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Restaurant Workers: We are Important too

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“To your job or to your community, you might think this doesn't have a whole lot of meaning. I've heard this 100 times over my life. You're just waiting tables; it's not a real job. Then you see people come back and the impact you have on them. You see what that two hours of getting away from their kids, their family or their job to have a glass of wine and dinner with their spouse or their kids or their best friend does for them. You're creating some kind of change. What we do is important.”

Empty restaurant bar: No restaurant workers

Josh Diaz is the manager of an Italian restaurant in Omaha, Nebraska. He’s been working at the restaurant for the last 15 of the 17 years that it has been in business. He knows that restaurant workers are important. As St. Patrick’s Day approached, information about the pandemic trickled in; by the time the holiday came, it was clear what they had to do. They called all the restaurant workers in for a meeting and let them know that the restaurant was closing.

No one knew if it was going to be a few weeks or if the closure would last months. As the days passed by, the management team discussed how to keep money coming in.  Just as they had decided to offer food to go, on May 4th, the restaurant was allowed to open at 50 percent capacity. So they reworked their menu, both for now having takeout and for the limited capacity, and reopened.

During the shutdown, Josh and his team had open dialogs with the staff to help them figure out what unemployment they could apply for. Unemployment helped a lot of their employees. With the additional $600 per week on top of regular unemployment, many of the staff ended up making more than when they were working. There were concerns that this additional income would keep people from returning once they reopened.

In the end, it was a mix, which was good for the restaurant because they were running on limited capacity. “That was kind of good for us. We could run with a shorter staff list and were able to be profitable. We also had some people who really just were sick and tired of being home; they wanted to get back out and be with people and interact with people. It was a fortunate thing for both.”

Where many other businesses were not able to reopen, Josh’s restaurant never discussed that option. “Fortunately, we had a long enough history in our community that we were able to stay open. The talk was never on the table for us not reopening.” With the community supporting them, they knew they needed to put in every protocol to keep their patrons safe as well as themselves.

To keep their restaurant workers safe, they raised all the standards that they already had in place; then they elevated and emphasized new ones. They implemented usual safety factors: hand sanitizer stations, masks worn by employees and removal of a few tables. However, they also changed to having completely bare tables. Gone were the place settings and condiments on the tables as guests arrived. Everything is now brought out freshly sanitized for each new diner. Bills are no longer issued on bill presenters, everything goes out on a bread plate so that it too can be washed.

Even though Josh and his team are using every tool they have, he is still seeing that only roughly 20 percent of the diners coming in are wearing masks. Those masks come off as soon as the guests sit down. The occasional diner does come in fully coiffed with gloves and face shields, but that is not the norm in Omaha. With the restaurant now back to 100 percent capacity, Josh notes that there are some more separate areas that the more nervous guest can be seated. The high-backed booths function as individual pods. There’s some outdoor seating available or the hidden back room that is typically not used as dining space. That outdoor space can beused for the most cautious of patrons.

Although the restaurant is now fully open, not everyone has come back. Dinners are where the money is while lunches have dropped off. They had previously counted on all the small businesses in the area for the lunch crowd, but many of them are still not open or are working from home. Even with the drop off in business, Josh focuses on the positives. “You don’t know where we’re gonna go from here and you can’t spend so much time dwelling on that. Otherwise, it would be so overwhelming. We’re kind of just marching forward. Today we have a job. We have people coming out to eat. Today we’re making money and we’re able to kind of put all that in in the bank. Just be happy for today and what we’ve got going on.”

That isn’t all that Josh has to be thankful for. He’s really seen the community come out and support the restaurant and its workers showing them how important they are. Guests gave so much more in tips, repeatedly. One was even two hundred dollars on a 30 dollar lunch. It’s more than just money, they are being encouraging to the staff and saying thank you for being there. Josh thought it wasn’t going to stick.

“I thought that would phase out after a week or two, maybe even a month but it’s really maintained. I was very surprised to see how grateful our community has been; they laugh and are patient, on top of being financially generous. We’re staffed lighter and things might take a little longer but there’s nobody complaining. People are being very kind, respectful, courteous and thankful. Every day somebody is being a stellar example of what it means to be a good steward to our staff, to our company and to each other. It’s very kind to see and warms your heart to know that what we do is appreciated. The people who are coming in see us in a different light than they did before. Maybe the industry or the people who are working in it were taken for granted before. Now, there’s a new respect. The fact that it stayed for three or four months now is really neat. It’s nice to have that sense of adding something, that sense of being important and valued.”

If you liked this story about restaurant workers, read more on how businesses handled the pandemic and find out how a coffee bar stayed one step ahead of Covid-19. or how two strangers embarked on a crazy trip around the country then decided to open an antique mall. Or learn about a safety manager at a tech company kept her company safe.