Under normal circumstances, chefs and restaurateurs are driven by simple things: the smell of our food while it’s being made; assembling a team that works so well together, it feels like scissors gliding smoothly through wrapping paper. Most of all, we love making people happy.
I thought of these simpler times during a recent lunch, as an irate customer complained to a staff member about a missing ingredient in their sandwich. Such interactions used to be simpler: a mistake made, an apology offered, and the correction served with a smile.
Of course, these are not normal circumstances.
Nearly two years into the pandemic, people are tired. Apologies are so common they have lost their value — and smiles are hidden behind masks. As the staff member attempted to assuage the customer, I heard her say the six words that crystalize what so many in our industry are feeling: We’re doing the best we can.
I recently tweeted about how — despite the endless challenges the restaurant and hospitality industries have faced — the thing that hurts the most is feeling like you aren’t good at your job. We are doing the best we can — in fact, many of us have pushed ourselves to the limit to keep our businesses afloat, staffers paid, and customers happy. But our best is not enough. We need help. Now.
From the beginning of the pandemic, we have been pushing a boulder up a hill while wearing concrete shoes. Our dining rooms are empty more often than they are full, but when they’re full, we are told they’re unsafe. We try to order the best to-go boxes to provide safe takeout service, but to no one’s surprise, they’re out of stock. We pay our staff through the hard times, then are forced to replace those who leave the industry — but we can’t afford the wages new workers demand. Every day it feels like the goal posts have been moved and the ball has been deflated.
Throughout all this, people like myself have had to become amateur epidemiologists, crisis communications managers, tax and grant experts, lobbyists and therapists. Daily business triage is as routine as the morning coffee. If it weren’t for this Liam Neeson-esque very particular set of skills, we wouldn’t still be here.
So where do we go from here? Recovery is complex, but requires investment — whether you are talking about mental health or repairing an entire industry. In the case of restaurants, there is a simple fix: Replenish the federal Restaurant Revitalization Fund. Two-thirds of eligible restaurants that have applied have not received funding. If Congress funds this program again, so many jobs, livelihoods, and dreams will be saved.
This can happen on the state level as well. Last winter, a grant from the state of Massachusetts allowed us to give our staff time off and hire support to take the load off. If we could get that from the state again, maybe these bags under our eyes would disappear.
We’re not greedy or looking for a handout. Our challenges are real: According to a survey by the Independent Restaurant Coalition, 58 percent of restaurants across the country lost more than half of their sales in December amid the Omicron surge. Forty-nine percent of restaurants that did not receive recovery grants were forced to lay off staff in December, while 28 percent face eviction and 42 percent face bankruptcy. This is an industry in crisis — and we can’t ask our customers to save us this time. This recovery should be a bipartisan issue, even if most things aren’t these days.
Eric Adams, the mayor of New York City, recently referred to folks like me as “low skilled workers.” I don’t take offense — this work isn’t for everyone. Restaurant workers are just folks who don’t have the luxury of working from home, but have certainly been affected by the fact that so many can. The disparity between what we are, and what we’ve had to become, highlights some of our most valuable qualities: We are as flexible, agile, and adaptable as they come.
Those qualities have a direct impact on communities. We make existing neighborhoods more vibrant and become hubs around which new developments are created. We are where people go to celebrate, escape, and reward themselves. We are innovators, entrepreneurs, and most importantly, we are employers.
Despite daily struggles, I am, fortunately, still here. I am here because when we asked our guests for support, they showed up; now we need our government to. When we had to learn new skills, we did. And that team we fought so hard to keep picked us up when we were down.
In the end, after all of this, I just want to be able to prep my food, make a living, and make people happy. I really hope I still get to do that. We all do. That’s the recovery we need so that our best can be good enough again.
Will Gilson is chef and co-owner of the restaurants Puritan & Company and The Lexington. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.