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Behind the Counter: A Close Look at COVID-19’s Impact on Restaurant Workers

By Grace Davis ’22

An employee at New York City's Caffè Panna (Photo Credit: Eater NY)
An employee at New York City's Caffè Panna (Photo Credit: Eater NY)

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought economic devastation to New York City’s unique culture and economy—in particular, the key industries of food, restaurant, and hospitality, which provide thousands of jobs across the nation.

From grand feasts hosted by monarchs since the Roman and Ottoman Empires, to the emergence of the coffeehouse as a social and political hub in 17th century England, to the global explosion of fast-food chains such as McDonald’s around in the globe in the late 20th century, communal dining is an age-old feature of human society. So, what happens when we aren’t allowed to see each other? How has social distancing impacted the industries that once relied on person-to-person interaction? Are those plastic dividers between outdoor tables really doing anything?

Starting in March 2020, restaurant windows went dark. The pandemic forced companies to lay off thousands of workers, many of whom were already at an economic disadvantage. The average self-quarantiner developed a fascination with home-baked banana bread and other baked goods, having been cut off from neighborhood staples such as local eateries and confronted with supply chain shortages.

More than 15.6 million workers are employed in the restaurant industry. According to Eater Magazine, over 80 percent of New York City restaurant workers were out of work in April, out of a workforce totaling 660,000 employees. 66 percent were out of work nationwide.

The Iris spoke to Hallie Meyer, food entrepreneur, founder and owner of New York City Italian inspired coffee bar and ice cream shop Caffè Panna, to hear how one very special gelato-inspired ice cream shop has managed to stay afloat.

According to Meyer, the NYC community and “everyone in the [food and restaurant] industry feels very supportive of one another.”

For food businesses all over New York and the country, the shut-down in March came very suddenly. When Governor Andrew Cuomo (D-NY) issued an order that restaurants had to be shut down, Caffè Panna “sold everything [it] had in 48 hours.”

This experience is “definitely not what [Meyer] expected [her] first summer as an ice cream shop to be.” She is grateful that Caffè Panna, having opened only six months before the pandemic hit New York, had “just enough time to develop a brand that people wanted and trusted so that they would come back to it...and still want it.” In her experience, customers are much more likely to pay in advance for a product if they know what it is and have a previous connection to it—Caffè Panna lovers everywhere are rooting for their beloved gelato-inspired ice cream store.

There are an array of eateries in the New York area, from classic sit-down restaurants or diners, to food trucks, to ice cream shops like Caffè Panna. Meyer said she feels lucky that Caffè Panna is not a typical restaurant, and therefore not centered around a sit-down dinner. Ice cream lovers are used to buying ice cream to go, giving Caffè Panna more leeway not to be open every single day.

Many fine dining places in New York face difficulties in covering the costs of their real estate, labor, and equipment. Caffè Panna only makes one product, so there is not a “crazy amount of inventory to work through,” Meyer said. Many restaurants also struggle with sunk costs (having too much product in house). When they spend too much money on food, the consumer is not always willing to pay a price higher than the cost of operating a restaurant.

Caffè Panna’s business model has proven adaptable to the pandemic and social distancing. Once filled with customers selecting scoops from any array of ten different flavors, the store now operates with three employees: two make the ice cream, one serves. The outdoor countertop that separates the customer from the server has come in handy for social distancing.

The Gramercy-located store is well underway with nationwide shipping: When the team isn’t serving walkup ice cream six hours a day for four days a week, it’s making mountains of gelato-inspired ice cream, sending 55 boxes of it a week around the country. As Meyer said, “Pints have become the business, scoops are icing on the cake.” (No pun intended.)

Meyer, as much as she would “love to go back to a world where people are in the store,” has found the pre-order system very helpful. The pandemic taught Caffè Panna that “pints are a better business,” as the pre-order model allowed the team to know exactly what to make, and there is only one part of the process of pint-making in which labor is involved.

Labor is the most expensive aspect of restaurant businesses nearly everywhere, with the exception of New York City, where the cost of rent is even higher than that of personnel. , Restaurant workers typically have to work multiple jobs on top of long hours at the shop or restaurant, even at Caffè Panna where employees have a much higher than average wage.

With fewer workers, a shop can pay each a higher salary. Given the economic crisis inflicted on the restaurant industry, many places have had to lay off workers in order to continue their businesses. Unfortunately for the employees, Caffè Panna had to lay off most of the team. That being said, everyone “was able to find a safe place to be” and Meyer is doing everything she can to support what she considers the Panna family.

Everyone is required to wear masks and the workers disinfect all the equipment and countertops every fifteen minutes. The store has also been able to offer transportation for the employees so that they do not have to take public transportation. Meyer said that the smaller team allows for better care of everything. “My employees are my audience,” she said—she prioritizes them above all else, but given the economic climate of New York City, she still can’t pay them what she wants to.

As Caffè Panna gradually started up again in April, the business had to have the attitude of a new restaurant, asking the question “what do we need?” Restaurants typically can’t go back to their old staffing when income has been halved by an economic disaster.

Throughout the economic devastation of COVID-19, many have raised the question of which industries should receive government assistance in the form of bailout payments. For instance, the paralyzed airline industry was granted a $25 billion bailout by the Trump administration. Restaurants in particularly dire situations have been given tax breaks, but many have argued that the restaurant industry, one deeply impacted by the pandemic, should be given the same level of government aid as the airlines.

Meyer is in support of a form of government assistance for all restaurant workers—even successful shops like Caffè Panna simply don’t have the means to provide healthcare and other necessities to their employees. She would love to lobby someone to lower the towering costs of New York City real estate rent. She said the government needs to “subsidize something about how this bubble is working...or pop the bubble.”

The United States government has made strides to help workers and small businesses. The federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) provided two year loans for businesses with up to 500 employees.

However, as Meyer said, the PPP was inaccessible to a lot of workers and business owners and simply did not offer enough money for everyone. The PPP expired on August 8, 2020, and Congress and the White House are still in conversation about how to extend a new program of stimulus relief.

Not everyone agrees that the restaurant industry should be bailed out. The widespread upheaval of the pandemic and its economic crisis have revealed many inequities within all facets of American society, and the food sector is no exception.

Tunde Wey, a New-Orleans based activist-artist and cook details his views on the matter in “LetItDie,” a short video series examining the effect of COVID-19 on the restaurant industry and in The New Yorker article “The Case for Letting the Restaurant Industry Die.”

Wey argues that the restaurant industry as it exists today does not deserve an economic bailout or other assistance, and should rather “disappear”—not literally, but as it exists today—and be rebuilt altogether.

In terms of help for out-of-work hospitality employees, Wey takes the position that there should not be a bailout for the restaurant industry as a whole. Rather, restaurant owners should prioritize policy changes and government programs that support individuals affected by the crisis.

When asked if any good has come out of this experience, Meyer said she “really hope[s] that employers start to be held accountable for inclusion in the workplace,” giving “who you hire” as an example of an area where inclusion is necessary. Caffè Panna recently hired a new general manager. Meyer noted the importance of seeking out talented individuals who may often be overlooked—she observed that if she had just put out a general notice about the position, instead of conducting an in-depth search, she probably would have gotten responses mostly from “a ton of white guys.”

As John Klein, Philadelphia-based server and bartender, said, in addition to trying to say safe while interacting with customers, servers are “already doing so much to try to survive off tips.” (Pennsylvania servers earn $2.83 an hour.)

So, next time you order take-out, sit down at an outdoor table inside a plastic box, or try to bake a new kind of breakfast cake, think about who is working behind the scenes (or behind the counter) to give you your food. Be grateful for the people who make it all happen.


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