In March 2020, Jillian Tuttle lost her job as the manager of a New York City cocktail lounge. “I felt absolutely useless,” she says. She was far from alone. Between February and November last year, the hospitality industry lost 2.1 million restaurant jobs. The bartender who poured you a free shot, the wine expert who guided you to an undiscovered bottle, and the barista who made your favorite cortado faced an uncertain future.
“Unfortunately, a lot of who we are is defined by what we do,” says Tuttle. “It was difficult for me to find my worth outside of my career at first.” But after a few months of unemployment, she began to focus on a beloved pastime: antiquing. She started taking antiquing trips to upstate New York, and with the encouragement of a friend, she slowly began sharing her love of vintage glassware on her personal Instagram. In September, she took her hobby a step further, starting the Instagram account @cute.sips to resell the glassware she finds on these expeditions.
“I was just finding so many cuties and could not keep them all, so this is a way for me to share them with others while also finding satisfaction for myself with being able to purchase them in the first place.” Tuttle says. The account now has more than 1,000 followers, and while initially she sold mostly to her established community of hospitality friends interested in specialty drinking, more recently she’s reached a broader audience and has started to earn some supplemental income. Lately, she dedicates all of her time to finding the perfect vessels to sip from. “Anytime I go somewhere, all I see is glassware,” Tuttle says. “You could put naked men in front of me and I would not see them. I would just beeline to a set of tall-stem cordials.”
The restaurant workers laid off or furloughed due to the pandemic generally had three options: Take another service industry job at the risk of getting COVID, wait out the pandemic and live off of stimulus checks and unemployment, or seek out another form of income entirely. For some service industry workers, Instagram has provided a resourceful solution to that third path. Out-of-work cooks used the platform for pop-up cooking projects and bakeries. But the former front-of-house hospitality workers behind accounts like @cute.sips, @doubles_tennis, @paint.and.nip, and @softvelvetboy have set up shop on the social media platform, leveraging its built-in audience to make money during the pandemic and focus on personal interests outside of restaurant work. Some have even turned selling items on Instagram into a full-time job.
Like Tuttle, former server Madison Santos finally has the time to explore his passion for selling antiques and other “curiosities,” as he puts it in his Instagram bio. Pre-pandemic, he was working at a New York City coffee shop full time and selling his furniture collection on Craigslist during his free time. When he was laid off from his coffee shop job in the spring of 2020, he was actually relieved. “It’s impossible to do this part time,” Santos says. “To do it right you sort of always have to be available. Things pop up that you have to go scoop, orders come in and you jump to move them.”
Santos now has time to operate his carnivalesque “digital roadshow” full time, selling unique home goods to his followers. Creating an Instagram for his operation, @doubles_tennis, made it easier. “I’ve always been a huge collector but had never been an Instagram person,” he says. “Instagram seemed like a good way to keep a catalog for myself and friends of stuff I found, but then it sort of took on a massive life of its own.”
Compared with his normal 40-hour work week, Santos now works 60 hours or more on a three-day rotation of sourcing, researching, photographing, fixing, and picking up deliveries. “Since the pandemic began I’ve put all my effort into it and only become more addicted to the thrill of picking,” he says.
Their Instagram shops allow Tuttle and Santos to curate the kinds of products that are increasingly sought after as people spend more time at home. “I think before the pandemic people were in spaces that made them feel like their own royalty — the bars, clubs, restaurants, movie theaters, museums that they liked, but people are deciding to turn their homes into their own private castles when they have nowhere to go,” Santos says.
Tuttle has noticed that people drinking at home have started to pay more attention to what they’re drinking from. “[Glassware] can change your experience,” she says. “I feel like people didn’t put that kind of energy into it before.”
In 2020, Americans spent an average of 82 minutes a day on social media. And with calls to support small businesses after COVID-19’s deeply negative impact on the economy, Instagram has been at the forefront of online shopping. While catering to the increased numbers of people shopping online may seem like a far cry from their old hospitality jobs, Tuttle and Santos are still able to draw on their restaurant experience, namely their people skills, in their new roles. “At the end of the day this is a service: making things look nice, communicating well, offering as much information as I can, being friendly,” Santos says. “Much like when I’ve worked in coffee shops and restaurants, I want people to feel welcome, non-judged, and also receive adequate and timely service.”
Tuttle compares talking to customers via DMs to running the cocktail lounge. “With the cocktail lounge being so small, I’m talking to every single person that’s in there throughout the night. That’s why I stuck to Instagram for selling, because whether it’s me putting up stories, asking questions, putting up polls, they have to DM me to secure the product and then we have a conversation, and a dialogue starts there,” she says. More than just offering a small source of financial relief in a time of economic uncertainty, Instagram has provided a way for former service industry workers to stay connected to the sense of community they lost in the pandemic.
Sommelier Amanda Geller wanted to do something completely different after being laid off from her restaurant job. In March 2020, she started a painting project and turned to her restaurant community right away. “I was chatting with all my industry friends in a group chat and I was kind of joking that I wouldn’t have anything to do, so I asked them to send me their nudes as a joke,” Geller says. “But of course, they’re all industry people, so they were like, ‘Yeah, totally’ and sent me all their nudes.”
With a collection of naked photos of her friends and eight hours a day to dedicate to painting, Geller launched her “quaranudes” project with the account @paint.and.nip to show off her painted interpretations of their bodies. “Most of my first project participants were coworkers and industry folk,” she says. “I started this project on my personal Instagram and it grew very naturally via shares from friends and friends of friends.”
She originally started the account as a creative journal, with the intention of donating half of the money she earned to COVID relief organizations. However, Geller transitioned it into a business after requests for her work started flooding in last summer. These days, she has moved past painting nude portraits of her friends to a wider customer base and hopes to eventually host in-person wine and painting classes to create a hybrid of her two passions.
Community was also a big help to Seattle-based barista Felix Trần. After he was laid off, Trần hoped to get his freelance design and illustration work off the ground with his Instagram account @softvelvetboy. He started posting his illustration on his profile, where the coffee brands and potential customers he had connected with could see it. He also designed prints and stickers to sell. “Instagram is now a marketing platform,” Trần says, “and it’s a great way to interact with your community safely during a pandemic.” His strategy worked: He was hired as the in-house graphic designer and social media manager for a large Seattle coffee brand.
Months into 2021, there’s finally a hint of light at the end of the pandemic tunnel. States are lifting restrictions and rolling out vaccines, and restaurants are reopening dining rooms and calling for furloughed or laid-off workers to return to work. But unlike Trần, many former hospitality workers who have built up their Instagram shops aren’t jumping at the prospect of returning to the industry.
Geller sees a future in combining her wine and painting expertise. Santos plans to keep collecting as long as he can and eventually hopes to open his own brick-and-mortar furniture shop.
“I’ve learned that I have worth outside of working for someone else,” says Tuttle, who is also in no hurry to go back to the service industry. “This [Instagram shop] has made me feel like I can actually create something of my own and have more control over what I will be doing for the rest of my life.”
“The hospitality industry is just not the same, and I’m still figuring out what I want to do,” she adds. “Truly wanting to make people happy — that brought me joy, but it’s more difficult and there’s more obstacles in your way now.” When asked whether her online glassware shop is her dream job, she replied, “Maybe. But also, glassware doesn’t talk, which is really difficult for me. I think combining the two is where I’m going to hit the sweet spot.” In the meantime, she’ll keep selling cordials, flutes, and tumblers on Instagram. “It’s still the same joy I get to bring to people, but in a different way.”
Jack Riewe is a designer and writer based in Seattle, covering culture, food, fashion, and design.