In their GoFundMe for HAGS, a “community driven tasting menu restaurant” chef Telly Justice and sommelier Camille Lindsley hope to open in New York, the two outline their vision for a radically inclusive restaurant. Among their goals, they write that diners should not be surprised “to see our staff sitting down.” I was shocked to read it, not because I think front-of-house staff should never be able to sit down, but because it just hadn’t occurred to me that it would be possible. And I admit I was a bit ashamed to realize I had internalized the idea that sitting was a sign of bad service.
For a long time, the harsh conditions of restaurant work have been spoken of as inevitable, and even something to be proud of enduring. Anthony Bourdain recalled in Kitchen Confidential being berated for asking for burn cream, and then watching a fellow cook whose hands “looked like the claw of some monstrous science-fiction crustacean, knobby and calloused under wounds old and new,” move a sizzling pan out of a broiler with his bare hand. “I had been identified as a pretender,” he wrote, for not having the same physical endurance. It’s part of the macho culture that’s plagued the restaurant industry for decades — if you can’t stand the heat, literally get out.
Because of the pandemic, workers are getting out — and in record numbers. Many in the food service industry, which reported quitting rates of 6.8 percent in August, have had a moment to rethink the conditions that have become the norm across restaurants. It’s not just about pay. Restaurant work is physically taxing. No matter where you are in the restaurant, you’re on your feet all night, either carrying heavy plates and zipping between tables, or hunched over in a hot kitchen with barely any time for a bathroom break. And then there’s the customers, who might harass or abuse you.
While the pandemic has unfortunately emboldened some customers to be more demanding than ever, it has also opened a conversation about the realities and difficulties of restaurant work. There have already been calls to improve worker pay, and provide benefits like health insurance, child care, and sick leave. But now, some operators are rethinking the very physical nature of the work as a way to counter reticence and burnout. They have implemented new technology, upgraded their spaces, and redesigned how restaurant work happens in order to make that work better. And through that process, operators and workers are rethinking just what about restaurant work really is unchangeable.
Technology can make things smoother for busy fast-food restaurants
According to Andrea Cherng, chief brand officer at Panda Restaurant Group, which owns Panda Express, upgrading and automating the kitchen equipment makes things easier on employees, and more efficient. The company has been testing woks that don’t need to be physically flipped and can prepare bigger batches of food, and clamshell grills, which cut cooking time in half. Together, Panda Express says this will mean employees can spend less time actively cooking in a hot kitchen. And because of the increase in to-go orders amid the pandemic, “we installed high-capacity shelving in the dining rooms that not only saved our associates some extra steps but also improved guest experience.”
Other fast-food, fast-casual, and chain restaurants have been looking to tech upgrades to streamline work, especially when they may not have enough workers. Domino’s is planning on upgrading its POS system, making it easier for new workers to learn. McDonald’s and Wendy’s have been testing voice-recognition software at drive-thrus so workers won’t interact with customers directly, and Wendy’s may use Google AI technology to remind cooks when to flip burgers on the grill. And many chains have turned to apps and loyalty programs to ideally streamline the orders coming in.
As always, there are obstacles. There’s the slightly dystopian element of a computer hearing your McDonald’s order while cooks you never see make your meal on the other side of a wall, or even not having a human element at all. There are also some more practical concerns. “For example, the Panda automated woks are difficult to fit in every one of our stores nationwide,” says Cherng, so while Panda Express is integrating them into as many locations as possible, it’s not a guaranteed fix for all workers. This is something most restaurants, regardless of national presence, have to reckon with — the physical realities of location. Sometimes buildings are old, or narrow, and kitchens can’t just be put anywhere. There is also the cost.
Sound, heat, and architectural changes make things more comfortable for workers
Chris Shepherd, owner of Underbelly Hospitality in Houston, recently made major upgrades to his restaurant UB Preserv, which all began with speaking to employees. “I had a server come to me at one point and be like, ‘It’s so loud in here. I’m not sure we can do this.’” So Shepherd made the decision to close the restaurant for five days, at the beginning of August, “to noise-dampen the dining room for our servers, [and] insulate everything so it would keep a cooler temperature,” he says. “And then we ripped the entire kitchen ceiling out and replaced it all so that they would not be hot.” He says the whole project cost $25,000, not to mention the days of lost revenue from being closed.
Many restaurants are still doing their best to stay afloat in the pandemic — and even in good times, small businesses don’t always have cash reserves to pay for upgrades and remodels. But as some owners argue, those upgrades made with workers in mind are essential for future success. Changes like adding air conditioning and reworking the sound system had an immediate impact on employees, says Shepherd.
Katy Kindred, co-owner of Kindred and Hello, Sailor in North Carolina, has also taken time this year to rethink her spaces, rebuilding the service stations at both restaurants to be less cramped and more efficient, and adding “oh my God, so much air conditioning to both kitchens.” Like Shepherd, Kindred finds that adding AC is maybe the most obvious practical way to make things more comfortable for workers in the kitchen. “I love the busy nights where I’m physical and running around, and a lot of people that get in the restaurant business actually like the physical work,” she says. “But it definitely doesn’t have to be in the blazing heat.” And at Kindred’s forthcoming bakery Milkbread, she says they called the HVAC designer back to the construction site to add more.
Kindred says making changes like that helps employees feel respected, rather than like a disposable group only worth what they can endure in the cruelest conditions. But regulating heat in the kitchen will also soon be a matter of federal importance. The Biden administration announced OSHA will be crafting new safety rules to protect workers from excess heat. “Rising temperatures pose an imminent threat to millions of American workers exposed to the elements, to kids in schools without air conditioning, to seniors in nursing homes without cooling resources, and particularly to disadvantaged communities. My Administration will not leave Americans to face this threat alone,” President Biden said in a statement. So by upgrading the AC, these owners are just getting ahead of the curve.
Many operators can agree on better sound dampening in the dining room or a cooler kitchen; some changes are more contentious. Consider anti-fatigue mats. Designed to prevent foot and back pain in kitchen workers who would otherwise be standing on concrete flooring for hours, plenty of restaurants don’t use them. According to Shepherd, his kitchen staff has repeatedly rejected rubber mats. “Every time I put mats in the kitchen, they pull them out immediately. My staff hates them,” he says, because they are hard to keep clean and turn into one more thing to spray down at the end of the night. Instead, he’s hoping there are more innovations in kitchen flooring materials that are easy to clean, soft on the joints, and provide drainage without major topographical shifts. “I can 100 percent blame at least one knee surgery on drains,” says Shepherd.
Millicent Souris, now the director of emergency food at St. John’s Bread & Life, a food pantry and soup kitchen in Brooklyn, worked in restaurants starting as a teenager. She previously told Vox that in multiple kitchens she worked in, it was owners who refused to provide anti-fatigue mats in the kitchen, deeming them unsightly. She tells Eater that at one restaurant she worked at, managers said they were “disgusting.” “And I was like, ‘Well, they save people’s backs and feet because you’re standing for these hours.’… I was like, ‘I need these. And also, you don’t offer health insurance.’” Souris says the aversion to rubber mats is a “fine dining trickle-down,” as chefs and owners worry about aesthetics in all parts of the restaurant.
And some owners have been willing to make even more drastic changes to the space in service of staff. Donnie D’Alessio, owner of Comfortland in Astoria, Queens, has decided that shutting down the dining room, converting it to prep and storage space, and offering only takeout, delivery, and some outdoor seating was the best thing for his employees. “I think just having more space is helpful,” he says. “At this point I don’t think we will ever be able to give the dining room back to diners.” It hasn’t hurt business, either. D’Alessio says during a recent brunch shift where he worked the line, Comfortland did about 400 covers across delivery, takeout, and outdoor tables.
Restaurant work attracts people who want to be on their feet and working in a fast-paced environment, and one that doesn’t have nine-to-five hours. “I do like the physicality. I do want to participate in my body in that manner,” says Souris. “And then there’s the line; past that, it’s grueling.” And while many owners are willing to make practical changes to enable easier physical work, workers argue the cultural issues leading to fatigue and physical exhaustion are much harder to undo.
If the work culture doesn’t change, these will all be Band-Aids on a bigger wound
When Yannick Benjamin, who uses a wheelchair, was designing his Harlem restaurant Contento, he ensured it could be accessible to everyone, staff and customers alike. There’s a low bar so wheelchair users can pull right up, enough space to navigate between tables, and other details that allow ease of serving. When Pete Wells reviewed the restaurant, he remarked on the design: “Night after night, I see restaurants that are theoretically wheelchair accessible. What I rarely see are wheelchairs,” the New York Times critic notes.
However, both socially and legally, those details should be unremarkable. Indeed much of what the restaurant workers I spoke to said would be helpful to combat burnout and fatigue were things that should already be available to them. The ability to take a break or a sick day and wheelchair-accessible spaces are mandated by local and/or federal government regulations like the Americans with Disabilities Act. But there are loopholes, and many restaurants take advantage. “I feel like restaurants are all crime, all the time,” says Rebecca Bass, who spent 11 years as a server and restaurant manager.
Bass, who has one leg, details how at various jobs she had difficulty navigating the space, whether it was because a bathroom was downstairs or the tile floors became wet and greasy. She was also told she wasn’t allowed to sit down in view of customers, even if her prosthetic was causing her such pain she couldn’t wear it that day. At one job, she says, “I was not allowed to come in if I was on crutches because it was a bad look for customers. Which is an incredibly illegal thing to say.” And because her work did not provide her with insurance, she couldn’t afford a better-fitting prosthetic. This is on top of intrusive questions from customers she’d often receive about her leg.
There are also changes to be made around the hectic scheduling and long hours common in much of the restaurant industry. Jason Berry, co-founder of Knead Hospitality + Design, which owns Mah-Ze-Dahr bakery and restaurants Mi Casa and Lil Succotash, also hopes to make drastic changes around schedule and work expectations. In the coming months, Berry will pilot a four-day workweek for salaried employees, which includes assistant managers, managers, sous chefs, and executive sous chefs. “Sixty to 70 hours is pretty standard historically for a manager or chef, spread across 12-to-14 hour days at the restaurant, but now people are understandably not as willing to take on that many hours while sacrificing their personal lives,” Berry says. These employees will still be working four 12-hour days, but they will be allowed to do admin work at home. Still, the program is just for salaried employees. Berry also plans to hire more hourly front- and back-of-house staff, which means there will be more coverage and ideally less burnout.
“A shift that is physically grueling and hot and everything, if it’s two hours shorter, becomes much more bearable than if it’s the whole night,” says Souris. Paying hourly workers more for shorter shifts and scheduling more people can help ease the strain that these workers face. D’Alessio says that on top of shutting down the dining room at Comfortland, he schedules enough people so no one is overworked, rotates stations so no one gets too fatigued, and communicates with customers so they know when things might take longer than expected. This sometimes means food sells out quickly, or Comfortland shuts down early. The challenge is teaching customers to be fine with that.
“Whatever you can do to appease this imaginary customer is how a restaurant is structured,” says Bass. Souris agrees, saying that the underlying problem with everything from hot kitchens to ADA compliance to burnout is the mindset among restaurant owners that the customer is not just always right, but needs to have every need anticipated and every whim catered to.
Reports on the labor shortage often make it seem like restaurant work is inherently stressful and dangerous. But “hard work is not uncomfortable,” says Souris. There are always going to be physical realities of restaurant work, and of a specific space. Sometimes a building is old, or has two floors, or is landmarked, and it’s architecturally impossible to modify. But as some of the examples above suggest, there are changes that can make the work easier — and the biggest change of all might just be culture. “People have such insane ideas about the levels of service that they should have,” says Souris, “You’re like, ‘You’re going to dinner. No one’s supposed to bend over backwards for you.’” Sometimes, the easiest change is being willing to say “no.”
That’s also going to mean customers approaching restaurants with different expectations, and ideally appreciating what the restaurant is doing to treat its workers well, even if it means the dining experience changes a bit. Maybe the restaurant closes an hour early. Maybe your meal takes 10 minutes longer. Or maybe, you’ll think twice if you see a server sitting down. Because if that really irks you so much, says Bass, “what is wrong with this industry that that is the culture we’ve created?”
Carolyn Figel is a freelance artist living in Brooklyn.