Suddenly, we’re told that restaurants can’t find help. Wolfgang Puck says servers can make over $100,000 per year in some of his restaurants, but no one wants the job. The shortage is even more acute in basic establishments with lower wage scales. Increasingly, restaurants are cutting down on hours, closing several days each week, or even shutting completely.
There’s been a shortage of cooks for some time, but now the drought has spread to the front of the house. Traditionally, servers in high-end restaurants have been in an enviable position: they make lots of money in cash and leave with that money in their pockets at the end of the night, and they also have a trade they can travel with. Why are those jobs suddenly going begging?
The dangers of COVID-19 have played a large role in the labor shortage. Front-line restaurant workers are exposed to a wide range of customers, some of whom are unvaccinated and many of whom are not wearing masks. Faced with escalating levels of danger, it’s not surprising that servers have increasingly decided the risks outweighed the rewards.
However, there may be a more fundamental reason for the lack of restaurant help:
Ever since the days of Medieval banquets, when serfs served lords, the hospitality experience has been sharply divided into haves and have-nots. Things are not greatly different today. While some servers may think they are more sophisticated than their customers—and they may well be—their financial situation is the reason they are serving dinner rather than sitting down and eating it. Even though certain elements of the food culture have been elevated to celebrity status, the class divide is still very real.
The pandemic caused many people to stop and reevaluate what they hoped to get out of their lives. Restaurant work can be thankless in many ways. The hours are long, usually terminating after midnight. Working weekends and holidays is mandatory. The use and abuse of both alcohol and drugs is common. Combining all these factors, it’s difficult to lead a normal life (although you might fairly argue that many restaurant workers have little desire for one).
No wonder, then, that more of them are opting to start a business, write a book, sail a boat around the world, or nurture a relationship and build a family. There will always be restaurants, but it may remain difficult to find inmates to run the asylums.
Mark Spivak specializes in wine, spirits, food, restaurants and culinary travel. He is the author of several books on distilled spirits and the cocktail culture, as well as three novels. His latest release, Impeachment, is now available on Amazon.