COVID-19Food & DrinkFood Features

Restaurant Workers Rally Amid Mass Layoffs and Community Disconnect

People who work in the service industry are accustomed to a life with less. We miss holidays, birthdays, weddings and weekends. We work in conditions that would terrify OSHA (a bar stool is a ladder, right?). Often we live alone because we can’t maintain relationships due to the hours that we work and lifestyles we keep. People who work in the service industry are accustomed to a life with less; but not a life without.

Recently our field has taken a hit never before seen in my lifetime, or for generations before that. On Tuesday, March 17, Gov. Roy Cooper shut down bars and restaurants, limiting them to takeout service to help curb the spread of the COVID-19 virus. States around the country have made similar orders. It’s estimated that the country’s unemployment rate could reach 20% by the end of the month, and a huge amount of those people are restaurant workers and others in the food and beverage industry.

According to the North Carolina Restaurant Association, 481,900 people were employed in restaurant and foodservice jobs in 2019, accounting for 11% of employment in the state. In the 12th congressional district, which covers all of Mecklenburg County except Matthews and Mint Hill, more than 35,000 people worked in the industry last year.

In 2018, North Carolina restaurants made an estimated $21.4 billion in sales.

And yet on March 17, we lost our ability to serve the people, and thousands are now suffering because of it. There are already rumors swirling about restaurants and bars that won’t be coming back from this stretch, and as the number of cases continues to rise, expect plenty of permanent closures to be made official.

Bartenders, servers, cooks, dishwashers, food runners, hostesses, bouncers and barbacks everywhere are out of work. Those are the people you think of first when you think about the closing of bars and restaurants. But what about the farmer, the baker, the brewer, the fishmonger, the cheesemonger and all the others down the food production line? They work in service, too. The ripple effect spreading across the industry is immeasurable.

People get into the food and beverage industry for a variety of reasons. Maybe they started working in high school and never left “the life.” Maybe a longtime love for cooking turned into a profession. Some folks have a criminal record and can’t find work elsewhere. Whatever brought them here, they’ve joined a family, within their respective establishments and as part of a national network in which people across the country share the same struggles and joys of the job.

I got into hospitality because I love to serve. I enjoy providing a space for people to feel as though they can be who they are without expectations — beyond paying their bill when they leave. Hospitality is my love language, and ever since COVID-19 has found its way to the doorstep of my community, I have been unable to express that in my workplace, which feels more like home than the four walls I’m confined to now.

I agree that we shouldn’t be going to work. The most important job in the service industry is to not kill anyone. We need to be proactive about the pandemic that we’re facing. However, it’s heartbreaking that people have lost their venues for escape. Folks are missing out on their safe havens. They can’t get away from their jobs, children, roommates, or TVs. There is no break.

In the 50’s going out for a meal was a luxury. Today it’s become a part of our daily lives, and it took a crisis like this to make us realize it. Now food and beverage workers are left to sort things out on their own, but at least they have each other.

“It’s comforting to know that everyone is in the same boat,” Freshlist owner Jesse Leadbetter says with reservation.
While that may sound strange to some, it’s truly a comfort in an industry as tight-knit as food and beverage, and for Leadbetter, collaboration has been key since the beginning.

Freshlist co-founder Jesse Leadbetter in his garden in 2017. (Photo by Alison Leininger)

Since 2013, Freshlist’s mission has been to build a better food system by connecting the community with fresh, wholesome food from local farmers. They’ve done this primarily by cultivating a product list from participating farmers — a local version of larger suppliers like Sysco or US Foods. 

But now Leadbetter is shifting the model.

In response to the COVID-19 outbreak, Freshlist is looking to expand its capacity by offering a home-delivery service.

Leadbetter has been working with Dukes Bread, Enderly Coffee Co., the ABC board, and other new partners to come up with creative ways to survive in a troubled climate. “Anything to expand the model,” he says. It’s one way to keep his business moving after orders dropped 75% in less than a week, and a way to help bring food to the doors of customers doing their best to social distance at home.

“All of a sudden the way people shop has changed,” he says. “We are just going to have to get creative about distribution.”

It will take some adaptation from customers, as well. Leadbetter points out that many of the farmers who grow specifically to supply for chef-driven plates can struggle to sell those same ingredients to your average resident cooking at home.

“We’ve got a lot of farmers in trouble. We’ve got a lot of chefs in trouble,” he says. “Some of these farmers only grow microgreens and that’s a hard sell to the average consumer. It’s time for local food to really shine!”

Paper Plane Deli & Market owner Amanda Cranford is a new business owner dealing with the challenges of COVID-19. Cranford opened the Belmont neighborhood grab-and-go (or dine-in when we are all healthy again) on March 14th with a mission statement that we should all keep in mind: Simple. Convenient. Kind.

The order to shut down dine-in service came just three days after Paper Plane opened to the public, but Cranford is still brimming with positive energy.

“I’m new … and the support for my little bar/bodega/hipster stop ‘n’ shop has been amazing,” she says. The market aspect of the eatery doesn’t hurt any. On top of takeout, there are prepackaged sandwiches, six-packs of beer, wine, bread, ramen bowls and any number of other things to choose from.

Cranford has been handing out free rolls of toilet paper with any purchase since the pandemic hit Charlotte, in light of runs on TP at the grocery store down the street. A statewide restaurant shutdown occurring just days after a grand opening could mean a short-lived business venture for some, but Cranford doesn’t plan on going anywhere.

“I didn’t want to be a part of the community just to immediately abandon it,” she says.

Amanda Cranford prepares carryout orders at Paper Plane. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)

Cranford stands in the company of many local food service professionals in Charlotte who are doing their best to grin and bear it.

“It’s a bit beyond stressful,” says Kel Minton, beverage director at Soul Gastrolounge and KIKI Bistro in Plaza Midwood.

Minton is a husband and father, and his salary provides for the entire household. He says he’s prepared to make it through April, having already paid his bills and mortgage, “but once May 1 hits, I just don’t know. That’s another story.”

Bartenders mix and pour drinks, of course, but their real talent lies in providing advice and peace of mind to those with fears, doubts, questions. They are the therapists of the service industry, and their insights are needed now more than ever.

Kel Minton (right) of Soul Gastrolounge and KIKI Bistro with chef Jay Pound. (Photo by Justin Smith)

During our interview, Minton kept sliding back into that role naturally. He said he wants everyone to remember that we’re all part of a community, as hard as that can be to do when we’re bunkered down in our respective homes. He pointed out that, rather than hoarding groceries, we should be considerate of those who maybe can’t make it to the store until later. Or if you see something with a WIC tag on it, choose an alternative so as not to further limit the options of folks with WIC vouchers.

“This thing is not just hitting service industry people. It’s people,” he says. “It’s all of us, ya know? This is the time to realize that you are a part of the community and we need to do our part.”

It’s not hard to see why people like Minton end up in service.

Local restaurants continue to serve takeout and offer curbside service to survive, as is the case with renowned Charlotte chef Greg Collier and his wife Subrina’s new restaurant Leah & Louise, which was scheduled to open in Camp North End on March 20. Those plans were shut down, quite literally, by Cooper’s order, but the Colliers and their crew have made the best of it, offering online ordering and curbside pickup in the evenings.

The community has stepped up, with a national website called ServiceIndustry.Tips allowing residents to tip out-of-work bartenders and other restaurant workers when they drink at home.

The Charlotte website allows you to spread love to hundreds of local industry folks as they wait out the storm.

As I said before, people who work in service know how to live with less. We can make things, grow things, share things. We provide. We are hospitable and we’re going to take care of each other. We’re going to step up for each other and we’re going to be innovative in our tactics. All we ask is that you consider who you spend your resources on during this time.

If you need a hot meal and don’t want to cook, call the neighborhood spot for a pick-up order. If you run out of coffee, stop by the local shop and grab a bag, and maybe a latte, too. Skip the violent grocery store experiences and hit the farmers market or order from a local grocer. We still want to take care of people in the safest way possible. And as far as our financials go … we’re used to being put “in the weeds,” as they say. We’re going to get through this.

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