At Your Service: Waiting Tables in a Pandemic

Restaurant workers hustle hard, debate risks, and strive to keep customers happy.

It’s no secret that the restaurant industry is hurting. As of Sept. 4, nearly 2.5 million food service jobs have been lost, according to the National Restaurant Association. And although 133,600 were added in August, the outlook remains grim.

Even as San Francisco cautiously enters a new phase of reopening — allowing indoor operation of salons, gyms, tattoo parlors, and other personal services to resume — the CDC has warned that drinking and eating inside bars and restaurants significantly increases an individual’s chances of contracting COVID-19, and table service is still only allowed outside.

For remote workers with money to spend, enjoying an outdoor meal may involve weighing luxury and convenience against the fear of infection. But for locals working in food service with no other means of income, the choice is more fraught: accept the risk that comes from feeding others, or risk not being able to feed themselves.

Jose N. Ortez Jr., retail barista trainer with Wrecking Ball Coffee, lives this dilemma everyday. 

“How essential is it to serve coffee to people?” Ortez wonders, weighing the pros and cons aloud. “If I didn’t have work, it’d be a huge problem for me, but at the same time it’s a catch-22. Am I contributing to this pandemic?”

Adding to his heightened anxiety, Ortez must constantly adjust to his customers’ expectations, while also keeping in mind the ever shifting official rules and societal norms of the pandemic.

“The rules can be hard for customers to follow,” he says. And while he does his best to be understanding and polite when customers show up without a mask, the stakes are particularly high for him. 

Ortez lives with his 86-year-old grandfather and a cousin with a compromised respiratory system. This has thrown his life in the Mission, and his decade-long career in the service industry, into a state of perpetual uncertainty. And he is not alone.

Jiries Wahba, the owner and chef of Handy Deli, now spends weekends grilling kebabs in the patio space that opened on Irving Street between 19th and 20th avenues. As part of San Francisco’s Shared Spaces program, the city allows the street to be closed on Saturdays and Sundays. Lawn furniture and benches have sprouted up over plastic turf grass and parking spots.

“It’s not easy,” Wahba says, “but we’re doing it okay.” He stewards the grill, joined by his wife and three servers. Wahba re-hired the servers this month, with the addition of the patio seating justifying the added expense.

“I did this because we want to take advantage of the situation,” Wahba says. They wear gloves, masks, and are cautious with the food. The servers also play music and chat with folks walking by in a way that Handy Deli wasn’t able to before the city allowed the street to close.

“We have good sales on the weekend, like 95 percent of pre-COVID sales,” Wahba says.

That’s not to say it has been easy for Handy Deli, and Wahba feels far more pressure than he would if he were simply grilling for pleasure.

“I ask myself, ‘What’s the next move?’” Wahba says. “How do I pay my rent, keep my employees alive? There are five families on the line.”

Not all businesses have the same opportunities. Michael McNamara, general manager at Above Ground, is now the restaurant’s only server. “We’ve been as bare bones as possible,” McNamara says.

Even a busy night isn’t enough to get Above Ground out of the red. A lot of people were excited for their opening, which was planned for the week that shelter-in-place took effect. He has worked with this restaurant group (which was behind the pioneering upscale vegan eatery Millenium) for the better part of 12 years.

Many guests ask for outdoor seating, but out of concern for a diminished customer experience, Above Ground has not opted for that expansion. Instead, they are hoping to partner with a bar in the neighborhood that needs a kitchen option. 

McNamara says that his decision to be the restaurant’s only servier is motivated both by the business’ bottom line and guided by his personal views on what he can ethically ask of employees. 

“It feels wrong to ask new staff to work in situations that could make them feel uncomfortable,” McNamara says. “At a certain point, people need to make money and are willing to do things they’re uncomfortable with, but we want our staff to be healthy.”

Keeping food warm, getting deliveries to the door, answering the phone, and checking in about order requests has proven to be more than a full time job — and while technology is supposed to make projects like these more manageable, McNamara says it is proving to be more of a headache, at least in the short term.

Caviar, which was recently acquired byDoorDash, has been a go-to for Above Ground. However, during the transition, McNamara says the tech has been getting wonky for customers.

“It’s been really difficult,” he says. “We’re relying on companies that we never had to before.” 

Similar to McNamara, Ortez has become the sole service employee at Wrecking Ball.

“I feel blessed and privileged that I’ve been working since the pandemic has started,” he says, but that doesn’t make going into work every day any easier. For now, Ortez says, he is simply trying to hang on.

“We are in a different time, man,” Wahba says with a weary chuckle.

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