From his home office in Charles Village, Cai Lindeman opened his laptop for his first day of his new job.
Until then, his career had been spent inside kitchens, most recently, as head chef at Noona’s in Bolton Hill, and before that working at The Dabney, a Michelin-starred restaurant in Washington. But in the past few months, amid weeks laid off and baking sourdough, he’d decided to switch careers. He was going to become an accountant.
The coronavirus that has forced so many restaurants to close or reinvent themselves is prompting upheaval in its workforce. The Baltimore area alone has shed tens of thousands of hospitality jobs, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. While Baltimore’s City Council just passed new job protections for hospitality workers, many of its would-be beneficiaries are choosing to leave the industry altogether.
Some, like Lindeman, say the pandemic gave them rare time to reflect on the downsides of the job, its long hours and relentless demands. But it has also changed the reality of restaurant work, making it more physically dangerous and more volatile than it had been. Servers who considered customers like family are terrified to face them while the virus is spreading. Bartenders who once viewed their skill as irreplaceable are struggling to find shifts.
A bartender at The Judge’s Bench near Ellicott City’s courthouse, Devon Hill, 48, was accustomed to having skills that travel well: One bar might close, but she could always go elsewhere. In more than two decades in the restaurant industry, she became adept at working anywhere, be it a club in Vegas or a pub in Howard County. Once the pandemic hit, “Not only was I out of a job, there weren’t any other jobs for me to look for.”
Her bar has since reopened, but the drop in patronage means she has just one or two shifts a week. Hill has applied for jobs elsewhere but says not every place she visits has rigorous standards for social distancing — and sometimes none at all. She has two degrees, including one in forensic science, but worries she doesn’t have enough experience to switch careers.
Timonium career and life coach Terry DellaVecchia encourages clients who are making the transition from restaurants to other fields to think about their skills and what drew them to the industry in the first place.
“Why do you like hospitality? Is it because you like working with people? There are plenty of other options,” she said. Still, she cautions against making long-term decisions based on temporary circumstances: “This isn’t going to stay like this forever."
Not everyone is so confident. “Everybody talks about, ‘Oh, when it goes back to normal,’ but we don’t know,” Hill said. “This could be the normal from now on, and it’s not good.”
Fear of contracting the virus has turned others away from the industry. Morgan Cawley-Prince was used to regulars requesting her section at Hampden’s Golden West Cafe. The same people sent her money when she was laid off during the pandemic through a “virtual tip jar." Still, Cawley-Prince said, she was “terrified” to come back to the restaurant, even though the eatery was taking precautions. For now, she’s scraping by on babysitting gigs and looking for jobs more in line with her psychology degree.
The hospitality industry faced a labor shortage before the pandemic, but lately business owners say it’s become even harder than usual to recruit new staff. “Nobody comes in for interviews,” said Nancy Trice, who recently reopened Gunther & Co., the Canton restaurant she owns with her husband. She has posted ads for servers and hosts on indeed.com. Some prospective employees, she thinks, are put off by safety concerns; others simply want more money than she can afford to pay. Trice says she can’t compete with retailers like Target that pay all starting employees $15 an hour.
Employment rates for hospitality workers in the Baltimore area plunged in April, following Gov. Larry Hogan’s executive order shutting down on-premises dining. With eateries now able to reopen, some of those lost jobs have returned, says Erin E. Delaney, economist with the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In August, there were 116,500 nonfarm payroll employees within the hospitality and leisure industry, according to preliminary data, well below a peak of 147,500 in June of last year. Still, it’s a larger number than it was in April: 70,300. “I wouldn’t say it’s rebounded,” Delaney said. “I would say that the loss has slowed down.”
Annelies Goger, who is researching the economic consequences of the pandemic for Washington’s Brookings Institution, says it’s important to not let people who were laid off “fall through the cracks.” “The longer someone’s out of employment, the harder it is for them to get a job, and the more likely they’re going to have other issues pop up,” she said. “Job loss is a trauma for a lot of people.” Recessions have been linked to increased substance abuse and suicide rates.
Within the industry, jobs are changing. As businesses reinvent themselves, switching to a delivery-only “ghost kitchen” model or focusing on carryout, there may be less need for traditional servers and bartenders. Remaining tipped workers, who make a minimum cash wage of $3.63 in Maryland, are in an especially precarious position, Goger says.
Many restaurants have closed permanently, taking jobs with them. David Forster opened PekoPeko Ramen in Charles Village in 2017 as a place to serve the comfort food he’d grown up eating as a child in Japan. But after getting married, Forster found the long hours and stress of being a restaurant owner put a strain on his relationship. Once the coronavirus hit, he opted to shut down for good. It was bittersweet to shut the door on a business he’d spent years dreaming up. But the timing was right, he says. “No one’s asking, ‘You didn’t make it through COVID? What kind of business were you running?’”
Forster acknowledges such a dramatic career change is easier to make as a young person. He’s 28, and says when other business owners learn his age, their reaction is: “Oh my gosh, go do something else — you still have plenty of time.”
Lindeman, 26, hadn’t planned to become a professional cook; he considered his first job, at a kitchen in Chicago, as a short-term gig to save money for college. He fell in love with the romance of kitchen life, of heading to the same dive bar every night after his shift to share beers with staff from neighboring restaurants. He landed gigs at big-name restaurants like Prosecco and mk. Lindeman remembers the night the Blackhawks ice hockey team came in to his restaurant to celebrate winning the Stanley Cup. They drank out of the trophy in the private dining room.
There was a dark side, too. In his years cooking, he never worked less than 60 hours a week. That became problematic once Lindeman met his partner. “My priorities definitely shifted.” He’d fallen “head over heels” with kitchens as a teen. But what would that look like years from now?
Then came the pandemic. The industry’s worst-case scenario had arrived. “I don’t know a lot of people that don’t live check to check in restaurants,” he said. Lindeman felt lucky that he had a safety net in family and his partner, who still had a job. Many of his peers faced backlogs in receiving unemployment — others, like undocumented immigrants, received nothing.
And, for the first time ever, he was home with little to do but bake bread and have one existential crisis after another.
Lindeman enrolled in an accounting program at Baltimore City Community College and began applying for jobs. For a while, he went back to Noona’s to launch the restaurant’s carryout operation. He knew his heart wasn’t in it.
This summer, he got an associate position with a firm in Washington. It was awkward starting a job remotely, but his new co-workers were down to earth and reassured him via Zoom huddles. He had to get used to corporate vocabulary, a change from the more straightforward argot of kitchens. (Any cook knows to yell ‘behind!’ or ‘hot!’ on the line.) But there were health benefits and a 401(k), dental and vision, rare perks in the restaurant industry.
Sure, he’ll miss the excitement and glamour of kitchens. Maybe one day, he says, he’ll open his own accounting firm for restaurant owners.