SARASOTA — JR Michael has spent most of his life in the restaurant business.
As a teenager, he spent his summers peeling potatoes in his uncle’s deli kitchen. Later he helped open Applebee’s on Clark Road, where he worked 100 hours a week for $8 an hour.
Through these positions and a variety of other jobs in Sarasota County, he worked his way up to a job in the kitchen at Element: Steak. Seafood. Pasta. This is where he was working in March 2020, when suddenly COVID-19 hit and he was released.
Michael had been contemplating leaving the restaurant industry for several years, even before the Element opportunity presented itself.
But after two decades in the industry working for employers he felt like he didn’t care, Michael said he was at his wit’s end. And he is far from the only one.
Many restaurant workers, including many who have been employed in the industry for years or even decades, have similar questions. Industry volatility, health risks associated with COVID, and worker burnout have resulted in the loss of 1.8 million hospitality jobs in the United States since February 2020.
Working in the service industry has never been easy. Hours are long, customer interactions can be stressful, and wages are relatively low. But COVID has introduced new issues, which have caused many people to reconsider their situation, said Larry Barton, professor of crisis management and public safety at the University of Central Florida.
“You’re out of work for three months, you might have to wear a mask in the scorching heat of the kitchen, and then your boss says to you, ‘I can’t afford to keep the place open, I’m sorry, even if you have been there for 12 years. The emotional roller coaster got so deep,” Barton said.
Restaurant owner ‘paddling really fast’ to stay afloat
Despite a significant drop in employment in the leisure and hospitality industry across the country, it appears that many new job seekers see it as a viable field.
Anthony Gagliano, vice president of business development for CareerSource Suncoast in Bradenton, said the percentage of people who have expressed an interest in working in hospitality is up slightly from 2019. But at the same time, the Hospitality employment is down 8,200 jobs in Sarasota-Manatee from February 2020.
For many people, a job in the industry is their first entry into the workforce, Gagliano said. The pandemic might have been the boost they needed to make the leap to something else – perhaps their eventual chosen field.
“A lot of people start out in hospitality and move on to other industries. It made people say, ‘If that’s not my long-term career path, maybe now it’s not something I commit to,” he said.
It happened at Artisan Cheese Company, the specialty food store at 550 Central Ave. in the district of Rosemary. When the pandemic hit, an employee decided to stay home to care for sick family members, owner Louise Converse said. Another staff member joined after COVID initially hit, but later returned to a career in the equestrian field.
Three years ago, at the height of the season in March, Artisan Cheese Company had 12 employees. Now he has four, and Converse itself works on the floor Monday through Saturday, behind the counter and in the kitchen, filling in when the store is short on staff or when someone leaves for the day.
Not only is it difficult to hire – job postings that would have generated 50 applicants two years ago now only bring in a handful – but it is also difficult to retain people. It’s happened several times already. New people come in, realize it’s hard work and then they leave.
“We tell people in the interview that it’s hard work. They come in and work for a few weeks and see that it’s hard work and they can go to one of the bigger company kitchens and work less for more. It’s a simple math,” Converse said.
She’s thrilled her store has survived the pandemic, her customers have been amazing, and the core staff she has is tight-knit and dedicated, Converse said. But on a recent Wednesday, while working in the kitchen after a cook failed to show up, she was slammed. She had already gone to a corner and cried once before getting up.
“I’m like a duck on the water, above the water I look good and we’re all smiling, but underwater I’m paddling really fast. It’s the paddling that people don’t see doing in small businesses,” she said.
Germain Lesur, 31, worked in the hotel industry from the age of 15. He has worked in hotels and as a valet on Siesta Key, including the upscale restaurant Summer House.
He hit unemployment for a while after COVID hit, but it wasn’t enough. He ultimately decided to leave Sarasota and join his father’s Detroit-based real estate business.
Service sector faces cost of living issues
“There are so many reasons to leave the service industry after 15 years. You have to deal with people; if you don’t tip, you don’t earn money or buy health insurance; you work very late and you work when everyone is having fun,” Lesur said. “But not everyone has had the opportunity that I have. You can’t just walk away and take over a real estate business.
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The cost of living was another factor. In Detroit, Lesur said, he can get a house for $50,000 and rent it out for $1,200 a month. That’s a lot more affordable than Sarasota, where the median home price rose 20.9% in 2021 to $405,000.
With rising home prices and a strong tourism industry, Sarasota’s economy is showing many signs of strength. The area has more or less been “discovered” by new wealthy out-of-state residents who can afford to buy multi-million dollar waterfront homes.
Ready for Growth: What’s Next for the Manatee County Economy?
But the other side of the coin is that the working class is excluded. Plus, new snowbirds, retirees and residents expect a high level of service, Barton said, and if they don’t get it, they don’t hesitate to vent that frustration.
“They want a great dining experience and feel entitled to it. If the restaurant can’t provide that, they’ll take their money elsewhere and not come back,” he said.
It’s been a huge burden on the employees, Michael said. They’ve endured a lot over the years, but a lot of people have decided to turn elsewhere.
“The whole hospitality industry is built on standards that they want people to serve them for one night,” he said. “But people want something more than shopping for the rich now.”