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October 27, 2022

With any concrete rubric, restaurants in New York City are the same as ever. All the pieces are intact – there’s an exciting new restaurant; there is an interesting old restaurant. According to New York Magazine, this fall is “the busiest opening season in years”.

Since the city’s vaccine mandate was lifted back in February after nearly two years of not eating indoors and limited capacity, there have been no formal rules at all. Normal things. Better than usual. “Every month is our strongest month,” Resy CEO Alexander Lee told The Atlantic; that’s true for all of 2022, he said, and he sees no sign of slowing demand for reservations.

It’s amazing, I keep reminding myself, to talk and laugh in the room talking, laughing at strangers, eating food that I can’t – probably can’t – cook. Then why doesn’t it taste the same? There doesn’t seem to be a single thing wrong, such as a thorough understanding that the former was better and more fun. no?

This is largely a confluence of two factors – inflation, and ongoing labor shortages, two unsexy forces that are felt across all types of industries. But in the restaurant, they are very clear: high prices, limited service. It’s all almost normal. Well. Good, even. It could go on like this forever! For visitors, the experience is felt – not bad, even limp. For chefs and servers, there is a sense of torpor. “We just didn’t know where we were,” says Leah Cohen, chef with two Manhattan restaurants – Pig & Khao, on the Lower East Side, and the newer Piggyback in Midtown. “We’re in this weird limbo phase.”

In 2020, when the world closes, restaurants become beacons and causes. Suddenly, everyone was talking about the service industry, about the undocumented workers who make up 40% of the city’s kitchens. At once, everyone seems to understand the vulnerability of this industry, but also its transcendence: people love restaurants. They miss the restaurant. They missed the restaurant so much that they made a restaurant for the squirrels. There was incredible magic in the first days of reopening, when diners tipped wildly, and those who left were thrilled to be back.

“Customers went from being in pain to being like, ‘We love you guys! You are an important worker!’” Cohen laughed. “It was very short.”

While Cohen’s staff was dealing with a demanding return of diners, Cohen, as the owner, felt the effects of inflation firsthand: more expensive materials, more expensive labor, more expensive equipment, and as a result, more expensive dinner out.

Cohen reports that when he charged “maybe $36” for a half duck, the current price was $42. Recently, the New York Times detailed rising costs for a restaurant in North Carolina, and why: Canola Oil, up 159% (war in Ukraine); new hot water heater, up 25% (cost of stainless steel). Visitors feel the dripping effect.

“That’s the price we have to charge, because that’s the price of things now,” Cohen said, and even knowing that and anyone, he understood: it was a lot. “When I go out to eat, and I see the bill, it doesn’t surprise me, but it’s something I have to process,” he said.

Paying more would be less painful if the dining experience was equally great. I want it to happen – everyone wants it to happen! – but that’s not the current world. “We haven’t come back in the form we looked like before Covid,” a veteran waitress at an upscale Italian restaurant in Manhattan told me. (Like many restaurant workers interviewed for this story, he asked to remain anonymous to avoid potential repercussions.) “And I think the biggest reason for that is because it’s impossible to hire staff.”

Industry-wide labor shortages are old news: in January, the Bureau of Labor Statistics recorded the restaurant industry’s year-over-year rate of quitting was more than any other employment sector, even as hiring rates remained the same. As of September, New York City food service jobs were still 87% of pre-pandemic levels. Many restaurants have raised wages and fixed benefits in a bid to attract staff, but while the fix is ​​long overdue, alone, it’s not enough.

“I mean, we hire anyone, whether you’re good or bad,” Cohen said. “We just don’t have the ability not to do it. At some point you rent a body and pray and wish some of it well.”

In dining halls across the city, the change was palpable. “We had to start all over again,” said Rashaad Jones, a former captain at Eleven Madison Park, one of the city’s most upscale restaurants. “We’re always hiring and there’s always new people coming in,” he says, “but if you have 90 seasoned veterans from a restaurant coaching one completely new person, it’s a smooth transition, compared to five seasoned veterans coaching 150 people. .”

Jones left the restaurant this summer. “It’s no longer good for my body or my mental health,” he said. He remains in the industry, consulting on new restaurants, and working part time in wine.

People whose experience may have landed waitress jobs before – entry-level positions cleaning and setting tables – jump right into the front desk post, a server in an upscale Italian restaurant explains; one new partner, who has been hired as captain – the absolute pinnacle of the front of the house pyramid (“that’s where the money stops when things go wrong”) – only ever answers the phone.

The result is that everyone is scrambling to speed up the new generation. “It’s very stressful,” a longtime waitress at a popular pizza place in Brooklyn told me. “You’re already understaffed, so people really don’t get the support and training they need,” he said. And at the same time, “You have a lot of exhausted veterans.” Meanwhile, the kitchen line is also new, understaffed and still in training, and food is often slow, and it’s not necessarily that anyone has the institutional memory to know what a dish looks like.

“It’s completely changed the way restaurants work,” said Sophie, 30, a longtime waitress at a casual fine-dining restaurant in Lower Manhattan, who estimates that about a third of people working front-of-the-house are newcomers since the pandemic. (To speak freely, he asked to be identified by his first name only.) “It changed the culture.” It may be less united than it used to be, divided by default into the old guard and the new guard, “which is the opposite of what I want in a restaurant culture, which would be solidarity and inclusivity,” he said. . Jones, a classical cellist by training, likens a restaurant to an orchestra. “There are all these components, but there are collectives as well,” he said. “That whole machine is capable of getting things done. No one part is more important.” Or as Sophie, whose restaurant collects tips, is less romantic: “We all make money for each other.”

“People who didn’t work in restaurants before the pandemic were more real about the work,” Sophie said. “This is a restaurant job, just like any of my other restaurant jobs.’ Whereas a lot of people who were there before the pandemic, myself included, were like, this is different. This is the most special restaurant job you will ever have. ”

“I think this is the moment. I think it’s New York,” said the pizza server, who had struggled to motivate new colleagues. People are “just in survival mode right now”, he said. “No one really gets excited in their moment or place at the moment.” I totally understand; I struggle to think of anyone I know, in any industry, who is so passionate about their current time and place.

Not having the same pre-pandemic solidarity behind the scenes “makes work less fun and more stressful”, Sophie agrees. “And it’s hard, because there are so many other factors that make work less enjoyable and more stressful.”

It’s no secret that people are restless. “Everyone is acting so weird!” The Atlantic watched last spring, citing what appears to be a general increase in insane public behavior. In October, NPR spoke with researchers at Florida State University College of Medicine who have found evidence that the second and third years of the pandemic have seen Americans experience “significant declines in traits that help us navigate social situations, trust others, think creative and act responsibly”.

“I feel very high anxiety,” Sophie said. “And it causes people to go wild, to be chaotic, to be aggressive,” and while it is everywhere, “the feeling is increasing in the restaurant space”. What is a restaurant if not a vibe distillery? One night, he said, a guest, apparently surprised by the service he received, had to be held back by his friend in a way he described as “joking, but not really”. There are always unhappy visitors, difficult people, off nights. “But that kind of extreme emotional response to poor service in a restaurant is nothing new.”

“There is an existential malaise that engulfs everyone,” one Brooklyn cruiser told me. “You just don’t know what the future holds. You don’t know what’s solid anymore. You don’t know what you can wear. So why put in the effort if there’s no guarantee that it will be there tomorrow? He was talking about restaurant workers, but he could also talk about diners. It’s a restaurant, but it’s also everywhere: everything that feels permanent isn’t, but the world goes on, and no one knows for sure what’s going on now.

There is reason to hope. Longtime server in upscale Italian restaurant, 50 year industry veteran, optimistic about the future. Even staff turnover, he said, had a positive side. “There’s just the desire and energy that people have that is doing something completely new for them. It brings a little more excitement than it might have with more experienced staff who have seen it and done it all.”

In just the past few weeks, Jones said, for the first time since 2020, he’s been able to step out and forget the past few years. “I think there’s a real change in how people feel in the dining room,” he said. “It feels better and better.” But it’s not exactly the same; of course, Sophie said. This is not possible.

“This type of pandemic is pulling back the veil of the service industry,” Sophie said. “And now it is difficult, from both ends, to pull the veil back.”