Hospitality industry workers are known for thinking on their feet. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, that meant adjusting recipes to accommodate a food allergy or moving outdoor diners inside during unexpected rain storms. But as the pandemic continues to disrupt order of our worlds, the servers, bartenders, cooks, managers, and pastry chefs who make dining out special have had to play by
new rules to keep themselves and their patrons safe.
Some have soldiered on despite
losing a loved one to virus. Others have experienced violent backlash from people unwilling to wear masks or who attacked them based on their race. Those whose bars and restaurants couldn’t keep them on staff spent months negotiating a complex and outdated unemployment system. Others weren’t eligible for formalized benefits because of their immigration status. A handful of workers even left the industry for more stable careers or to provide childcare while their spouses continued working.
City Paper asked current and former restaurant and bar employees to scroll through their phones to find the one photo of an object that captures their experience over the past seven months. They’ll live on this page as a virtual time capsule representing a time of uncertainty and anxiety, but also a few small joys.
On March 16, I took this photo before closing down the bar on what turned out to be the last night for months. I posted it saying can’t wait to dust the dirt off with you all, but for now stay safe! The coasters are still there. An industry frozen in time. —Stephanie Hulbert, general manager, The Tune Inn This is a picture of my work shoes. They are just under 10 months old, and before March, were still mostly black. The liberal use of bleach since then has created this look. —Dylan Curtis, former general manager and bartender, Kitty O’Shea’s This notebook was a gift from a friend and coworker just before the pandemic started that contains recipes, menus, and job notes. It’s a diary of my career transitions throughout this year. It reminded me to never lose momentum because the best way I know how to help people is from the kitchen. —Stephanie Milne, chef, Jackie/Dacha Navy Yard This is only half of my wristbands for the cancer treatment I started in June. That’s how I spent my pandemic! —Gillian Coulter, assistant general manager and event coordinator, P.J. Clarke’s I got my first tattoo during the pandemic, which I can’t imagine I would have gotten without having lived through the challenges of this year. It’s a vegvísir—an Icelandic magic stave that “helps the bearer find their way through rough weather even when the way is not known.” That sums up how the pandemic has affected me and our industry. I felt so lost, but I found the strength to find my own way forward. —Zena Polin, restaurateur At Port City, we place a pineapple, a symbol of hospitality, to show that we are open and everyone is welcome. Our pineapple, now masked, illustrates some of the challenges the industry faces as we prioritize safety while serving our community. —Tim Quintyn, tasting room general manager, Port City Brewing Company I’ve been in the industry for 22 years. These last seven months keeping Chicken alive is the only thing that’s given me any purpose. Not sure what I would’ve done without her. —Matt Brown, former manager, Hanumanh Without Anthony Bourdain, the restaurant industry feels lost. Without a true relief plan that goes to every restaurant, we’re praying everyday that we can survive. Praying we don’t get the virus which would be the final nail in the coffin of an already dying industry. We pray that the people we serve understand our plight and help us through these rough times. Some days we just pray they wear a damn mask. We’re praying everyday that we live through this. And we don’t normally pray. —Tara McKinney, former server, Tiger Fork and Hanumanh Drinking my morning coffee in a quart container to keep some sense or normalcy. —Antonio Burrell, executive chef, Hawkers Asian Street Food, coming to Bethesda Row These are meals we make for families from my wife’s school. Some have lost their employment and one student lost their father to COVID. We gather groceries and I cook extra meals on weekends to help them out. My grandmother’s philosophy was that as long as you have rice and beans for one, you can feed two or three or more. We can only survive by taking care of each other. —Diego Barrios, executive chef and owner, Sazón DC One thing that has been a shining light in all of this has been a weekly Dungeons and Dragons campaign with four of my best friends in the industry. It’s been a great way to hang out and drink too much whiskey and shoot the shit until 4 a.m. —Mike Fox, former server, Tiger Fork These boxes were used to transport hundreds of thousands of hot meals throughout the pandemic in the DMV. But to me, they represent how D.C. industry folks came together to make all that happen. —Matt Adler, local chef and operations lead at World Central Kitchen’s Nationals Park activation World Central Kitchen grain bowl lunch in an empty Nationals Park —Margaux Riccio, chef at Pow Pow and frequent volunteer for World Central Kitchen A drink cap keeps a cocktail from getting watered down by raindrops on an outdoor patio. It doesn’t keep the server dry, but once it hits the tent-covered table, you can bet that $8 cocktail will transport the drinker to the days before we had to get soaked so they could enjoy happy hour. —Lindsay Hogan, bartender, Little Coco’s Care package bartered between industry friends. Wine, fresh pasta, basil, tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, and more. In return there was vanilla layer cake with whipped cream frosting, strawberries, and blueberries. We help each other out. We’re broke, but we’re still bougie. —Amanda Bellido (Martin), former bartender at Evening Star Cafe and current delivery driver for Neighborhood Restaurant Group As a server working during the pandemic, one thing I got very used to was polishing silverware. There was always a lot of down time during this period, as many people weren’t comfortable dining out yet. I spent much of the downtime readying silverware for the guests by making sure they were extra clean to limit the risk of spreading germs or worse, COVID. —James Lennox, former server, Beucherts’s Saloon I bought my friend Dustin this hat from a Barsmarts workshop in Seattle, his birthplace. His dream was to grow in hospitality so he could bring cool cocktails to his adopted hometown of Green Bay, Wisconsin. We worked together at Bluejacket. This hat reminds me of his limitless curiosity and drive to improve his craft. Dustin died in April of COVID-related complications. —Daniel Murgueytio, former bartender, Coconut Club