Liz* has worked at a downtown Detroit restaurant for more than six years. And she is tired. Bone tired. When asked how she’s feeling, she lets out a deep sigh. “Girl,” she says. “Girl.”
The depths of frustration in her voice are understandable. In October 2020, she contracted COVID-19 and experienced symptoms for months afterwards. On December 13, she caught it again and had to sit out work, leaving her without pay for more than three weeks. School for her two kids has been cancelled so many times — forcing her to call in — that her manager brought in another employee to replace her. Now, she’s not sure if she’ll go back to work there at all. Before the pandemic, Liz was making $2,700 a month. By December of 2021 that had dropped to $1,100. In mid-January, she had $24 in her bank account.
Liz has asked that her real name not be published in order to protect herself and her colleagues from managers at the restaurant, who she believes are not acting in the best interests of staff and customers.
She doesn’t blame the restaurant’s owner, but she’s still feeling “fed up with the lack of care” shown to restaurant staff by the state and federal government and the public.
“Certain groups of us just slip through the cracks, like restaurant humans and parents,” Liz says. “It’s like they forgot about us. The lack of security is dreadful. This is the time we need help the most.”
Overwhelming instability in the restaurant industry — COVID outbreaks, snags in the supply chain, and a general lack of acknowledgement from customers and local, national, and federal government officials — has left restaurateurs and workers alike exhausted.
According to a January 2022 survey published by the Michigan Restaurant Association Research Group, 76 percent of Michigan restaurant operators surveyed find business conditions worse than they were three months ago, and 61 percent of operators have reduced their hours. A study by the same group in June 2021 reported that one in six Michigan restaurants closed during the pandemic. So far, neither the Biden administration nor Gov. Gretchen Whitmer have announced plans for further relief. The $28.6 billion Restaurant Revitalization Fund announced in May of 2021 ran out of money within 60 days. Nearly two-thirds of eligible applicants did not receive funds. Efforts are underway from bipartisan lawmakers to replenish the fund, but progress has stalled amid stock market upheavals.
Sandy Levine, partner in Chartreuse Kitchen & Cocktails, Freya & Dragonfly, and owner of the Oakland, is among many owners who’ve felt the strain.
“Cruise ships and airlines have gotten bailouts,” but there hasn’t been nearly enough for restaurants specifically, he says. “This country touts itself on having the American Dream, and you can have a business and start a restaurant if you work hard enough and that’s kind of bullshit, frankly. And this is exposing that.”
Levine has struggled with staff COVID outbreaks in recent months. According to the Metro Times, around Christmastime, an employee tested positive for COVID, but the restaurant did not close, nor were other workers who were exposed required to test. Customers also weren’t alerted. In response to the report, Levine tells Eater that he and his team spoke to all staff members about the positive case, letting them know that anyone who didn’t feel comfortable working didn’t have to. He says he also factors in the effectiveness of vaccines when making decisions.
“As far as I know, one person didn’t work. We’d also been closed for multiple days in between when the person [who tested positive for COVID] last worked and tested positive, and no one else from Chartreuse tested positive [until almost a month later],” says Levine. “Everyone wears masks both during service and when we’re not open as well, which is likely why no one else got it.”
“It’s also worth noting that the Oakland had already closed four shifts during Miracle [the bar’s holiday-themed event series] when that piece ran. The revenue we lost from four shifts equated to about 9 percent of our yearly sales for 2021, and we’ve since closed Chartreuse for two shifts when two back-of-house people tested positive mid-week.”
If there is a bright side, it’s that it appears that the worst of the omicron surge has shown signs of declining since COVID broke records in hospitalizations and caseloads last month, according to the Detroit News. As of February 2, the state of Michigan reported 2,966 adult hospitalizations with confirmed cases, a 35 percent drop from the record high of 4,580 adult hospitalizations from the virus reported on January 10.
“My concern for my staff safety is completely different than it was for the first year before vaccines,” he says. “Obviously, I want everybody to be safe physically and financially but I think now everybody goes out. People go out to bars, people go out to restaurants, and I’m not going to tell them not to. Because I don’t blame them after two years.”
Even if Levine had a full staff, which he hasn’t in months, labor shortages in other sectors have had a trickle-down effect on his and others’ abilities to operate. Nationwide labor shortages in both meat-packing plants and among truck drivers mean fewer deliveries and fewer choices. A couple of weeks ago, every single item Levine ordered was out of stock.
Prices of ingredients are rising, too. “Every aspect of the supply chain costs more.”
“There is inflation in the restaurant industry, too,” says Levine. “But it’s the least tolerated, I think.” He has become increasingly frustrated in the past two years by people who don’t care about how the quality, sustainability, and freshness of meat and produce affect menu price.
“I get that some people have a mentality of ‘I can get the same thing for half the price at this other place,’” he says, “Hell, I have family members who’ve said this to me. But the fact is, no you fucking can’t. If Denny’s and Applebee’s are the same as Chartreuse or Freya in your opinion, that’s fine. Just don’t say it’s the same thing.”
For John Neely, bar manager at the Highlands, which sits on the top level of the Renaissance Center, the ongoing supply chain crisis has drastically altered the way he keeps the bar running. Like Levine and Liz, he’s exhausted by all of it.
Neely has also seen historic shortages in many of the items he needs to keep his bar running, like bottles of liquor, glassware, condiments, and produce. He’s experiencing a lack of transparency and communication from suppliers. The supply chain disruption of glass bottles for Hennessy and other brands that use custom-shaped bottles, for example, means that Neely needs to update his drink menu at least once a day. His orders are almost always late these days. Some days they just don’t show up.
“It’s a lot harder overall. Everything is harder. The guests are more difficult. They’re at a point where they’re very much over COVID and they just don’t care anymore,” says Neely.
He’s witnessed an increase in rude behavior from customers and more refusal to follow restaurant policies.
“Guests are just very short,” he says. “They sit down and be mad because you’re not with them immediately.”
Nearly two years into the pandemic, Corey Clavet is also overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of challenges with no end in sight.
The bartender at Second Best juggles child care for her three-year-old son with the need to earn an income. And, like Liz, Clavet also contracted COVID at one of the worst possible times. December is generally the busiest time of year for the restaurant industry, followed by the slowest month. Diagnosed with COVID two days before Christmas, Clavet missed out on crucial shifts and then dealt with slowdowns and the potential for shutdowns due to the rise in cases.
Clavet was unable to receive unemployment benefits during the time she needed to stay away from work. The federal extension on unemployment assistance expired on Labor Day and the Michigan’s own extended benefits came to an end on September 4.
“You really can’t get ahead,” she says. “Either you’re sitting out because you’re sick or you’ve been exposed, or you’re working nonstop trying to keep the business afloat and fill in for other people.”
She doesn’t plan on a boost from public funding: “I don’t see anyone trying to help us out anymore,” she says.
Without further government stimulus, restaurant workers find themselves sick, tired, on the brink of financial disaster — and fed up.
Levine echoes that frustration.
“Right now it feels a lot like it did at the very beginning,” he says. “That’s not to say that it’s felt completely normal any time in the past two years. There were times where we felt like it was over and we were in the clear and there were other times where we did the pivot thing and we did to-go. There were times where we felt stable because we got the PPP.”
“It’s been so incredibly exhausting in a way that I didn’t know existed,” he adds.
In 2020, 785 Michigan restaurants received $150,000 or more in federal Payroll Protection Program loans, according to the Detroit Free Press. In 2021, fewer than 40 percent of Michigan restaurants that applied for federal assistance through the Restaurant Revitalization Fund received grants.
Introduced in June 2021, the Restaurant Revitalization Fund Replenishment Act seeks to add $60 billion to the initial fund. The bipartisan bill hasn’t budged in months, though. It might be dead in the water; in January, a senior White House official told CNN “the economy is booming, there are millions of open jobs, and we do not believe people should be sitting at home if they are vaccinated and boosted, as most adults are.”
Levine is appalled by the callousness of the response to his challenges.
“Aside from a few senators and congresspeople, it’s hard for me to see that anyone cares about anything other than their campaign contributions. We’re all pretty traumatized,” he says, referencing the relentless need to pivot, to scrabble for funding and supplies and staff and customers.
Levine and the others predict widespread and permanent closures of independent businesses. With popular restaurants like Lady of the House, Republic, and Brooklyn Street Local all shuttering in the last year, it’s likely that if the pandemic drags on, no restaurant is safe without some kind of intervention.
Liz likens restaurant work right now to playing a high-stakes game of chance.
“So you’re just asking us to come in, play Russian roulette, see what happens? So that I can get sick again and not work again or maybe get other people sick? Let’s raise grocery prices, give out less food assistance, and see if you’re okay. No, I am not okay.”
Liz is looking to leave the restaurant industry altogether. The lackluster response to her struggles, from her managers and from the public, have shaken her commitment to an industry she’s been in most of her life.
“It’s left a really terrible taste in my mouth,” she says, “and I feel like, overall, ‘Do you matter?’ That’s a really troubling way to think about your work.”