On a Friday night last month, some friends and I walked into La Chinesca, a new bar and restaurant on Spring Garden Street in Philly, and were greeted by three smiling hosts at the host stand. We were heading to the indoor/outdoor bar, about 20 feet away, and all three hosts eagerly asked if they could help us find our way there. Compared to how short-staffed and overworked most restaurants have been lately, the attention initially felt out of place. But things like that kept happening, leading me to think, Is it just me, or does it feel like there are a lot more hosts working doors in Philly than there used to be?
“It’s a new property and it’s very big — that place requires a few extra hands at the host stand,” Michael Pasquarello, co-owner of La Chinesca, says. The restaurant is only a few months old, after all; there may be kinks to work out and managers want to make sure service is running smoothly. However, Pasquarello accepts that the hosting role has changed this year. At one of Pasquarello’s other restaurants, Prohibition Taproom, he has had to hire an additional member at the host stand on the weekends just to check diners’ proof of vaccination.
“Our staff are essentially frontline workers. The hospitality worker is in harm’s way,” Pasquarello says. Prohibition Taproom is a few blocks down from a big music venue in Philly. To safeguard against big groups wandering in without following the restaurant’s proof of vaccination restrictions, the extra host is a necessary barrier to entry. “They’re very diligent about it. My staff takes it every seriously.”
While the fuller host stands I’ve seen have been in Philly — and keeping in mind that there are other restaurants where there is clearly a burden falling heavily on only one host — the numbers bear out the fact that the current demand for hosts is also high at a national level.
Alice Cheng, founder and CEO of Culinary Agents, an online job platform for hospitality workers, says the company’s data shows plenty of open host roles nationwide — but not enough applicants. Comparing the periods of March to November 2020 and March to November 2021, Cheng says there are seven times as many host positions this year than last. That first period covers some of the earliest and most severe pandemic shutdowns, and Cheng speculates that restaurants have been staffing up again, now that food businesses in many cities are back in full swing. With changing regulations, openings and then shutdowns, and angry guests to contend with, restaurants have become even more all-hands-on-deck, everybody-wears-several-hats enterprises, and Cheng suspects hiring a lot of hosts could be a way to get entry-level applicants in the door in order to quickly train them for lateral or higher roles. “We see some businesses looking at ways to train across skills,” Cheng says. The host could become a potential busser or potential server or manager. “In colder cities, you have hosts that double as a coat check.”
And while it might seem to me that there are so many hosts at the door these days, Culinary Agents data shows that applications for host jobs have declined 40 percent compared to 2019. Cheng speculates that “the increase [in job postings makes up] for the fact that they didn’t have hosts for a while,” noting that many restaurants did away with the role during various pivots. At restaurants and bars that rely on walk-in service and foot traffic, Cheng also theorizes that the staffing up is related to needing more muscle at the entrance to the restaurant. “There is an increase of responsibility and potential stress for these particular positions,” Cheng says, and the sheer volume of host jobs available could be acting as a bulwark for restaurant workers who take a host job, then quickly learn how stressful it can be. Turnover is already high in the restaurant industry — and with these additional coronavirus-related challenges, employees are being even more selective about where they want to work. The decline in applicants for the host stand, Cheng says, could also be related to the job’s high stresses. “The applications are probably lower because of potential extreme exposure and having to police vaccine cards in certain cities.”
Abbie Phillips has been a host for five years at the Good King Tavern and Le Caveau, a French restaurant and wine bar in Philly, where owner Chloé Grigri has required proof of vaccination from her guests for months. Since the pandemic began, Phillips says she’s had much more face time with guests. “Pre-pandemic, guests arrived and they wanted to sit wherever and get seated really quickly,” Phillips says. “Now, it’s more of a conversation.” Phillips has been the Good King’s only host for many years, with owner Grigri, general manager Patrick Bruning, and an array of family and friends lending a hand on busier nights. “I’ve wanted to clone myself a thousand times,” Phillips says of the host job. Luckily, just last week, the restaurant hired a second host to help out.
With the staffing shortage, not all restaurants are able to follow suit. Some owners don’t feel it’s necessary, anyway. Two local restaurateurs I spoke with both said that they have sidestepped the lack of predictability at the host stand because they rely almost entirely on reservations rather than walk-in traffic. Most diners coming into their restaurants are aware of their vaccine policies and are generally well prepared on what to expect on arrival, which means there is less need for multiple hosts to wrangle unruly guests.
For those that have staffed up their front door, they are left wondering how long they can expect their many hosts to stay on the job. After learning that hosts at another of his restaurants, Cafe Lift, were dealing with disgruntled guests responding to their city-mandated indoor mask policy, Pasquarello says he’s seeing more people bristle at the unwelcome additional responsibilities that come with greeting diners at the door: “Entry-level college students at the host stand are like, ‘I don’t know, did I sign up for this?’”