Before the pandemic took hold, about 4.4 million people worked as restaurant and bar servers across the country, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The BLS predicted that service positions would grow much faster than other types of jobs, predicting that by 2030 there would be more than 5 million people waiting at the tables.
We all know what happened instead. About 11 million people quit or were laid off from restaurant jobs when COVID restrictions hit. Today, two and a half years into the pandemic, the industry is still losing 750,000 jobs. Even though this only represents 6.1% of the workforce, these missing persons are sadly missed by many restaurant patrons.
These days, if you can find someone to serve you in a reasonably priced restaurant, consider yourself lucky, because the kind of staff we’ve long taken for granted is no longer a given.
How COVID Has Divided Restaurants
In 2022, we’re approaching a split in the restaurant landscape that didn’t exist before COVID-19, a widening gap between the service available in high-end restaurants and that of all other casual restaurants. No matter what type of restaurant you were in five years ago, you could be reasonably certain that the experience would include the same cast of characters: a host would greet you at the entrance and escort you to your seat; a waiter would explain the menu to you and take your order; a runner can bring food; a busser would fill your glass with water; and the waiter appeared occasionally to ask how everything tasted.
Now, amid staff shortages, the dining experience has quietly divided into classes. Unless you’re at a high-end or otherwise expensive establishment, QR codes have replaced a menu handover in many scenarios, and you might even be tasked with placing your food order via smartphone, which means that waiters essentially become food runners. I’ve eaten at three restaurants over the past few weeks where the main server interaction was dropping off my meal; in two cases, the dishes were simply returned to a counter by a prep cook.
Restoration technology has become very efficient and ubiquitous. Lots of people like it, especially if they are in a rush, but there is no denying that human interaction has been a hallmark of restaurants ever since people have been dining out. When it’s not there, you feel its absence.
A loss of storytelling
When I was working on my book Satisfaction guaranteedI spoke with Chicago restaurateur Rick Bayless, who was an early customer of ZingTrain, Zingerman’s employee training program.
You might think there’s nothing in common between Bayless’s collection of chic Mexican-focused restaurants and Zingerman mail-order charcuterie catalogbut Bayless focused on one similarity.
“They tell stories like we do our best to tell stories,” Bayless told me. “You will learn more about products, dishes and traditions.
Think about how many times you’ve asked your server to explain the flavors of a dish and how many times you’ve ordered something because of his enthusiastic description. The common question “What’s good here?” has no immediate response when looking at the menu alone on your phone.
Servers offer helpful tips
I will never forget when my mom and I dined at Poogan’s Porch in Charleston and my mom placed an order for a house specialty. “Mmmm, that nice fried chicken,” our server said, seeming to want to sit down and join us in our meal.
Likewise, waiters can steer you away from dishes you might not like. Simple questions like “Do you like spicy food?” ” Where “Are you ready for a big portion? can give you the advice you need to order one dish over another.
I’m sometimes a little suspicious when a server pushes a dish too hard, such as offering appetizers “while you make up your mind”. I sometimes respond with “Is this something you would order?” How quickly they respond is an indicator of whether they are marketing or recommending. If they seem really enthusiastic, that inspires me to try. In all of these cases, conversing with a waiter improved my overall dining experience.
Quick problem solving
In many restaurants, servers are authorized to quickly resolve any issues that arise when your food arrives on the table. If a dish is undercooked, they can take it back to the kitchen for more attention. If the special order instructions weren’t followed, they can have the dish redone or replace it with something the customer might prefer. This service, previously integrated into the experience, is based on this traditional server model, which some restaurants are turning away from.
Yes, you can track down the person who brought your food to the table, but when servers become primarily delivery people, the sense of “responsibility” for a customer’s satisfaction is diluted. This may save the server from having to deal with difficult customers, but it also makes the server and restaurant experience more purely transactional, a bit chillier all around.
Restaurant workers create an atmosphere
I recently ordered a slice of pizza from a trendy new place in New Orleans that has become an Instagram darling. When it came out of the oven my name was called and it was put back without a word on a paper plate. In a city known for its hospitality, this seemed a bit off-beat – and it also made me feel like the place didn’t care about me as a customer. I empathize: It’s a tough time to be a restaurant worker, and as a diner, that stress is something you can feel as soon as you walk through the door.
But what diners encounter is a far cry from the aura that good restaurants have always strived to create. “The business of feeding people is the most amazing business in the world,” said Jose Andres, chef and philanthropist of World Central Kitchen. Harlem-based chef Marcus Samuelsson said an extraordinary meal can make guests feel “honored, respected and maybe a little loved.” Servers, however, are a crucial link, no matter how hard the industry tries to phase out its responsibilities. How can a restaurant create such an ambiance when adequate resources are not allocated to the employees who cultivate it?
Yes the restaurants are hammered by all sorts of increasing expenses, from food to rent to utilities. But if dining out becomes less of a warm and sociable experience, and ordering on screen is quick and easy, restaurants may be less crowded.—both servers and clients.