The realities of pandemic dining are dicey: tips are thin, servers are few and nerves are frayed. We all know how lucky we were that many Santa Cruz area restaurants and food trucks bravely stayed open to offer carryout meals through most of the quarantine, followed by outdoor dining, and finally indoor—after more than a year of barely making ends meet.
I thought everybody knew how hard it was to hire staffers given health concerns, plus the availability of lucrative unemployment. But some diners didn’t get the message. Restaurants trying to juggle indoor dining, outdoor dining and carryout meals are essentially trying to triple themselves in output while remaining only a single kitchen with minimal staff. I think anyone can do that math. Of course it will take longer for meals to be cooked, plated and delivered. And take-out needs to be ordered way in advance. Some restaurants, like Lillian’s, have added a 10% service charge to take-out orders to help compensate kitchen and staff.
Tatiana Glass, co-owner of Avanti, admits this has been “an extremely difficult time. Before it was hard to find qualified people to work. Now it is impossible. It’s expensive to train and a lot of them end up not working out. So we start the cycle again. Meanwhile, we have the restaurant full and we find ourselves always apologizing to customers about the service or the wait.” Glass says that “to-go orders helped a lot, and if a customer calls and I know we are packed, I can delay their order and help the kitchen. If online orders were available, I wouldn’t be able to control it. We know some customers don’t like it, but it’s a way we have been successful at it.”
Avanti poured money and labor into opening outdoor seating before most local restaurants. And they stayed open for carryout from the very start of quarantine. “We are extremely lucky to have made it this far and we have been working extremely hard, wearing every single hat in the restaurant, from server to dishwasher. We hope to return to a normality so we can have our personal lives back.”
The problem for servers is acute. The pay structure for restaurant workers is based on tips, but many to-go orders yield no tips at all. Rebecca Prete, a lead server and manager with Sushi Garden, has been with the company for two years, but is now traveling from Scotts Valley to Aptos, working three of four restaurant locations due to understaffing.
“Nobody’s applying,” she says. “We essentially have to hire anyone who walks in, but many days I’m the only one working. We have been inundated with to-go orders. We are overwhelmed. So a lot of my fellow staffers took unemployment.” In pre-Covid days, she says she was making good tips. “But during the pandemic, my tips went down to less than 8%. A lot of people didn’t know that it was customary to tip on carry-out orders—but it takes just as much time to make the food for carryout as it does for inside dining.”
Chris Sullivan, manager of Mentone, agrees that the labor shortage is a real phenomenon.
“While the labor I have here is really great, the lack of applicants is frustrating,” he writes in an email. “A combination of industry folks finding side hustles (cash-only pop-ups promoted by social media and local hype) or entirely new fields, plus the unemployment payouts, have contributed to a dearth of labor.”
To maintain the restaurant’s standards of service Sullivan has trimmed to-go orders and numbers of tables. “I’ve seen places adding outdoor spaces when that was the only option, but now have indoor tables too with roughly the same amount of staff as the original model. This results in those long waits on everything, longer turn times, not to mention a tired staff.”
La Posta/Soif restaurateur Patrice Boyle has kept her pandemic game plan low-key and cautious. “While we continue to have some staffing shortages, we have managed to field great teams at both places. Soif doesn’t do much takeout, and La Posta doesn’t have online ordering. It’s all by phone,” she says. “That way we can control the flow of orders.”
And there are more dining issues, some obvious, others not, that have surfaced during the past 18 months of lockdown—to be continued.