Servers Spill All
What restaurant life’s really been like since March 2020
By Ross Boissoneau | May 8, 2021
Few industries have been as decimated by the effects of the pandemic as the restaurant industry. As the world stumbles toward a new normal, we wondered what the last year has been like on the front lines as restaurants suddenly had to change their business model, many looking to takeout and curbside delivery to survive.
We asked servers from across the region about their experiences: the good, the bad, and the different. There were commonalities; all noted how much business was down overall and how much curbside and to-go business jumped and continues to, even as restaurants can open to 50 percent capacity. They stressed the unexpected generosity of so many of those who did order, some noting a few extra-big tips impacting the team as a whole (many are sharing tips among the staff). They noted the confusion about the changing regulations. And, of course, the occasional (though fewer than you’d think) stories of those who wanted to flout the rules.
Erin Pennington (pictured above)
Blu, Glen Arbor; Broomstack Kitchen & Taphouse, Maple City
Pennington has been in the industry for nearly 20 years. “It was meant to be a stopgap,” she said with a laugh. She started when she lived in Pennsylvania, then continued in central Texas for a dozen years.
She had visited her grandparents’ summer home north of Leland as a child and considered Leelanau County her favorite place in the world. So she moved to the area in 2018 and applied at five restaurants, interviewed with them all, and started working at Alliance, in Traverse City. Then she moved on to Blu, in Glen Arbor, in spring 2019, and has since added Broomstack Kitchen, in Maple City.
She said the original shutdown hit hard. “The pandemic has taken an emotional toll,” she said. “I live by myself with my two cats. I value my alone time, but not being around people on a daily basis was very strange.”
When Blu reopened for curbside, and later for dining on the patio, she said the response was heartwarming. But it was definitely different. “As with so many people, the fear of the unknown was a thing. Guests were so generous.”
That extends to her other job. “At Broomstack, I’ve not personally experienced people being non-compliant. All the guests I’ve interacted with have been pleasant. They’re just happy to be dining out.
Pennington said her observation was the only ones not wearing masks were those who simply forgot to put them on when they got up from their tables. “We’ve not had some of the horror stories some of my friends have had,” she said, speaking of those she left behind in Texas with whom she keeps in contact. “They’ve had quite a few problems.”
Clam Lake Beer Company, Cadillac
A 23-year veteran of the restaurant industry, Boyer said the differences between before and after COVID were — and still are — striking. “The hospitality business is always about being fast and friendly. During COVID, it didn’t really work that way,” Boyer said.
That’s because the proliferation of to-go orders produced more of a backup than would typically be seen for on-site dining. And the mask mandate made it more difficult to offer a cheerful greeting. “The server business changed. When we first re-opened it was so impersonal with masks and gloves. You [normally] greet people with a smile. Now you had to do so much with voice inflection,” she said.
And no matter how hard they tried, she said there was bound to be the occasional guest who only saw the negative. Especially when the online or phone orders piled up. “[Unlike with staggered table seatings and ordering, you can get] 15 phone or online orders are once. Someone waiting 45 minutes wants to tell you how horrible you are,” she said.
She estimated that tough customers weren’t the norm — only about one-quarter of the overall — but recognizes that these times weren’t and still aren’t normal. “No one has done a pandemic before. Seventy-five percent were understanding. During the first shutdown, they’d leave a $100 tip here and there. The others didn’t understand — and don’t accept it.”
Centre Street Café, Traverse City
One of Traverse City’s busiest lunchtime restaurants, Centre Street has always done a huge amount of takeout. “We already did takeout and did it well, so we knew what we were doing,” said Childers.
So going to that model exclusively was easy, right? Umm, not really. “In March when we returned, it was tough, especially for staff with younger children in school. Some were concerned about health. People had to stay home. We lost half the staff,” she said.
And half the business as well. The stop-and-start rules and number restrictions on indoor dining, added to that the fact many of their regular customers were working from home, meant that business was down across the board. “It was so strange. There was a lot of fear.”
Silver lining: While the loss of income stung, the lower number of orders allowed the remaining staff to learn the new ways of doing business, from taking payment by phone to delivering curbside. “There was enough business for the staff we had,” she said.
As business began to pick back up, Childers said those staff that remained started to feel stressed. In response, owner Pete Boothroyd responded by cutting hours, closing at 3pm instead of 4pm, and closing completely on Saturdays. “I think it was huge. It was awesome to realize Pete didn’t want to burn us out. It was a definite relief.”
Customer response from those that did continue to patronize Centre Street was, for the most part, positive. But there’s always that one person . . . “After the Black Lives Matter march, I was waiting on people, and a regular came in. I knew his order and was busing a table,” Childers recalled. She told him she’d get his order in, but a woman waiting to give her order felt ignored and grew upset. “She was going off — ‘Is it because I’m a woman?’ No, I’m a woman too,’” Childers said.
The customer wouldn’t have any of it, sputtering, “‘This town, with women and Blacks!’”
“I have two Black children,” said Childers, though she didn’t bring that up.
The customer wasn’t done, telling Childers, “I’d tip, but I don’t want you to get any of it.”
It was actually the pandemic that brought Broder back to serving and to northern Michigan. He’d previously worked as a server and bartender, but had most recently been working in events management in Detroit. When the shutdown happened, he looked for other opportunities. “In the North, restaurants were open. I knew Frankfort would be a good option.”
That’s because he and his family could live in the family cottage while he checked out the local employment scene. “Last year, no extended family was coming from out of state,” he said, allowing them to stay there. That won’t be the case this year, meaning the Broders will be looking for new digs.
But not a new job, at least not yet. “Stormcloud has really treated me well. It’s a really good team. I’ll keep my options open, [but] I’m happy there. The plan is to ride this out as long as I can.”
Broder said he’s seen both sides of things, with customers who abide by the rules and those who don’t, or do so begrudgingly. “I’ve had my share of both good and bad. Some really great people trying to make up for the struggle we were going through would be extra nice [to our staff]. My favorite people.
“Others would walk in, then put a mask on. Then rip it off when they’re still five feet from the table. It’s different dynamics of people. Some are understanding of the situation and do what they can. Others’ sense of normal is uninhibited by any precautions.”
He credited owners Rick Schmitt and Brian Confer for their efforts, noting that his observations of other restaurants prove his Frankfort workplace is among the leaders. “I give them credit for keeping [everyone] safe and happy. They worked with the local health department to get appointments for [staff] vaccinations. It’s not only reassuring for us but good for the community,” he said.
State Road Provisions, Harbor Springs
As a server and manager, Sansom has to not only observe the rules herself but also enforce them for both staff and guests. “I’ve been in the restaurant industry since the day I turned 18. I still get to meet people from everywhere,” she said. It’s just different now: “Smaller groups, masks, a lot more rules.” How many more? She has a 58-page booklet with all the regulations, and notes they change without warning.
That said, she had nothing but plaudits for her co-workers and the majority of the customers. “My staff was wonderful: cooperative, did every single thing I asked them to.”
While staff knew and understood, patrons sometimes didn’t. “It was harder to communicate [all the changing rules] to the guests,” she admits. “Some people were so generous, so nice. They made up for the ones that were judgmental. We dealt with it.”
One of the more problematic facets was the limit of six people to a party. If a family of seven or eight came in, they couldn’t all sit together, which some people didn’t take to, leading to this challenging response: “You’re going to make my five-year-old sit at a separate table?”
Sansom said those kinds of exchanges were only exacerbated by wearing masks, making the whole interaction less friendly and more impersonal. “People couldn’t see a smile,” she said.
Sansom said not only did restauranteurs have to deal with ever-changing regulations, the outdoor-dining solution wasn’t problem-free. Beyond the restaurant’s expense of adding igloos, sheds, or other outdoor facilities, staff had to deliver food outdoors in snowstorms and would need to completely clean them between groups, each of which could use them for two hours. “We had seven of them, with two or three people waiting on them. We’d clean between shifts, taking 25 minutes to sanitize them.”
One other thing many servers mentioned: the lack of employees affects them all. Pennington and her three fellow servers at Blu are also the same four servers at Broomstack. She said sharing shifts between so few people for so long can lead to physical and emotional exhaustion
And while diners can take their masks off when they eat, servers aren’t so fortunate. Not only does it make the interaction more difficult, they’re simply uncomfortable when worn so long. “I don’t like wearing a mask eight hours a day,” said Broder. “We’ll be happy when we’re not. But it is what it is. We’ve got to deal with it.”
But without exception, all said they enjoy their jobs and, even if they’d known at the outset of the pandemic what they would be going through for the next year-plus, they would do it again.
“The whole idea of objecting to any sort of proactive measures, I don’t buy it. We all need community. Slowly but surely we’ll get back,” said Broader. “I don’t know when I’m going to feel comfortable in a crowd of 1,000 to 2,000 people crowded in front of a stage.”