Whether you’ve dined at a restaurant or ordered delivery or takeout in the past year, you probably already know there’s a staffing shortage that’s impacted nearly every facet of the restaurant industry. You might be able to tell from the difference in service from the pre-COVID world and now, or from a business’s opening hours, or number of staff, as many have needed to cut days or close early for lack of workers. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, job openings hit more than 10 million for the first time ever in June. The two sectors experiencing the most vacancies? Retail and restaurants.
From the early days of the pandemic, though, restaurant staff were deemed frontline workers — placing them at greater risk of contracting COVID-19 than those who were able to work from home. One peer-reviewed study in California found that between March to October 2020, cooks had a higher mortality rate related to the coronavirus than any other profession, including healthcare workers. Restaurant closures prompted mass restaurant layoffs, too. The combination of the risks taken and the lack of work actually available inspired many workers to seek jobs in other fields. For some, the pandemic provided a rare opportunity: Forced time off and unemployment benefits enabled overworked members of the restaurant industry to reevaluate their lives and their lifestyles. Some in Philly decided to shift their priorities — and ultimately leave restaurants behind
“The restaurant industry is a passionate collection of people,” Jon Nodler says. Nodler was co-owner of popular Fishtown BYOB Cadence with his wife Samantha Kincaid — but due to the stresses of the industry, the pair decided to close the restaurant in August. “I think that when you engage with something like we do for so long without stopping and thinking — when you’re forced to slow down and reflect — a lot comes into play.”
Nodler notes that, during the pandemic, a lot of people he and Kincaid know reconnected with skills they developed before entering the restaurant industry, applying its work ethic in other domains, like distilleries, breweries, and farms. (All, it should be noted, have their own grueling physical labor and schedules.) Nodler himself worked in a woodshop for a few months last winter. He also emphasizes that he doesn’t know anybody who refuses to return to restaurant work because of their unemployment benefits. “We definitely don’t know anyone who has been riding it out on unemployment, and I’m hoping that’s becoming less of a belief,” he says. “If you have a choice to not work the grueling late nights, to not work every weekend,” many are going to take that option, he theorizes.
A classically trained chef-turned-baker, Rhonda Saltzman had been working in restaurants for years, including Hungry Pigeon (now Fitz and Starts), but it was always her dream to open her own bakery. The pandemic prompted Saltzman to slow down and reflect when she lost her job soon after the pandemic hit. “In a world of uncertainty, especially in this industry, we needed to make a way for ourselves,” she says.
Saltzman decided it was the right time to start Second Daughter, the bakery she opened with her sister Mercedes Brooks out of the Bok building in South Philly in January. The duo work long hours filling orders for artful cakes and dense squares of fudgy brownies. They also face hurdles, like a recent fire in the building that forced a closure, for example. But at least it’s their own thing.
It’s the same for Danny Giorgio, an industry veteran who left a job as the chef of Barbuzzo’s upstairs private dining room (on good terms, he adds) from burnout pre-pandemic. “I felt myself getting older, and was tired of killing myself for something that wasn’t mine,” he says. “I knew that if I was going to be able to keep the passion up for cooking it would have to be for something of my own creation.”
After the pandemic put an abrupt end to the cooking classes he was teaching from home, the chef struck out in a new direction. “I used the time to start building my idea of what I wanted my new business to be.” He landed on Dip Daddy, home-delivering small-batch dips, chips, and pretzels he makes from scratch.
For others, the sudden taste of a “normal” schedule made it tough to go back to working nights and weekends. Front-of-house vet Thaddeus Dynakowski says he’s always loved making dreams come true. As a general manager at Fiore Fine Foods, he was able to do that, but not without a personal price.
“Every phone call to my kids before service each night sucked,” he says. “I was never around for so many little things. Once the pandemic hit and I was able to be home with them every day, there was no going back.” Nowadays, Dynakowski is still making dreams come true, as a realtor for Remax. “I miss just about everything about restaurants,” he says. “I don’t miss the relentless nature of the business.”
Some continued to work in restaurants during the ongoing pandemic, which took an emotional toll. “My mental health was plummeting, we were working with a skeleton crew, and even my relationship with my family was strained while we tried to maintain COVID-19 precautions with me working outside of my home,” says Mir Podheiser, former sous chef at Pumpkin. Podheiser had been feeling the stress of the industry for years, but “the pandemic really put things into perspective.”
The chef wanted to find a job that would offer more work-life balance, and found it at a small business specializing in meal deliveries. As a sous chef, Podheiser creates recipes, preps food, and cooks for Home Appétit, a service where customers order chef-prepared meals to be delivered every Monday evening. “I still love cooking, and Home Appétit has been the perfect transition to have the best of both worlds,” he says.
Home Appétit owner Lee Wallach coincidentally left a career in restaurants well before the pandemic hit, and believes his growing business illustrates a shift in priorities for many workers. The 35-year-old chef started the service in 2014, after he and his wife began talking about starting a family, prompting a reevaluation of his work schedule.
When he started the service, he was able to create a more consistent schedule, with nights, weekends, and holidays off. These were all perks, he says, before correcting himself: “I shouldn’t say perks. [They’re all] normal life things.” What Home Appétit offers is also enticing for prospective workers: regular hours and benefits.
The business has boomed, and the staff has grown along with it. Pre-pandemic, Home Appétit employed one chef and one sous chef, and now the company has ballooned to 30 drivers and 20 chefs, from well-known restaurants such as Vernick, Parc, and Fitler Club. And what’s more, Wallach says that so far there’s been zero turnover: “We haven’t lost anybody.”
Whether it’s a more regular schedule, or the freedom and flexibility that comes from starting your own project, like Saltzman and Brooks’s Second Daughter and Giorgio’s Dip Daddy, the pandemic caused some restaurant industry vets to chart a new course.
“When you leave a restaurant, you train the person to replace you, and then that’s it, you’re gone and the restaurant goes on without you,” says Giorgio. “With my own project, I know that I am the only one making it move forward, so it gives me the passion and drive that I need to spend long hours in the kitchen.”