Dining’s Front-Line Workers

What it’s like to be a server in COVID times.
Demetri Gregorakis serving customers outdoors at The Rind

Being a restaurant worker in a pandemic is no picnic.

After recently talking with more than a half-dozen servers and bartenders, I came away with a new appreciation for these unsung heroes. For the past eight  months, they have made it possible for the rest of us to escape our own home cooking, forget about the pandemic for a brief moment and experience one of the great joys of the before times: going out to eat.

As restaurants have lurched through the pandemic, servers have been on the front lines, trying to take care of customers and make a living while running the risk that, just by doing their jobs, they could get sick with COVID. They’ve had to deal with a lot: loss of income, fearstress, new routines, difficult working conditions. Oh, yeah, and cranky diners who don’t understand why they have to wear a mask.

Let them tell you what they wish every diner knew about what it’s like to work as a server during the greatest public health crisis in a century.

“I was in the first wave of staff that got called back. I know a lot of individuals who didn’t get called back until July, so I’m grateful for that.”

During the government-ordered shutdown last spring, many restaurant workers found themselves out of work. Thanks to the federal CARES Act, they received $600 a week in addition to state unemployment. For servers accustomed to the vagaries of shift work and tips, it was a rare and unexpected period of financial stability. But the CARES money ran out in July and Congress failed to pass a second round of COVID relief, leaving restaurant employees in a tight spot. Some, but not all, returned to work. Most are not working as much as they did before the shutdown. Landon Prints, a server at Solomon’s Delicatessen on K Street, says he’s working only 30 hours a week. Still, he knows he’s one of the lucky ones. “I do not take it for granted,” he says. “I’m grateful for the work I have.”

Jake De La Hoya is a server at Yard House in downtown’s DOCO, near Golden 1 Center. He was out of work for two months. Now, like many of the servers I talked with, he’s pulling fewer shifts—and making less money—than he did pre-COVID. “Shifts have definitely been reduced,” he says. “We can’t have the same volume, so shifts are sparse. Servers are looking to pick up shifts whenever they can. They’ll even pick up host shifts. We have one female server who’s hosting on the weekends because she needs the extra money.”

“I was very hesitant to come back to work because I don’t even get to see my mom. She has lupus, so I can’t be around her. We’re definitely sacrificing a lot so people can have a hamburger.”

Server Demetri Gregorakis
The Rind’s Demetri Gregorakis

Christopher Fairman is the general manager at The Shack, a popular sandwich-and-beer joint in East Sacramento. Before COVID, The Shack had 26 workers. Today, it has seven. “Basically, no one can get sick or we won’t have anybody,” says Fairman. To stay afloat, the restaurant reduced its hours and days of operation. To avoid paying a dishwasher, it uses disposables. “We’re not making even close to the money that we used to,” he notes.

According to Fairman, most Shack customers are understanding about the changes wrought by the pandemic. However, mask wearing is sometimes a sticking point. At The Shack, customers are required to wear a mask when entering and ordering. Fairman started to see pushback in early October, when President Trump, fresh off his hospitalization for the coronavirus, tweeted, “Don’t be afraid of Covid.” After that, we’ve had more people upset about having to wear a mask for 30 seconds while they order,” Fairman reports. He really appreciates customers who put on their mask while he’s dropping food at their table, even though it’s not required. “I always personally thank them,” he says. “It’s a sign of respect. I feel like restaurant workers always were treated like, yeah, you just work at a restaurant. But now it’s even more pronounced: ‘I don’t have to wear a mask, but you do. You’re my server.’”

“I’m working maybe three, four shifts a week. But I don’t feel I could work more than that. It’s terrifying and exhausting. By the last shift of the week, I’m holding it in with everything I’ve got.”

Bartender Melody Schumacher loves her work. “Craft bartending is my passion,” she says. “Hospitality is my industry, my career.” But the pandemic has changed her relationship with customers. “It’s a weird dynamic,” explains Schumacher, who works at Honey and the Trapcat in Old Sacramento. “You want to give guests what they want. But now I’m telling them: ‘You can’t order here, you have to order there. Please pull up your mask. Use hand sanitizer. Don’t touch that.’ I feel like the strict but kind schoolmarm.”

Schumacher finds herself constantly apologizing as she tries to satisfy customers while keeping them in line. She often uses humor. If a man comes in without a mask, she’ll say, “You have to cover that adorable face. I’m overwhelmed; I just can’t handle it.” When somebody leans over the barpulls down their mask and shouts their order, she worries about droplets contaminating the glasses and garnishes. The strain has started to get to her. “It’s incredibly stressful,” she says. “I came home last night and cried. My boyfriend asked why. I said I feel like I’m bad at my job—a job I’ve been given no way to do well at.”

She continues: I feel like my job isn’t about serving alcohol and food anymore. I’m a hall monitor. My job is to keep you as safe as possible and have fun while you’re doing it. It’s like monitoring a playground in a war zone. There’s danger all around, but the kids still need to play.”

“To have people sitting in the dining room, drinking and laughing—it’s nerve-wracking. With that amount of exposure, I’m kind of waiting to get it. There’s not really a lot you can do.”

Demetri Gregorakis, the lead server at midtown’s The Rind, divides customers into two groups: the ones who are understanding, patient and appreciative, and the ones who complain about everything. “The entitled people,” he says“I guess Karens is what they’re called now.” Being a server these days means depending on the kindness of strangers. The kind ones tip well—30 percent or more, according to Gregorakis. The Karens? They tip poorly (if at all) and don’t want to wear a mask.

Mask wearing is a political fault line in restaurants, as it is in society in generalA customer refusing to wear a mask can feel hostile and dangerous to a server. For her own safety, Holly Leighton, who works at East Sac’s Alloradoubles up, wearing an N95 underneath her cloth mask. Says Schumacher, the bartender: “It’s really scarySomebody pulls down their mask and starts slurring at you, and it’s like, is this the moment I get COVID? That fear is always there.”

“This industry needs a change.”

Even before COVID-19, there was talk about the inequities of the restaurant industry, including the income disparity between the front of house (tipped waiters) and back of house (low-wage-earning cooks, bussers and dishwashers). “I love this business, but there’s no safety net,” says Allora’s Leighton. “No benefits. No paid time off. I would like to see that change.” Already, there are changes afoot. At some restaurants, servers are pooling tips with the kitchen. A nascent movement to get rid of tipping in favor of a living wage dissipated during the pandemic. The Shack’s Fairman doesn’t see that happening now. “If we eliminate tipping, you might pay $25 for a hamburger,” he says.

As the pandemic grinds on, diners can do a lot to show their appreciation to servers. Here are a few simple rules to remember: Be kind to your server. Wear your freaking mask. And tip till it hurts.