It had been ages since our water glasses were refilled. No one had taken our drink or appetizer orders yet. We were hungry.
A chalkboard sign at the entrance to the Boulder restaurant we sat in announced the establishment was hiring, and that three items had been 86-ed—nixed from the menu that night. I’d looked forward to eating one of those now-absent dishes, and it felt like we were being ignored.
There was a time a scene like this would prompt a professional dining critic to rip the place a new one, knock its grade down a mark or two.
That time is over.
We sat back and waited for our server, who profusely apologized for the short-staffed situation. The meal was great.
But on the way out, I was compelled to apologize for the horrible humans seated at the next table over.
The diners next to us began complaining loudly as soon as they sat down. They demanded their drinks and their bread and butter, and when the entrees failed to fit their schedule they threw a tantrum. They stopped servers with arms full of plates to demand immediate attention. Their food arrived and they discussed the terrible Yelp review they’d soon pen. The server’s facial expression made it obvious they had stiffed her on the tip.
It left one to wonder: What the hell is wrong with people? Have they forgotten there’s a pandemic raging?
Sadly, this sort of scene has become common. Every single restaurant worker I’ve talked to recently has related upsetting incidents where diners started yelling, used obscenities, or made servers cry.
“It’s nasty. It’s like everybody forgot how to relate to other human beings while they were at home,” one manager said.
All of this abuse is taking place during the honeymoon period we’ve been told has finally arrived, when dining is supposed to go back to “normal,” except for the masks and seating limitations. Restaurant employees and owners tell worse stories of bad behavior during their months of enforcing mask and social distancing rules.
Even Boulder’s top-end eateries report incidents involving wealthy diners unwilling to comply with safety measures. And there is also an alarming rise in “no-shows” for reservations—an upraised middle finger to already-stressed-out eateries.
This epidemic of disrespect is not unique to Boulder County, nor is the shortage of labor. There is a complex set of factors that explains why restaurants can’t fill their open positions. But it boils down to one simple answer: Nobody wants to work in restaurants anymore.
Cooks, waiters, bartenders, and dishwashers are hard to come by. Consequently, some food trucks, restaurants, bars, bakeries, and coffeeshops are only open on certain days or certain hours, further frustrating diners. Understaffing results in the remaining staff being overworked, and many of them are new and undertrained.
The shortage has little to do with extended unemployment benefits, despite frustrated suggestions to the contrary. The bulk of these restaurant workers lost their jobs in the spring of 2020 or had their hours slashed and left the industry.
Restaurant kitchens have always been difficult places to work, with sharp knives, hot oil, and open flames a constant hazard. A still-pervasive macho code prompts people to continue working with wounds and burns. Eatery workers labored through nights, weekends, and every holiday (including Labor Day) during the pandemic, yet there were few salutes to short-order cooks or parades for bussers and bartenders.
Given time to ponder their fates in the past year, a lot of restaurant folks left behind a job they loved. They reevaluated their priorities and migrated from restaurant work to other professions that are safer, pay better, and offer better benefits, and they aren’t coming back to the restaurant world.
The result is that restaurants are offering far higher wages, shorter workweeks, signing bonuses, and additional benefits like health insurance. Restaurants are all advertising for positive, self-motivated team players to join their teams, but aren’t finding many takers.
One problem is that rising real estate prices in Boulder County make it almost impossible for people who cook and wait on tables to afford to rent a home here. That situation is unlikely to improve any time soon.
Eatery laborers look ahead and foresee a fall and winter with the Delta variant running rampant, when they’ll be asked to police mask and vaccine mandates and serve outdoor tables on cold nights, while trying to avoid getting sick with COVID-19 or bringing the virus home to their families.
After barely surviving the past 18 months while iconic local eateries closed all around them, independent restaurants are facing an existential threat amid the steady rise of better-funded chain eateries. They’re forced to make changes.
The tipping system as we know it is likely to fade away as restaurants find a way to create a more equitable pay structure. That means customers will pay more for dining out, including 20 percent service charges. Prices for meat and other ingredients have also risen significantly. There will be menu sticker shock.
Diners may choose to dine out less, and it might require more of a special occasion when they do.
All we can do as decent diners and human beings is support our favorite restaurants, be kind, care about the people feeding us, tip heavily, and leave positive reviews. We should appreciate the fact that these places are still open at all.
Local food news
Little Lama Cafe is open weekdays on Naropa University’s campus at 2130 Arapahoe Avenue, serving global cuisines and Boxcar coffee . . . McCaslin Thai is open and dishing everything from pad Thai to squid salad at 316 McCaslin Boulevard in Louisville . . . Waffle Lab on the Hill opens September 4 at 1155 13th Street (former site of Taco Bell) . . . Hot food in Ward! The Dynamite Shack food truck is offering breakfast through dinner daily, including pancake tacos, smoothies, chai, smoked burgers, and salads . . . Coming soon: Birdcall, on 29th Street.
Words to chew on
“Cooking is a craft, I like to think, and a good cook is a craftsman—not an artist. There’s nothing wrong with that: The great cathedrals of Europe were built by craftsmen—though not designed by them. Practicing your craft in expert fashion is noble, honorable, and satisfying.”—Anthony Bourdain
John Lehndorff formerly cooked at Spice of Life Catering, Greenbriar Inn, Pearl’s, Potter’s, Good Taste Crepe Shop, Cafe Circolo, and other Boulder restaurants. Comments: Nibbles@BoulderWeekly.com