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Pandemic has seen Baltimore restaurant staffers leave the industry. Some won’t return to ‘a brutal place to work’

When the pandemic shut down the restaurant where he worked, Danvic Celebrado-Royer turned his attention to greener pastures. Plants — specifically, kokedamas, bonsai encased in moss balls.

With some money set aside from his unemployment checks, he started his own business to sell them. He kept it up as a side hustle even after going back to work as a server at Cafe Troia, the Towson Italian restaurant.

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Today, Celebrado-Royer is working on tending to his plants, and to his growing small business, Mister Kokedama. The 24-year-old left the restaurant industry for good last month to focus on planting full-time.

Danvic Celebrado-Royer makes and sells kokedamas bonsai from home full time since leaving Cafe Troia, the restaurant where he worked. It closed permanently last month.
Danvic Celebrado-Royer makes and sells kokedamas bonsai from home full time since leaving Cafe Troia, the restaurant where he worked. It closed permanently last month. (Kenneth K. Lam)

“It’s definitely an escape from the restaurant,” he said. Caring for his plants, he’s becoming attuned to how much water and light each one requires. They’re a lot like people in a way. But less likely to complain — or walk out on a bill.

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The coronavirus pandemic has increased the volatility of the already-challenging restaurant industry, and thereby compounded the stress on employees. Many have walked away. The losses have added up to a massive labor shortage.

“There’s no light at the end of the tunnel for most restaurant managers,” said Virginia Allen, 40, director of operations at JBGB’s, a recently opened restaurant in Remington in North Baltimore.

She said wages and benefits are part of the challenge in attracting long-term workers, with management positions seldom paying more than $50,000 per year. Few receive benefits commonplace in other fields: sick leave, overtime and vacation. Staff are expected to work 60 to 80 hours per week or more, with no days off for anniversaries and other life events.

Restaurant workers’ pay tends to be just a fraction of the average for private industry as a whole. According to the federal Bureau of Labor and Statistics, compensation costs across all private industries averaged $36.64 per hour in June, including benefits, but just $16.53 for those in leisure and hospitality.

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Low pay and high stress combine to create a workplace environment that leads to frequent turnover. Though she works hard to cultivate a positive working environment at JBGB’s, Allen said that’s far from the norm. “The vast majority of restaurants are just a brutal place to work.”

That was on the mind of Celebrado-Royer. He looks back on all the holidays and family functions he missed because of work. Even if the pay was good, he wonders, “Is it really worth it at the end of the day, you know?”

Danvic Celebrado-Royer learned about making the moss ball bonsai during the shutdown caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and decided to turn it into a business. He has sold about 200 plants.
Danvic Celebrado-Royer learned about making the moss ball bonsai during the shutdown caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and decided to turn it into a business. He has sold about 200 plants. (Kenneth K. Lam)

Sitting on a sofa in the Roland Park home he shares with his partner, he recalled the microaggressions he’d experienced as a server in recent years. Around the time that people started worrying about the coronavirus, one diner asked: “Oh, you haven’t been to China recently, have you? Have you seen your relatives recently?” His response: “I’m Filipino.”

Another customer at Cafe Troia called him “amigo” after demanding to know why the restaurant didn’t have a favorite dish on the menu. Celebrado-Royer was rattled. “If he was Latino, and called me amigo, I’d be fine,” says Celebrado-Royer, who studied Spanish at Towson and speaks French, German and several other languages. “But he was a white man, saying ‘amigo’ in a very derogatory way just because he didn’t get the food that he wants.”

Celebrado-Royer decided to put in his two weeks’ notice last month. He soon learned that Cafe Troia’s owner was planning on closing. The location is set to become a new location of Banditos, a taco restaurant.

Since Troia’s last night, Celebrado-Royer says he’s felt nothing but relief. Though he’s had job offers from other restaurants, he’s not yet tempted to go back.

Others are making the opposite decision, deciding to return to restaurants in recent months as some workers see an opportunity to increase their incomes and employment options. Sitting at a booth in Rathskeller, a German restaurant and bar in an Elkridge basement, Selina Peterson says she has no regrets about coming back to restaurants after taking a break from the industry.

After a particularly grinding job as a server at a tavern in Columbia, Peterson, 24, decided to explore an interest in fashion at a local bridal boutique. There, she learned to guide brides to the right gown, just as she used to anticipate the needs of guests at local restaurants. “You know what the bride wants whether she knows it or not,” she said.

But her income was about half what she had earned in restaurants. In March 2020, she took a job at Rathskeller, then a new restaurant. The place closed for a few months when the pandemic took hold. Peterson said she wondered: “Was this restaurant going to open back up? Do I need to find a different job completely?”

After reopening and then a slow summer in 2020 of mostly takeout orders, things picked up again last fall, and customers flocked to the restaurant’s biergarten. For a while, she said, “it was like there was no pandemic anymore.” But business turned down again during the winter. This year, with the coming of cooler weather, Peterson is starting to worry again.

Given all of the uncertainty, Peterson says she can understand why many of her peers have left the hospitality industry altogether. But overall, she’s happy with her decision. She recently became Rathskeller’s bar manager, a position that pays a set hourly wage and helps her feel more secure.

That sense of security is not being felt throughout the industry. Some businesses in the Baltimore area, like the Village Square Cafe in Cross Keys in North Baltimore, have cited a lack of workers as a reason they’re shutting down or scaling back hours. The cafe closed last month.

At JBGB’s, many people who do apply already have full-time jobs and are just picking up a few shifts at the restaurant to supplement their incomes. Some developed an interest in cooking during the pandemic — even leaving behind previous jobs to get started in the industry.

But Allen said she wonders if people will continue to see restaurants as a viable career path. She calls the current climate “the hardest hiring market that I’ve ever been a part of.”

Overall, though, she said it’s been “shocking” to see how many of her friends have left careers in the restaurant industry in recent months. Some have left to stay home with kids, finding ways to make things work with support from spouses and family members.

“I have heard from lots of folks that they just have had sort of an awakening where they’re like, ‘This isn’t worth it.’”

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