurant, but I also had an offer from Starbucks, and an invitation to return to work at a bakery I’d worked at the previous summer.
Once again, we’re facing a recession, or, according to some experts, a full-on depression. Unemployment websites crashed as millions have applied for benefits in the past weeks, and food banks can’t keep up with demand — one-third of those going to them for food have never needed aid before. The coronavirus pandemic has revealed basically every fault line in our society, from the inadequacy of the social safety net to the incompetence of many of our leaders. And it is now revealing some long-held assumptions about work in the food-service industry. Being a server, a bartender, or a dishwasher, or doing other restaurant work, is often spoken of as a job that is always — and implicitly, only — viable when there are no other options. That if anyone had a real choice, they would choose something else. But because restaurants and bars aren’t hiring, food is no longer the fallback job. It never should have been thought of in that way in the first place.
The restaurant industry has long been the province of outcasts, but over the last two decades, owning a restaurant, becoming a celebrity(ish) chef, and, to a certain extent, being a fancy mixologist have come to be considered actual careers. These are the kinds of jobs that can land you a steady paycheck and the status of “small-business owner,” or even book deals and TV appearances. But when you’re not the owner or the creative force behind the food, food service — from hustling shifts as a server to manning the cash register at McDonald’s — is still generally talked about as a temporary detour, a place to lay low while you get your shit together. In pop culture, it’s an after-school job for teens, even though only about 30 percent of fast-food workers are teenagers. The mainstream image is still a job you leave, not one you keep.
“It’s an industry many fall back on time and time again,” writes Frances Bridges for Forbes. In 2011, Brokelyn told recent college grads that they likely “will consider waiting tables as a fallback to your day-job dreams,” the assumption being that everyone dreams of a day job. In 2016, Forbes called being a host or bartender one of the best jobs to have “while you are figuring out what to do with your life,” as it provides both a steady paycheck and, due to high turnover, restaurants and bars are “almost always hiring.” The assumption by economists and career experts was that no matter what, people need to eat, and they would want to eat out — so restaurant work would always be around.
Now, for the first time, it’s not. Nearly every state has issued orders for restaurants to close dine-in options or severely reduce capacity, forcing restaurants to lay off or furlough workers — or shutter entirely. About 10 million people filed for unemployment in the past few weeks, a number that’s expected to keep rising by the millions. And that number doesn’t account for gig-economy workers — like Instacart couriers or Uber Eats drivers — who, as contractors, wouldn’t qualify for UI. The food-service industry was hit particularly hard. According to the Department of Labor, restaurant and bar jobs accounted for 60 percent of the jobs lost in March. It’s clear that serving food and making drinks is not the revolving door it has been made out to be.
Jennifer Cathey, a former line cook at Glory World Gyro in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, says the restaurant has tried to stay open for takeout and delivery services, but there’s almost no business, and she was often “alone in a kitchen for hours at a time.” After a week, she volunteered to be laid off, as she lives with her mother and doesn’t need the money for rent. “If work was going to be so slow, it didn’t feel right to take any of the meager hours given to employees for any of my other coworkers,” she told Eater.
Cathey, who started working in her mother’s restaurant as a teenager, says she wanted to sacrifice her shifts for her coworkers because the food industry has always felt like home for her. “It is my favorite kind of work, I’ve loved all the places I’ve worked,” she says. Mostly it’s because she gets the immediate gratification of making something for someone else to consume and enjoy. But it’s also because, as a trans woman, the restaurant industry is a place she can rely on to be welcoming. “Especially living here in Alabama, all the people I’ve met through the restaurant and bar industries have been the most accepting of anyone,” she says. “I might not get anyone from my hometown to call me by my name, but the food-service community is tight-knit and open and welcome to all sorts of people... I have that fear that other industries wouldn’t be as welcoming.”
Unfortunately, it is also because food service has been a space for those who don’t fit into other parts of society that it has been considered a job for those who just need a job. Food service doesn’t require a college degree (or even a high school diploma), and it’s traditionally more welcoming to those with criminal backgrounds, to immigrants, to queer people, and to those with little other work experience. In Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain referred to line cooks as a “dysfunctional, mercenary lot” and “fringe dwellers.” Not the most generous reading, but one that speaks to the reality: that in most people’s opinion, any office job is preferable to a career in the restaurant industry.
Which is not to say it’s not worthy work. If this pandemic has proven anything, it’s how essential those working in the food industry are. Instead, these assumptions come from a cycle of low pay and bad benefits that devalue both the job itself and the people doing it. “It’s set up to be temporary,” says Lauren* (who asked to remain anonymous), who was recently laid off from her bartending job at Dock Street Brewery in Philadelphia. “There are minimal benefits, pay increases, or opportunities for moving up in a company. And then this happens, and it makes it even more apparent how the industry is set up to be temporary, even though the people working in it don’t see it that way.”
A “reasonable” person, says the strawman I’ve invented but also probably plenty of people you’ve actually met, wouldn’t choose to make a career out of a job that relies on tips, that doesn’t provide health insurance, and where one risks such injury. Thus, the people who choose this career must not be “reasonable,” and if that’s true, then why support such unreasonable people? And on and on.
If it were true that food service is only a paycheck for those who are waiting for their “real” career to appear, then presumably no one would care one way or another about the job itself. But multiple people I talked to spoke of the restaurant industry — waiting tables, working the line, making lattes — as their dream job. “I literally emailed Pizzana for two years until they gave me a shot,” says Will Weissman, who was recently laid off from the West Hollywood pizza restaurant. He loved the restaurant’s food from the first time he tasted it, and hoped when they opened a second location, they’d take a chance on him, even though he had no previous experience. “I had always been food obsessed. I know a lot about wine, I’m a good cook, and I just wanted to finally do something in the food industry.”
Samantha Ortiz, a chef at Kingsbridge Social Club in the Bronx, says she was instantly drawn to the hospitality industry when she started work as a barista. “I felt so fulfilled to be able to make something for someone, even if it was as simple as a latte,” she says. Now, her restaurant is closed and her unemployment will run out in 90 days, but she has no plans to switch industries. “I doubt that I would ever look for a job in a different field,” she says. “The kitchen is home.”
When my serving job ended (the restaurant shut down), I was slightly relieved. I was a terrible server, and I knew I had other options. But many of my coworkers expressed deeper laments. They liked the strong arms they got from carrying trays of food, and they enjoyed recommending a dish and hearing their customer loved it. They liked that each night was different and experimenting with making new drinks. Hearing from them, I understood that the restaurant’s closure was a loss.
It’s not quite true that there are no food-service jobs available right now. Instead of the serving jobs that college grads are urged to consider, there’s a new form of food work that’s thriving during this recession: the gig worker. Grocery stores and apps like Instacart are hiring deliverers and baggers by the thousands. It’s mostly temporary work, and puts workers at higher risk for contagion, but it’s there. In a vacuum, there’s a lot to love about a job as a gig-economy deliverer. Setting one’s own schedule, picking up shifts when it’s convenient, providing a necessary service to people who can’t travel or carry their own groceries — that’s a good job. What’s not good is the pay, the exploitation, the hundred ways these corporations leech off their workers and make it impossible to make a living wage. But that doesn’t have to be the case.
We as a society have set these jobs up to be temporary, so when someone wants to make their job permanent, we think it is a failure on their part, rather than a failure on ours. There is no such thing as a “bad” job, only bad conditions. Food-service work doesn’t have to be low paid. It doesn’t have to rely on tips, or come without health care or paid sick leave. In the face of the pandemic, we’re seeing how that is the case, as grocery stores and delivery services are pressured into providing better benefits and pay to these essential workers. But it’s time we stop considering these jobs, any jobs, as backup, and time to start providing dignity to all workers.
“It’s hard seeing people that I really care about, that I work with, be treated as disposable,” says Lauren. “I definitely go back and forth every day being like, ‘Is this even worth it, or am I just pouring all of my energy into continuing to be treated really poorly?’ I don’t know.”