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Amid pandemic, slashed hours and layoffs, Baltimore’s restaurant workers face lean Christmas

Chef Mario Cano Catalan, left, executive chef at Bar Vasquez, and Patrick Del Valle, general manager of Petit Louis, pack food boxes for employees of the Foreman Wolf Restaurant Group.
Chef Mario Cano Catalan, left, executive chef at Bar Vasquez, and Patrick Del Valle, general manager of Petit Louis, pack food boxes for employees of the Foreman Wolf Restaurant Group. (Barbara Haddock Taylor)

Just over a week ago, Mario Cano Catalán explained to his children: Christmas was going to look a little different this year. They shouldn’t expect any presents.

“It’s more important to take care of other things,” he told his kids, ages 8 and 12. “Make sure everybody has something to eat.”

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The head chef at Bar Vasquez, a chic Argentine steakhouse in Harbor East, feels lucky. He still has a job when so many of his peers are laid off. But people are depending on him. He’s been buying groceries for everyone in his household. He’s had to double the money he sends home to his mother and sister in Mexico. There’s nothing left for toys and new clothes.

Such scenes are playing out in households across the region as hospitality workers and their families close out a disastrous year for the industry. In April, after the first lockdown measures went into effect, unemployment soared, especially among service workers. Things recovered somewhat as restrictions loosened over the summer and restaurants embraced outdoor dining. But with the coming of winter and the latest surge in COVID-19 cases, economists fear unemployment numbers as dire as last spring’s as local jurisdictions again tighten dining restrictions.

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“It wouldn’t be shocking if that happened again,” said Erin Delaney, economist with the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics.

It’s all happening during what are usually some of “the best paydays” of the year, said Bar Vasquez owner Tony Foreman, of the Foreman Wolf Restaurant Group. Workers and business owners alike depend on the big tips and high revenues during the holiday season.

Chef Mario Cano Catalan, left, executive chef of Bar Vasquez, and Sabrina Hogan, right, executive baker for the Foreman Wolf Restaurant Group, place dinner rolls in packages that will become part of food boxes for employees.
Chef Mario Cano Catalan, left, executive chef of Bar Vasquez, and Sabrina Hogan, right, executive baker for the Foreman Wolf Restaurant Group, place dinner rolls in packages that will become part of food boxes for employees. (Barbara Haddock Taylor)

Despite news of a federal relief package, with aid for small businesses, Foreman said there is “no way to predict” whether Bar Vasquez would make it through the next three or four months. This fall, Cano Catalán watched as business at Bar Vasquez slowed to a trickle, then practically came to a halt. Two days last week there were no orders at all.

“I wish we can be busier,” he said. “We just need more people to support restaurants in general.”

Some restaurants, including those owned by Foreman Wolf, have tried to spread out hours among staff rather than lay people off. But Cano Catalán called it an inadequate solution.

“You can’t pay rent with only two days’ work,” he said. “You can barely get enough money just for food.”

On Tuesday morning, Cano Catalán was busy loading up boxes with chicken, pork, ground turkey, pasta and fresh bread to give out to coworkers before Christmas. Such giveaways have become a regular occurrence as businesses try to support their laid off or underemployed staffs in the best way they know how — with food.

That same afternoon, out-of-work bartender Chris Rhem stopped by the Wayward Smokehouse to pick up a bag of groceries. The giveaway had been organized by Federal Hill restaurants to support their staffs. In the bag was bread, potatoes, “pretty good stuff,” Rehm said.

But the 24-year-old had other concerns. Had he depleted his unemployment insurance for the year? He had just been laid off for the second time from his job at a nearby business. The first time had been in March; Rhem was re-hired in June and had been working up until Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott announced a citywide ban on all indoor and outdoor dining earlier this month.

Then there was the more tender matter: the upcoming holiday.

“The biggest thing that upsets me this year is I can’t get my mom a gift,” Rhem said.

He was raised by a single mother, and always tries to get her something nice for Christmas to show his appreciation.

Like Rhem, Michelle Robinson, 32, was laid off recently from her job as a server at Phillips Seafood in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. It’s worsened an already precarious financial situation. Before the pandemic, the Patterson Park resident, who is nine months pregnant, had what she called a “nice healthy savings account.” In months, it was gone. She’s had problems accessing unemployment. Last week, she worried that her electricity was about to get shut off.

She’s agonized over what to tell her kids, two sons ages 8 and 10. She doesn’t want them to worry about things beyond their control.

Robinson spoke last week at a news conference held by the Restaurant Association of Maryland announcing lawsuits they hoped would reopen restaurants in Baltimore City and Prince George’s County. (Judges in both places declined to overturn the bans immediately this week.)

Since then, Robinson has received support from random strangers: gift cards — which she used to pay off her electric bill — and toys and clothes for her sons. A local comic shop sent some books.

“I was so touched,” she said.

At the same time, she feels embarrassed. She’s more comfortable helping others than receiving assistance herself.

“The acceptance is really the hardest. I’m not used to being down on my feet,” Robinson said.

Even before the most recent shutdown, Hampden resident Derek Palmer said that between the 25% capacity limits and reduced hours, he had been making less than half of his usual earnings at his job as a bartender at Gordon Ramsay Steak in Horseshoe Casino Baltimore.

“This is usually a really good period for us,” he said. “It really hit hard.”

With the most recent shutdown, he was let go from his job for the third time. Luckily, he was approved to receive unemployment — some of his coworkers haven’t yet. But even with the promise of an extra $300 a week from the federal government, the money won’t cover his car payment and mortgage. He’s had to dip into his savings, and come up with side hustles like selling bottled cocktails to friends. It pains him that he can’t afford the big-ticket items on his 8-year-old son’s Christmas list, especially after such a trying year.

“It gets worrisome,” Palmer said. “If we don’t go back to work soon, the savings can only go so far.”

Some still on the job feel wracked with anxiety about the virus, and frustrated with customers’ refusal to comply with COVID-related restrictions.

“It’s super stressful. I’m stressed out more now than I was months ago when we first opened back up,” said Kacie Basham, 28, who works at Nacho Mama’s in Towson, where restaurants are still allowed to operate indoors at half capacity.

But business is slow, she said, and her pay has dropped.

With coronavirus cases spiking in Maryland and across the nation, Basham worries constantly about getting sick on the job or infecting her family.

“No wonder some people’s mental health isn’t great right now,” she said.

She sometimes has to stop people who get up to use the restroom without wearing a mask. “People look at me like I’m the bad guy,” she said. Her response: “I’m just trying to protect you and everybody in this restaurant.”

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While a rollout of vaccines has inspired hope in some, Basham fears it will be a long time before restaurant workers like her are eligible to receive it.

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Amid so much uncertainty and pain, Cano Catalán is determined to persevere, drawing on lessons learned during his hardscrabble upbringing in rural Mexico, and subsequent rise through the ranks at Foreman Wolf, one of Baltimore’s fanciest restaurant groups.

“We’re coming from a small town where people get sick all the time and people die all the time,” he said. “The virus kind of reminds us of that.”

Since the pandemic, Cano Catalán has become a “leader” in finding ways to help out staff, Foreman said. “He feels the obligation to do things for people.”

Does the chef think next year will be better? Does he have hope in the vaccine? Cano Catalán wouldn’t say. Only: “It doesn’t matter the situation... what matters is the attitude and the energy.”

On Christmas Day, at his home in Fells Point, far away from the mountains of Mexico, Cano Catalán will prepare a roast chicken for his family. For working households like his, everyone with a different schedule, having a meal together is a rare and treasured event.

There will be no presents, just each other.

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