Lydia’s Café in Stone Ridge has stopped serving most meals. Woodstock’s Catskill Mountain Pizza Company shut its doors for a week to give the overworked skeleton staff a rest. In New Paltz, P & G’s is temporarily closed on Wednesdays. The Starway Restaurant in Saugerties no longer serves dinner.
What’s up? Like many businesses across the country, Ulster County restaurants cannot hire enough servers and kitchen staff to maintain their hours. Coming out of the pandemic, the food industry may be irrevocably transformed, with fewer, perhaps better paid workers, higher prices and fewer dining out options.
In the early days of the virus shutdown, restaurant workers like former waitress Katherine Betts were cheered to hear themselves described as “frontline workers.” Betts had worked for five years at a “fine dining establishment” in New Paltz and she was proud of the service she provided to people who wanted a special night out. Still, she was pretty sure her customers didn’t appreciate the physical, mental and emotional effort it took to keep going on a busy night, for as many as nine hours, sometimes without a break.
When the restaurant closed in March 2020, Betts went on unemployment but after six months, she was asked back. She realized then that the work would be much harder — she’d have wear a mask and carry heavy trays to outdoor tables — and the pay would be less since there were fewer customers. And she worried that the people who were eating out were those who were less cautious about COVID-19. Katherine and her partner were concerned that she’d carry the virus home and they’d be unable to visit immune-compromised family members. So she decided not to return.
Mention the food industry labor shortage and many blame the generous unemployment benefits the government sent workers during the pandemic. But Cheryl Valentino, 56, who worked in food service most of her life — including twenty years at the Gilded Otter in New Paltz — explained that servers who went back to work when restaurants re-opened might have been risking their health to make a fraction of their pre-pandemic incomes.
In New York state, tipped servers earn a minimum wage of $8.35 an hour. With restaurants serving at reduced capacity and few people feeling secure about eating out, waiters had no idea how much they’d earn in the tips that made up the bulk of their wages. A survey by the advocacy group One Fair Wage, in conjunction with the Food Labor Research Center at Berkeley, found that among nearly 3,000 food service workers, 87% of restaurant workers reported that tips have decreased since COVID-19. The drop was especially dramatic for women with children: 73% of mothers said their tips had dropped by at least 50% or more.
Amy, who asked us not to use her real name, was called back to waitressing in Uptown Kingston but this time, servers were expected to plate food and wash dishes too, and to share their tips with the “back of the house.” So she opted not to accept a deal that meant more work for less money.
Amy says that now that she’s a restaurant customer, she’s noticed “the veil has lifted. The norm of the service industry is ‘the customer is always right,’ so it’s safe to let out your edginess.” Some abuse was always part of the gig but after stepping away from the grind, Amy says servers are reconsidering what they put themselves through.
Stef Velasquez was a server and bartender at the Roundhouse, a wedding venue in Beacon, and at Rocking Horse Ranch in Highland. She calls food service “a nasty business” and says you have to have “a tough skin” to put up with abusive guests who have too much to drink. That’s not uncommon at weddings with open bars, where, at 23, she had to learn to cut folks off and even had to stop them from stealing bottles. One man threw a drink in her face.
In the One Fair Wage survey, 39 percent listed “concerns of hostility and harassment from customers” as one of the reasons they were leaving their jobs. Still, the vast majority of respondents (78%) report having a “full, stable, livable wage” would entice them to consider staying at their jobs.
Kitchen staff needed
“Today I waited for a guy I was supposed to train. He didn’t show up. Yesterday I waited for a guy I was supposed to hire. He didn’t show up either.” Mike Beck Jr. and his sister are the third generation of their family to own New Paltz’s popular P & G’s Restaurant and Bar. He’s raised the wages he pays for kitchen labor but still doesn’t have enough workers to maintain a seven-day a week schedule.
Beck doesn’t want to overwork the staff that’s stayed with him, so he’s given everyone Wednesdays off. He managed to keep most of his core staff during the pandemic and because his eatery is usually busy, his servers have maintained their incomes. But he lost a full-time member of his kitchen staff and, with a shortage of people with restaurant experience in the area, he hasn’t been able to replace him. He figures that some workers have left the food industry for well-paying jobs in booming industries like construction or landscaping.
P & G’s owner is happy that a couple of new restaurants have opened recently in New Paltz. That burnishes the town’s reputation as a tourist destination and is good for everyone’s business. But he fears that with prices rising for labor and ingredients (wholesale food prices are up 12.7% over last year), some restaurants will go out of business. “I can’t charge $20 for a cheeseburger,” Beck says. “Margins are low in the restaurant business. Restaurants have to get creative.”
Innis Lawrence, the co-owner of Ollie’s Pizza in High Falls, says he’s been surprised at how few people apply for positions in his kitchen. Just when he has a full complement of staff (about a dozen in the kitchen, another dozen in the “front of the house”), someone leaves and he has to start searching for new hires all over again.
Sometimes people apply from out of the area and agree to take a job at Ollie’s but when they learn how high rents are in Ulster county, the deal is off. Lawrence and his partners are rehabbing an apartment in town that they hope to rent to a prospective Ollie’s employee.
Lawrence says he tries to pay workers as much as he can. He knows restaurant workers have to be paid more and that bosses have to be aware of “work-life balance” issues, like giving people time off when they need it. He’s still working on paid vacations and a 401K for his employees but health insurance is a distant dream, something only big chain restaurants like Red Lobster can offer.
He says the labor shortage extends well beyond food service. His distributors are calling him looking for truck drivers, warehouse workers and other workers. “Companies are so short staffed, the supply chain is affected. I can’t get Coke in a bottle.”
Lawrence says eating out may have to be more expensive so we can pay people what it costs to live in this county. He’s been in the restaurant industry for years and knows it has a reputation for burning people out. He’s convinced the changes that come out of this period of reckoning will be positive — for those who survive.