“I feel so much safer here,” Marie Figueroa confesses. “I’m not in a room full of people without masks on talking and eating and having a good time.” After spending most of her adult life behind the bar, the 42-year-old now sits at a desk where she sells Volkswagens. She met the owner of the dealership at the restaurant where she most recently worked. “I decided to move in a parallel direction,” she says. “I enjoy sales. Getting the job was a breeze, I was really fortunate.”
The COVID-19 pandemic is testing even the most experienced hospitality industry professionals. While Figueroa agrees servers and bartenders should be wearing protective gear while on the clock, she says masks make the sweltering summer heat even worse. Customers care enough about the pandemic to know they’re safer dining outdoors, but they haven’t been fun to wait on. “They’re very rude about CDC guidelines, our smaller menus, and needing reservations for contract tracing,” Figueroa says.
This sort of behavior and other pandemic-related factors led to Figueroa’s decision to move on. She attributes her restaurant’s staffing issues to laid-off workers not wanting to forfeit their unemployment benefits by returning to work in uncertain times. They could also fear for their safety. Because the restaurant had fewer available workers, Figueroa was asked to work five 10-hour shifts per week as a server. She declined to name her most recent employer out of fear of retaliation.
“I’m not saying that I’ll never get back into bartending again, but right now, it’s not there,” she says. “I wouldn’t consider myself old, but it’s a lot of physically demanding work. It feels good not to go home and want to fall through the door. Eventually, the party’s gotta be over.”
It’s too soon to tell if the pandemic is accelerating an exodus from the hospitality industry. The reasons bar and restaurant professionals switch careers are complex. Several shared their reasons for departing or exploring new fields, ways their service skills translate to their new roles, and how the hospitality industry needs to evolve for workers to stay employed later in life.
The pandemic prompted Bobby Bump to step away after a decade of brewing beer. He spent the past five years at Right Proper Brewing Company in Shaw as its lead brewer. On March 17, the day after Mayor Muriel Bowserclosed bars and restaurants to on-premise consumption, he was laid off. Now his primary job title is “dad.”
When COVID-19 hit, Bump and his wife had a meeting of the minds. As an architect, she’s the family breadwinner. “It makes sense for me to stay at home with our daughter,” he explains. “There’s no safe way to have child care, or at least nothing we felt comfortable with.” He wants to see a vaccine before he sends his three-year-old daughter to day care. Even if Right Proper called him back to work, he couldn’t return. “Being a brewer, you have to be on site,” he notes.
Even though Bump expects full-time parenting to be rewarding, he struggles some days, because so much of his identity is tied to the beer world. Even though he’s exited, he still worries about the future of local breweries. They depend on draft sales at area bars, which are closed or operating at reduced capacities. “I don’t know how they’re staying afloat,” he says.
Daniel Alexander Lloyd, like Bump, is a new dad. His tenure in the local hospitality industry included stops bartending and managing at Ghibellina (which closed permanently last month) and The Gibson on 14th Street NW, followed by his most recent job at Cielo Rojo in Takoma Park.
“About six or seven months ago, I had the opportunity after we had our baby to go for a slower pace of life,” Lloyd explains. He became an apprentice at Georgie’s Barber, also in Takoma Park. He describes his role there as “the barback of barbering.” Barbacks make sure bartenders have everything they need to succeed—they regularly restock ice and swap in fresh kegs. “Whatever barbers needed, I was there to give it to them,” Lloyd says. “The better I was, the better I made them.”
Slinging drinks at busy bars prepared him to juggle customers who came through the door at Georgie’s. The barbershop paid him to work as a receptionist during his apprenticeship, but they laid him off when COVID-19 hit. They later brought him back, only to lay him off again. Right now, he’s waiting to see what happens next. “Those guys showed me a lot of love,” Lloyd says of the owners of Georgie’s.
“It’s a blessing in disguise,” he continues. Lloyd was worried about contracting the virus and transmitting it to his family even though the barbershop is taking every precaution. “It turned into a doctor’s office,” he says. “We were sanitizing everything. I was checking temperatures when people came in.”
To retain hospitality professionals, Lloyd believes bars and restaurants need to care about people instead of simply filling positions. “You really want to treat the employees you have as well as you can. That way, they care about being there,” he says. “Then they’ll want to help the business. It won’t just be, ‘My shift’s over, let me run out of here.’ That’s big for longevity.”
He’s helped open four restaurants, but at times has encountered operators who weren’t interested in hearing his ideas. “You get tired of trying to help people out and them not accepting it,” he says. If he returns to the industry, it’ll be at a small restaurant where he can make an impact.
Rachel Michel Murray announced on Facebook earlier this month that she had completed a coding bootcamp at The George Washington University and was prepared to leave her 15-year career in beer and bartending behind to become a full-stack web developer, at least for now. “I love the industry and cherish the family I made along the way, but my passion for it was just not the same as when I started so I decided to find something new,” she wrote.
When Murray was 20, she took her first job at the Brickskeller, the Dupont Circle institution that closed in 2010 after playing its part in introducing Washingtonians to craft beer. She also worked at Bourbon in Glover Park, which also closed, and most recently at the Atlas Brew Works taproom. She says the most fulfilling part of her job was educating customers from behind the bar and being involved with the craft beer movement as it crested locally.
After leaving Atlas Brew Works in May 2019, Murray took a sabbatical to contemplate what to take on next. She’s relieved she got out before COVID-19 wreaked havoc on the hospitality industry and the lives of its workers. “I got lucky deciding that I wasn’t feeling it anymore,” she says. “Not everyone has that luxury.”
Murray likens coding to bartending because everyone has the same tools at their disposal and the artistry comes from what you build with the skills you’ve honed. She’s pleased that, with her new venture, there’s one more woman coder in the world. But she’ll miss the relationships she built with coworkers as they cranked through busy nights of service in unison.
Like Lloyd, Murray hopes bar owners invest more in their employees. “They’re always looking at numbers, not at their staff and people,” she says. “There are exceptions to that rule, usually when bars are owned by former bartenders. Hopefully they don’t fall into the same traps.”
Better training is needed, according toHalimah Saalakhan. At 16, she started working in restaurants as a host and worked her way up through a variety of positions including server, barback, bartender, and bar manager. “There’s not enough training and support,” she says. “Workers get overwhelmed quickly if they have no training.” Depending on tips was stressful, as was not receiving basic benefits like health care and life insurance.
“Sometimes you go to work and don’t even make gas money, and you’re so discouraged and beaten to hell,” she continues. “You still gotta keep your smile on and hope and pray a table will tip 20 percent.” She’s convinced many diners think tips are bonuses, and not how servers and bartenders earn the lion’s share of their money. “It makes people even more discouraged when they don’t get the money for the hard work they’re putting in. It makes them switch places or get out altogether.”
COVID-19 somewhat spurred Saalakhan’s exit from the industry. She was bartending at Satellite Room when it closed at the end of 2019. Then she took a job managing at Buttercream Bakeshop. When the Shaw bakery temporarily closed because of the pandemic in March, she saw it as a sign to focus on her own event planning business, Design Innovation Yourself. It had been a side project for four years.
During the pandemic, Saalakhan has been helping couples set up themed date nights in their homes or hotels, and she’s put on the occasional intimate wedding. She also has satellite businesses selling crystal jewelry and organic dog treats. Soon she’ll partner with Pet Winery to be a wholesaler of non-alcoholic “wine” and “beer” for cats and dogs.
“The hospitality industry taught me how to manage a bunch of different things at one time,” Saalakhan says. “Talking to people has been my most valuable skill set that I got working in hospitality. We have to learn how to talk to different types of people, feel them out, and make sure they leave happy. It became rooted in me. Customer service is a big part of my business venture.”
Unlike others, Jo McDaniel still has one foot firmly planted in the hospitality industry. She manages Adams Morgan queer bar A League of Her Own, but passed her real estate licensing exam earlier this month, should it prove useful down the line. Other ex-hospitality industry professionals have blazed similar trails and are giving McDaniel advice.
“If you are good with talking to others, working with urgency, and managing personalities, sales is a good pivot from the restaurant industry,” says Mark Rutstein, who previously worked at JR’s and the now-closedCobalt in Dupont Circle. Now he’s a realtor with Compass.
“My kid is going to be a senior in high school,” McDaniel says. “I’m figuring out what life looks like when everything isn’t about being a single mom. How I could use the skill set I have outside of bartending? I love running A League of Her Own, but I’m pushing 40. The physical toll of it got me thinking about where I can go from here.”
She knows she eventually wants to buy and sell residential homes. “Queer women need representation everywhere,” she says. “To be able to potentially sell a queer family their house, I’d be representing our community on another level. Right now, behind the bar, I’m helping people through their first dates and planning their weddings. When you have regulars, you get to watch people go through that.”
The secret to staying in the hospitality industry a long time, according to McDaniel, is finding a way to make shift work fit into a healthy lifestyle. That can be tough to do if you regularly sleep in until 11 a.m. after late nights. It also helps to have a partner who works similar hours. “For people who stay longer, being childless makes it easier,” she admits.
There are also financial considerations that need fixing. “COVID notwithstanding, being able to make a living in a city that’s as expensive as D.C. would be helpful,” McDaniel says. “As a manager, you have to work somewhere that can afford to pay a salary. That means not working at fun places that have an impact in the community. My bar will be two years old next month. It’s not enough time for us to have established ourselves. I can stay longer if I have another source of income feeding me.”
Still, she says it will be hard for her to walk away. “There’s nothing on earth like a really good shift, and you’re always sort of chasing that.”