Just as there are all kinds of restaurants in Maine – seafood shacks, sports bars, pho noodle joints and farm-to-table meccas – there are all kinds of servers, hosts and bartenders, too: Those who feel safe working during a pandemic, and those who don’t. Those who want the tourists to return right now, and those who aren’t so sure, though for sure they miss the tips. Those who blame President Trump for the mess we’re in, and those who hold Gov. Janet Mills to account.
But on one thing there is universal agreement: damn, those masks are hot.
Reached during the recent heat wave, front-of-house restaurant employees around the state were broiling — masked for extended shifts; working mostly outside (read: no AC) because many indoor dining rooms remain shut; wearing, in some cases, slacks, bistro aprons and button-down shirts when they’d prefer shorts and T-shirts in the sweltering heat; and doing extra heapings of extra work to comply with CDC guidelines about sanitation and social distancing.
Asked about the workload during a wide-ranging interview on what it’s like for front-of-house restaurant workers in the middle of a pandemic, Morgan Rancourt, a longtime server at Central Provisions in Portland, had something else on her mind: “The biggest factor for me personally has been working in the heat,” she said. “Ninety-degree days. Twelve hours per day. A mask. That’s the hardest part.”
MORE WORK, LESS FUN
As restaurants have gradually reopened in Maine, dining room staff have returned to jobs they barely recognize with never-before-imagined pandemic-era responsibilities and demands. There are new tasks like constant sanitizing of bathrooms, door handles, pens, menus, salt shakers, and chairs and tables. There are new customers, people who didn’t frequent their restaurants pre-pandemic but after months cooped up at home will dine anywhere that’s open. There are new challenges, like confronting – politely – customers who flout COVID-19 safety rules, either aggressively, forgetfully or out of ignorance. Staffs are stretched thin. At a fundamental level, almost every process in greeting, seating and cleaning has been transformed.
“Everything is completely different,” said Amber McIntyre, who has worked as a server and bartender at Pepino’s Mexican Restaurant in Bangor for almost 20 years. She returned to her job on June 22. “I am glad I am back because I love my job,” she said, but “the quote unquote ‘new normal’ is very disorienting.”
For example: McIntyre now works outside; Pepino’s is not open for inside dining. The city has blocked off the street to help businesses meet social distancing requirements. McIntyre estimated that Pepino’s seating area is some 150 feet away from the restaurant door. “I am not going table to table,” she said. “We put all of their food on a tray. We don’t hand out the food. We put the tray on the table. Then it’s back to dining room, wash my hands, use sanitizer. Then go to another table.” Back and forth. One hundred fifty feet. Over and over. In the heat.
At Moody’s Diner in Waldoboro, server Erica Genthner has also seen her job of 20 years change overnight and grow significantly more onerous. She returned to work on May 18. “I was ready,” she said. “You can only stay home for so long.”
“As excited as I was to get back to work, I quickly realized there is much more involved now than there ever has been,” Genthner said. She spelled out a list of new tasks and requirements, including wearing a mask, endless sanitizing, busing her own tables, filling the many to-go orders, and handing out and collecting contact tracing forms. Normally, she prides herself on giving customers “great service,” but with so much to keep track of, she is anxious. “I don’t think this is easy right now.”
The coronavirus has also reshaped a subtler aspect of front-of-house life: the once pleasurable, easygoing exchanges with customers, or “guests” in industry argot. Many longtime hosts, bartenders and waiters say such interactions used to be a favorite aspect of their jobs.
“It’s weird to not be able to engage our guests, to have that intimate one-on-one conversation with our guests – and to work that tip percentage up, let’s be real,” said Joshua Chaisson, who has worked as a server at the Porthole in Portland for five years. With 20 years of restaurant employment under his belt, he calls himself an industry “lifer.” He returned to work on June 1, because, he said, “I wanted to be part of the phoenix story, rising out of the ashes.”
“But talking at length with you, even with those masks on, is not the safest thing for me to do,” Chaisson said.
He misses that, as does Genthner, who grew up in Waldoboro, went to work at Moody’s when she was 16 and can probably name all the 5 a.m. regulars. Moody’s isn’t open at 5 a.m. these days. Pandemic hours begin at 7. She met her husband working at Moody’s, and like her, he still works there – he’s a kitchen manager. The couple have a 9-year-old son.
“I haven’t been waitressing for 20 years just because. I stayed because I genuinely like my job,” she said. “I love summer, because it brings the tourists, but it also brings different people I can interact with. People from all different walks of life. It makes it interesting. This summer, it’s not really interesting. It’s just hard. Waitressing in summer is hard anyway. In past summers, I’ve enjoyed the fast pace. I’ve enjoyed the hustle, but this is a whole new ballgame and it’s not fun.”
Something else that’s not fun? Difficult customers. Front-of-house staff, in many cases backed up by owners and managers, are now charged with enforcing a host of safety regulations. But in a politicized pandemic, some customers object – vehemently – to what they see as impingements on their freedom.
Restaurants have always had difficult customers, though in the past such headaches have not carried the risk of illness or death. And to be fair, many interviewed for this story said that most customers have been understanding – or better – in the face of the new dining out realities like eating off disposable dishware, no table hopping, no large groups, no sharing and no standing at the bar. Take the regular who came to the Porthole one day not long after it reopened. He “threw 50 bucks at the bartender, didn’t even have a bottle of water, just threw the money at the bartender, said, ‘I’ve missed you,’ and left,” said Chaisson, who serves on the board of directors of the national advocacy group Restaurant Workers of America.
But it’s the encounters with truculent customers that front-of-house staff, and restaurant owners, can’t erase from memory.
“Our regulars are still awesome,” McIntyre at Pepino’s said, “but I’m really finding a lot of people who we’ve never seen are going out, which is great. I would love to have another customer base. But they are not being that kind, to be blunt. They are being rude.”
How? “In every single way possible,” she replied.
Anti-maskers, predictably, are the worst offenders. The state requires customers to wear masks at restaurants except when they are seated at their own tables.
“We have signage on the door saying masks are required,” said Moody’s server Genthner. “Still, people were coming in without them. We’d have to say, ‘I’m sorry, but masks are required in here.’ We had a few people say some nice words. I’m kidding. They weren’t nice words. They got angry. They said they’d go elsewhere. I thought, ‘OK, good luck with that because masks are mandated everywhere you go.’ ”
In mid-July, Christian DeLuca, who owns breakfast and lunch restaurant Brea Lu in Westbrook, posted about the issue on Facebook: “Just had 2 people storm off because they didn’t want to wear a mask to their table,” he wrote under a photograph of himself holding a little girl in glasses. “This is my daughter Stella. She’s had open heart surgery 3 times. If you think for one second I’ll choose you over her (you’re) sorely mistaken. The mask is not for you it’s for her. So if that’s too much to ask then don’t bother coming.”
In a telephone conversation, he elaborated, and spoke about the tremendous strain restaurants are under. Many customers, he said, seem to feel that the rules don’t apply to them. “We are only asking you to wear a mask for about 10 feet. We’re not asking you to wear a mask for two hours. They want to go to the bathroom – they are not wearing the mask. They want to leave – they are not wearing the mask. You know they are passing six tables without wearing a mask.
“People come in and unload on the waitress,” DeLuca continued. “She or he has nothing to do with it. My 16-year-old hostess didn’t make the rules.”
“It’s becoming,” he said, “a nightmare.”
A nightmare that doesn’t pay what it once did. That has DeLuca worried about staffing come the slower winter season, and even in the best of times, staffing has been a struggle for Maine restaurants. For now, he is allowed just eight tables inside. “I already have girls that don’t want to come back because it’s not worth it,” he said. “They are not making any money. You go from making $350 on a Saturday to $100.”
McIntyre, at Pepino’s, shares his concern. “We are going to open up the dining room at some point, but that is going to be nine tables,” she said, “so I don’t see how I am ever going to make the money I made before again.”
For now, the state requires that restaurant tables be spaced 6 feet apart. Fewer tables means fewer customers, which, in turn, means fewer tips. And keep in mind that tourism, with restaurant-going holiday big spenders, is down. By law, servers may be paid below minimum wage with the understanding they will make up for it in tips (a calculation known as the tip credit). With one exception – a server at Cook’s Lobster House on Bailey Island – front-of-house restaurant employees interviewed for this story said they are earning less than they did last summer. But most added that the financial blow has been cushioned by the fact that restaurants are operating with smaller crews.
“None of us are making what we did the year prior,” Chaisson, at the Porthole, said. “But who could expect that? Who could expect 2019 numbers in 2020?
In the past, cruise passengers disembarked and sprinted to the Porthole for its unbeatable Twin Lobster deal, served on a classic Maine working wharf: Two 1 1/4-pound lobsters with corn, red potatoes, bib and lobster-eating tutorial for just $24.95. “Cruise ship season was an enormous amount of my income,” Chaisson said, repeating the statement for emphasis. “And that income has simply evaporated.”
Moody’s Diner, too, has been a popular tourist draw since it was founded almost a century ago. “The highest customer count I’ve ever had was last summer,” Genthner said. “I believe I waited on 182 people in one day. So far the highest customer I have had this summer was 81.”
She’d like the tourists to return. She is not worried they’ll spread the virus. The daughter of a nurse, she is confident her immune system is strong, plus she washes her hands diligently. Genthner said she has long lived with other viruses like flu and strep throat, and she can’t let coronavirus anxiety “rule over my life.” Her bigger concern is keeping her job. Without it, she said, “How am I going to pay my bills?”
Front-of-house employees credited caring, meticulous management – and in some instances health insurance – with their willingness to go back to work in what Chaisson called a “front-facing industry.”
Rancourt, at Central Provisions, has two little girls, a 4-month-old and a toddler. Central Provisions pays half her health insurance. The restaurant’s owners, Chris and Paige Gould, have small children of their own, so Rancourt knew they would take every precaution to avoid an outbreak. The current counter-service-only setup also makes Rancourt feel safe.
Likewise, McIntyre trusts her co-workers and employees, including her “really awesome boss.” “All my co-workers are as careful as I am. They are taking it very seriously,” she said. She is more worried about stranger danger from recalcitrant customers.
“In my head, if you are going to give me a hard time about not wearing a mask to the bathroom, what other precautions are you not doing in your everyday life?” McIntyre wonders. She is happy to do the extra work her job now entails “to keep people safe, as long as they care about keeping me safe.” She has two school-age children and a stepson at home, and no health insurance. With a husband who also works for a small company, its cost is prohibitive, she said.
According to the 2019 national Restaurant Success Survey conducted by Toast, a company that makes software for the restaurant industry, just 31 percent of restaurants offer employee health insurance. Chaisson, who is 38, doesn’t have it. And given what he reads in the news these days, he thinks his chances of catching COVID-19 are high; he estimates them at 80 percent. “We deal with a significant amount of germs, dirty cups, dirty plates, so there is obviously that added exposure for anybody in our industry,” he said. But he feels reassured that his chances of recovery are even higher. He hopes the winter will bring a new administration in Washington that will pass legislation to cover the cost of COVID-19 treatment.
Chaisson is by no means cavalier about the pandemic. Seated customers don’t wear masks. When he brings them food and drink, “they may be protected from me,” he said, “but I’m certainly not protected from them.” Several of his co-workers are mothers. “That is definitely a lingering feeling in the back of their heads: ‘Is today the day I bring it home to my family?’ ” (And forget about child care. It’s never been easy in an industry where parents work weekends and nights. These days, it’s nearly impossible.)
He gets it. His own mother is immunocompromised. “I haven’t hugged my mom since March 15,” Chaisson said, choking up slightly. “On a personal note, it’s a very messed-up feeling.”
HOPES, DREAMS AND FEARS
What goes on in a restaurant in ordinary times? You gather, often bumper to bumper, in tightly packed tables so that a business with notoriously tight margins has some hope of making a profit. You hang out for hours with total strangers, whose own habits you know nothing about. You eat, clearly impossible to do in a mask, sharing small plates of bone marrow toast with horseradish creme or slices of banana cream pie with your date, food that has likely come out of a cramped, no-way-in-hell-to-socially-distance kitchen. You touch shared bathroom sinks, check presenters and bottles of ketchup.
But in the ongoing pandemic era, the run-of-the-mill life of a restaurant feels bizarrely fraught, and the health of the industry itself in jeopardy. Locally, Piccolo, Drifters Wife, Uncle Andy’s and Woodhull Public House, to name a few, have permanently closed.
So what do front-of-the-house staffers hope for?
“In an ideal world, I’d like everything to go back to normal,” McIntyre said. “But that’s not going to happen for a really long time. I just wish everybody would be a little nicer. I didn’t make the rules. We’re just trying to follow the rules so we can be open. To put it bluntly, I don’t want to put up with their crap.”
Genthner echoed that comment in small part. “I’m sure you’ve heard other people say that ‘I would hope things would go back to some sort of normalcy.’ Is it ever going to be normal again? I don’t know. I never in a million years thought my job might be in jeopardy. I can only hope and pray that Moody’s doesn’t go under. They’ve been open since 1927. They’ve seen the Great Depression. They’ve gone through wars. And it’s sad to see that a virus would potentially take it down.”
Forget 1927. Rancourt is taking the short view: “We are taking it a day at a time,” she said, “like everyone else right now.”
Restaurant critic Andrew Ross contributed to this story.