Hospitality Workers Left the Industry. What Would it Take for Them to Come Back?

I think there's a missing narrative in coverage about ‘The Great Resignation’ and its role in the current staffing issues that plague the restaurant industry. The truth is, many bar and restaurant employees left jobs they cared about deeply, and never imagined leaving. The pandemic wasn’t only an opportunity for those who already had one foot out of the door to pivot to other careers, but it was also a time of reckoning for many who had been committed to a lifetime in hospitality. As one former bar manager told me, “If not for COVID-19, I would have stayed in my old role until the day I died.” 

The salient question isn’t “why did you leave?” but rather, “what would it take to come back?”

I posed that question to a community of former front of house restaurant personnel. Twelve answered. Among them, some had invested working lifetimes in the industry, one had risen to a GM level in a major restaurant group, some had obtained expensive culinary or other professional credentials, and a few had even achieved something akin to hospitality fame by making various “Best of” lists. 

None of them had ever viewed the restaurant industry as temporary. This was their career, and they loved it.

Their reasons for leaving were varied. Some took non-guest facing roles within hospitality, some sought a work/life balance, others cited lack of faith in the profitability/reliability of a post-COVID restaurant culture, and a few even experienced a philosophical reckoning due to the heightened racial and political culture of the last few years. “I no longer had the mental or emotional bandwidth to continue to be of service to the cis, hetero, upper class, entitled white people that made up the majority of the clientele I dealt with,” said one, while another humbly put, “It broke my spirit.”

Several people surveyed admitted that they missed it, however, and could imagine finding their way back, if the industry could be reconciled with their altered values. 

It isn’t out of the question that ‘The Great Resignation’ could eventually lead to ‘The Glorious Return’. Here are the top issues that several former restaurant employees say would need to change in order to make that happen.

Guest Accountability

This was the most pressing issue for those surveyed. Many had post-COVID-19 guest experiences that ranged from disheartening to dangerous. “I would have to know that the restaurant has my back and draws boundaries when guests are being unreasonable,” said one former server. 

Even the most well-intentioned, “team-focused” owners and operators struggle to oppose paying customers. In my time as FOH, I’ve seen it time and time again: an entitled, sometimes abusive customer is catered to, rather than condemned.

Never has it been a more important time to reconsider policy when it comes to difficult customers. Teams are stretched thin, employee health is compromised, and any empathy that might have lingered early in the pandemic seems to have faded as restaurants reopen.

A Work/Life Balance

Several authors here—David Schiffman, Sarah Engstrand, Brian Duffy, and Adam Orman—have previously addressed the vicious cycle that occurs between lack of staff and the resulting demands placed on staff.

Restaurants are struggling to overcome pandemic losses, while doing so with skeleton teams, creating an atmosphere where employees are being asked to do more and longer shifts with fewer resources. Several people I spoke to pointed to this aspect of the pre- and post-COVID industry as the one they could no longer tolerate. As one former manager offered: “There would need to be an extreme shift in the ‘assumed’ acceptance of an overworked—physically and mentally—and underpaid lifestyle. I was not living a healthy life and completely drained on my days off.”

Better COVID-19 Contingencies

Disappointment in the initial handling of the COVID-19 shutdown, COVID-19 policies among staff and guests alike, time consuming testing requirements, and lack of compensation for sudden restaurant closures or COVID-related illnesses, were all hot topics amongst those surveyed.  

At the beginning of the pandemic, state by state, owners and operators were asked to radically pivot business models, sometimes on short notice, to adhere to newly written laws. But that was nearly 2 years ago, and many expressed frustration that their former restaurants hadn’t defined clearer expectations and reasonable practices for working within an ongoing pandemic, especially where it concerned employee wellbeing.

“We were expected to show up to work and put ourselves at risk and follow health protocols while serving individuals who did not follow these same standards,” says a former bartender. “A requirement to be tested twice a week was unpaid time that often went into the two to three hour range waiting in line.”  

Increased Benefits, Especially Mental Health

While some operators offer health benefits to their employees, several people that I spoke to said they would need affordable benefits, including sick pay, PTO and mental health benefits, to return to the industry, especially as the ongoing pandemic has caused the restaurant industry as a whole to become more volatile and stressful.

A former dining room captain suggested a progessive approach: “I think unionization is really the only way restaurant workers are going to get the things that they need going forward. The hours will always be tough and the work stressful, but we need to have guarantees of properly compensated time off, medical and mental health coverage, and elevated base pay structures.” 

With the unionization of Starbucks franchises constantly in the news, perhaps this isn’t such a far-fetched proposal.

Transparency and Dialogue Regarding Race

Restaurants can foster toxic environments when not checked, including racist ones, and the Black Lives Matter protests during the height of the pandemic helped expose ways in which many restaurants were not fostering safe, communicative spaces for their employees.

A former server and manager named endemic racism as one of the reasons they decided to step away: “I experienced a lot of trauma but also growth (during the pandemic), and I had no tolerance or wherewithal to ‘endure’, as I have in the past, for the sake of hospitality.”

Another manager highlighted the importance of ongoing dialogue and communication on this matter: “In light of the George Floyd murder, there was a need to provide a safe space to discuss how this event and its aftermath affected employees, especially employees of color, and to address the steps they're taking towards more transparency and accountability when it comes to race relations amongst their employees and guests.”

To learn more about the hospitality industry’s changing landscape, including how to create a healthy, sustainable work culture, grab your tickets for the 2022 Bar & Restaurant Expo. Our three-day conference and expo brings top thought leaders together to discuss everything from marketing to virtual kitchens and beyond.

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