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KEEP THE CHANGE

What needs to change for restaurants post-pandemic? The industry weighs in

COVID-19 has wrought devastation but also an opportunity to create a new way forward. Here’s what workers want the community to know.

Chef-owner Rachel Miller at Nightshade Noodle Bar in Lynn.
Chef-owner Rachel Miller at Nightshade Noodle Bar in Lynn.Josh Reynolds for the Bosto (custom credit)

First in a series.

As restaurants ease into a reformed version of normal, the pandemic casts a long and bleak shadow. Workers continue to reckon with problems both longstanding and new: Staffing shortages. Wage gaps. The desire to protect undocumented workers (something one restaurateur, speaking off the record, called “the elephant in the room.”). Mental health.

COVID-19 has also spurred operators to rethink typical ways of doing business and shake off bad patterns. And so we asked industry figures across the region a single question: If you could change one thing about restaurants going forward, what would it be? Here’s what they said. Replies have been edited for clarity and space.

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“Many restaurants are using this opportunity to create better workplaces by manipulating rules and laws that have prevented this business from evolving with other parts of society, such as wage disparity.

Make no mistake that servers make more money than any position in many restaurants. So, if you see a place adding a fee or changing structure to offset pay in the back of house — or literally anything else to move money in more fair ways — these are the places that could use your support and understanding the most. They are working to solve a culture problem [of] how the system overvalues servers and undervalues cooks. One is not more important than the other, period.”

Rachel Miller, Nightshade Noodle Bar

Chef-owner Tracy Chang at Pagu in Central Square.
Chef-owner Tracy Chang at Pagu in Central Square. Lane Turner/Globe Staff/file

“The restaurant and hospitality industry has been a broken system for some time. The industry is sustained by BIPOC, immigrant workers making minimum wage with little to no benefits, with no safety net. The majority of the workforce is undocumented.

In this time of crisis, their lives and safety have been further reduced because they must work to pay rent and to sustain their families. They do not have the privilege of working from home or even paid time off or paid sick leave. The inequities in this industry are clearer than ever, yet there has been little change in how operators operate. Perhaps the minimum pay for a dishwasher or line cook has increased because restaurateurs are desperate for labor as they struggle to reopen their businesses, to rehire, to retrain.

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Not everyone qualifies [for government loans], and the small, BIPOC, mom-and-pop shops are hurting more than ever. They don’t have the same resources that the large restaurant groups have. There isn’t an accountant or COO they can task with these loan-grant applications. Perhaps English is a second language, and that makes navigating the online paperwork even more challenging.

Meanwhile, they are juggling their current business operations (which has likely become takeout, third-party deliveries, and more) as well as making time to put food on the table for their families and tuck their kids in at night.

What do we need from our neighbors? We need them to continue to support their local neighborhood restaurants. … Get takeout, buy gift cards, buy groceries, do whatever you can to support your small, local business.

What do we need from our peers? We need actionable change in the industry. We need accountability. We need real leaders, not celebrity chefs, who are prioritizing lives and livelihoods, not dollars. I’ve heard from my fellow restaurateurs that they have had employees die from COVID, that they had to learn how to ship a body to Colombia, that they have had to set up GoFundMe’s for their deceased.

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Why? They were doing indoor dining. They were paying their employees minimum wage, so the employees had to take three jobs and travel on public transit. Employees weren’t provided PPE. Restaurateurs prioritized the business and claimed they were keeping employees employed …. How do we change the mentality and the behavior that the survival of our business is less important than the survival of humankind?”

Tracy Chang, Pagu

Kwasi Kwaa (left) and Tim Ellis (right).
Kwasi Kwaa (left) and Tim Ellis (right).Kayana Szymczak

“I feel like guests aren’t informed enough as to why prices make sense. We need to teach with menus and be transparent about why food costs $25, not $15. Restaurants need to make more of an effort to educate the consumer. If we buy a fish for $10, before it gets to your plate, it needs to be prepped, properly stored. We need to pay the person prepping it and cooking it. We need to pay the guy washing dishes. We’re trying to share that on our menus and training our staff to explain why as well.”

– Kwasi Kwaa, Comfort Kitchen

“Pick up after yourself. We’re here to feed you and offer hospitality. Don’t leave cookies, rice, and napkins on the floor and table. I feel so badly for the servers. Would [customers] do that in their own home? I think not. Servers are not housekeeping. They are here to serve us and remove our plates.”

– Marjorie Druker, New England Soup Factory

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Chef-owner Michael Serpa at Grand Tour.
Chef-owner Michael Serpa at Grand Tour.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff/Boston Globe

“Streamline the restaurant opening process with a Restaurant Liaison at City Hall. This will promote small, independent businesses trying to get a foot in the door and cut through the red tape involved in opening a restaurant in the city.

Neighborhoods that are underserved need to have access and guidance, and we need to make sure they have a voice in the city, not just major corporations with deep pockets scooping up space. This is tied in with liquor license reform. The process needs to be laid out clearly, and the city has proved that it can use the Internet pretty well during the pandemic.”

– Michael Serpa, Atlántico, Grand Tour, Select Oyster Bar

Avi Shemtov in the kitchen.
Avi Shemtov in the kitchen. Jonathan Wiggs

“The answer is quality of life. The thing that [COVID] has exposed about our industry, and why we’re short-staffed, is that our industry is built on a house of cards.

We built a house of cards that only worked if our labor was underpaid and overworked, if we as owners and chefs were underpaid and overworked, and collectively if we undercut each other. We lionized folks who were willing to grind themselves to death. We expect people who should work for $20 an hour to work for $12 and people who should work for $12 to intern. We need to find a way for people to have the same quality of life outside of work as in other industries and to pay for health benefits and more paid vacation. That’s how we’ll get people back.”

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– Avi Shemtov, A La Esh, The Chubby Chickpea, Simcha

Yeanie Bach, owner of Bánh Mì Oi and Phinista Cafe.
Yeanie Bach, owner of Bánh Mì Oi and Phinista Cafe.Handout

“Profits are not nearly enough to cover increased pay and other benefits. [We need] some sort of small business payroll or benefit protection or addition. … We need continued patronage. Small businesses are still having a hard time rebounding as opposed to larger companies or food groups reopening, or opening in a closed-down location. And we need understanding from colleagues, customers, and neighbors that although the state may have opened up, we still practice safety for all patrons — not just healthy ones.”

– Yeanie Bach, Phinista Café

“The labor shortage is most surviving restaurants’ biggest and most immediate problem. It is impossible to find help, both front of the house and back. The only way to attract employees is to offer wages high enough to attract people from unemployment insurance. Getting paid reasonably well not to work is keeping a lot of potential employees on the sidelines, especially with the summer coming.

With seasonal business about to boom, there will be a lot of restaurants too short on help to accommodate all the customers they want to serve. Raising wages to above $20 per hour for kitchen and counter help is the only way … but this drives up prices to a point where customers are unhappy and feeling like they are being taken advantage of. Customers will need to learn that the restaurant business will never be the same again. Restaurant prices will be up proportionally more than other prices due to the labor crunch, food and beverage price increases, and increased supply chain costs.”

– Chris Lutes, Horse Thieves Tavern and Miracle of Science

“My big request from the City of Boston would be to seriously consider making temporary outdoor dining areas permanent on a seasonal basis. The benefits of such a move would be huge, not only to the restaurant community but to our neighborhoods. I’ve spoken with many of our guests who have remarked how much these dining areas add to the feeling of neighborhood vitality. It would be a shame to do away with one of the true silver linings of the pandemic: a reimagining of public space, making our city more social, more colorful, less car-oriented.

From the dining public, I would reiterate what many restaurant workers are already pleading for on social media: Please be patient as we all try to rebuild our teams in a difficult hiring environment. … Guests who arrive in good humor, with extra patience and understanding, are greatly appreciated.”

– David Doyle, Casa Verde, Little Dipper, and Tres Gatos

Michael Pagliarini making pasta.
Michael Pagliarini making pasta.Dina Rudick/Globe Staff

“I hope landlords realize how difficult it is to run a restaurant with integrity and with a true commitment to quality as a true creative endeavor committed to being part of a community while folding in equity. Restaurants can’t be reduced to a takeout experience. They cannot pivot like some other workplaces can.

Get to know your tenant, not just the splash and excitement of new concept. If you have a responsible, competent operator that can pay rent and take care of the property, taking 25 highly talented committed people and casting them aside in favor of a new concept doesn’t make your property any better. It’s a tremendous loss. Look at Harvard Square.”

– Michael Pagliarini, Giulia


Kara Baskin can be reached at kara.baskin@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @kcbaskin.