The hands of a restaurant worker squeezing a lemon
Credit: Darrow Montgomery/file

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dLeña’s multi-day job fair held at the beginning of April was a bust. Assistant general manager Mike McDonald needed 10 more full-time employees for restaurateur Richard Sandoval’s latest Latin American restaurant, which will open downtown at 476 K St. NW. He says fewer than a dozen people came through the door. Posting on job sites like Craigslist hasn’t been successful either. “We’d normally get a huge amount of foot traffic,” he says. “This time, there’s a complete lack of candidates.” As a result, dLeña may not open by its targeted date of April 26. 

On H Street NE, BRINE owner Aaron McGovern chummed the waters with a $500 signing bonus. “We received one application in 10 days,” he says, adding that he hasn’t experienced “anything like this” in his 30-year career. “It wasn’t a stellar resume. It just didn’t fit.”

Both McDonald and McGovern are struggling to find servers and bartenders. At sandwich shop Bub & Pops, chef and co-owner Jon Taub needs cooks. “I tried to bring 45 people through my door in the last two months that we were considering hiring,” he explains. “Three quarters of them didn’t even show up. I’m lucky I got the people I got, but I need people bad. Right now my brain feels like scrambled eggs trying to figure out staffing. How am I supposed to focus on cooking? I don’t have an HR department.”

Add pleasant spring weather arriving in D.C. to vaccinated Washingtonians eager to toast to a taste of normalcy and you get a crush of customers looking to return to local restaurants and bars. But businesses are struggling to meet that demand because they don’t have enough manpower. The challenges the 25 restaurant workers, managers, and owners City Paper spoke with described are not unique to the District. 

What makes D.C. distinctive is that staffing problems existed before the pandemic. The public health crisis has only exacerbated them. Some workers can’t afford to live in the District, which regularly ranks as one of the most expensive cities in the U.S. for renters. And transportation to further flung suburbs where housing is cheaper isn’t reliable. Metro currently stops running at 11 p.m., one hour before restaurants have to call it a night under the latest COVID-19 reopening guidelines. 

As restaurants reopen, they’re encountering a fresh set of obstacles. Some people hesitate to eat out as new variants spread nationally. (Michigan leaders, for example, just told their constituents to stay out of restaurants again.) Diners therefore expect their favorite spots to keep offering takeout. That means teams have to juggle packing to-go orders while taking care of customers on site, all with a fraction of the staff they’re accustomed to employing. 

During the staffing crisis, diners at D.C. restaurants can expect to compete for fewer reservations, order off shorter menus, and wait longer for food and drink as servers scramble to cover longer distances to newfangled outdoor seating areas. Indoor dining is still capped at 25 percent capacity in D.C., so restaurants lucky enough to have outside tables are at the mercy of the weather. Rainy days can prompt a revenue drop.

Meanwhile, thousands of hospitality workers continue to collect unemployment benefits more than a year into the pandemic with varying degrees of success. Claimants say D.C.’s Department of Employment Services failed them on numerous occasions starting last spring. Anyone who had multi-state wage claims got the runaround and missed weeks of extended unemployment benefits last fall and winter. This year has been marred by system updates preventing claimants from receiving benefits.

If there’s an abundance of both open positions and workers grappling with a troubled unemployment system, why aren’t the puzzle pieces fitting together? The answer is not as simple as some, who believe restaurant workers would rather collect as much as $744 a week on unemployment than go back to work, would like the public to believe.

“What’s frustrating to me is it’s not supposed to be a forever thing,” McGovern says of unemployment benefits. “It’s supposed to be a crutch to get you out of the cast and back onto your feet. I’m seeing a crutch that becomes a sofa.” He says he’s so short staffed that he had to wait tables on a recent Saturday night. “Every other time in the world when somebody gets put on unemployment, they have to search for jobs,” McGovern continues. “That’s not happening.” 

Under normal circumstances, unemployment claimants in D.C. must make at least two job contacts each week and demonstrate an ongoing effort to attain gainful employment. The D.C. Council passed legislation that removed the work-search requirement during the public health emergency, which the city recently extended through May 20.

“I have an employee who says, ‘Hey I have asthma,’ and I’m like, ‘I get it,’” McGovern continues. “He will always have a position with me, but I know people who have double vaccinations who aren’t coming back to work and that’s disrespectful to the industry.” He points out that the cost of the unemployment insurance program is financed by employers who pay taxes on wages employees earn. “If you’re just milking the system there’s something wrong with that.” 

“That’s an asshole’s approach,” says Reesey McElvane, a server and bartender who worked at Rock & Roll Hotel until the H Street NE venue closed in March 2020. “It’s not at all that people would prefer to lay on their ass and let the government play around with their money. When you’re used to serving people, slinging drinks, and getting your coin, you don’t want to wait around for Uncle Sam to say what you’re entitled to.” 

McElvane says she and others are having trouble trusting bosses. “People felt abused in the beginning stages of opening back up,” she explains. “It shook people enough to say, ‘I don’t think I want to get back into this.’ If you’re not going to follow protocols and you’re not going to have my back if guests get out of line, what’s the point?”

She knows people who are walking away from the industry after 20 or 30 years because the pandemic brought issues tied to work culture and customer entitlement to the surface. “We literally felt abandoned,” she says. “It left us feeling like if this happened again, we can’t trust that we would be taken care of. We’re not considered essential except by people who don’t want to cook. They want to give you a hassle like they don’t realize we’re all hanging on by a thread.” 

McElvane is carefully weighing where to apply. “My need and want to open my own place has started to grow,” she says. “I’m looking to go work for someone else until I can get the capital to open my spot.” 

Workers don’t want to be treated like just another scarcity brought about by the pandemic.  They’re making tough calls about their futures that often involve the wellbeing of family members. Their concerns include the mistrust McElvane describes, anxiety about what jobs will entail, and a strong desire to stay healthy.

“Right now there’s a lot of uncertainty,” says Michael W., a server who’s back at work at an upscale D.C. restaurant. He doesn’t know when the city will expand its indoor seating capacity limit, if streateries will be allowed to stay, or when bartenders will be able to actually tend bar again. The city still prohibits customers from sitting at staffed bars. “I can’t wait until all the bartenders can come back,” he says. “I feel sorry for them.” 

Serving is more demanding. “Physically it’s much harder,” he says. “There’s lots of furniture moving that there [wasn’t] in the past.” Restaurant employees have to set up and break down patio seating, measure space between tables, and follow and enforce COVID-19 safety protocols. Fortunately for him, Michael says, the majority of the diners at his restaurant have been respectful and tipped generously. 

He thinks people who are still unemployed are “mentally calculating” whether to return to work, but agrees it’s more complex than what McGovern describes. Some employees got scorched after being rehired once restaurants could seat their dining rooms at 50 percent capacity in June, then laid off in the winter when dining outside was less desirable. Mayor Muriel Bowser banned indoor dining again from Dec. 24 through Jan. 22

Others thought they’d pull in close to what they were making before only to find that management had to cut their hours due to the unpredictable nature of doing business during a pandemic. Complicating the situation further, restaurants that received Paycheck Protection Program loans had to spend a portion of that money on staffing, even if consumer demand wasn’t there. That means less tips. The initial round of PPP loans would only convert to grants if restaurants allocated 75 percent of funds to payroll and spent the money within eight weeks. Changes made to the program in June added flexibility. 

Safety trumps uncertainty for some unemployed restaurant workers, especially those with preexisting medical conditions. In D.C., restaurant employees only became eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine on March 15. Unless they got the single-dose Johnson & Johnson shot straight away, it’s unlikely they have full immunity. As of April 12, just 14.9 percent of D.C. residents have been fully vaccinated.

D.C. bartender Christian Kerekes got his first vaccine on April 8. “I started looking for a job right away,” he says. “Fuck unemployment.” He vowed not to work until he was vaccinated because he has asthma. “I can’t be around risky situations like that,” he says. “Until I’m fully vaccinated, or at least half vaccinated, I won’t feel comfortable giving my all in a restaurant environment.” 

He’s frustrated by the conversations he’s overhead about how it’s time to come off unemployment. “We don’t have the vaccine yet so we can’t go back to work,” Kerekes says.  Some District residents have been so dismayed by the waiting game that they’ve driven to other states to get shots. “You’re genuinely wanting to get back to your passion or career but you’re unable to because of reasons that are outside of your reach,” Kerekes says.

Like Kerekes, Paul Hofford started looking for employment after receiving his first vaccine. He was running the bar at A Rake’s Progress when he got laid off last March and took on a new role as a stay-at-home dad. The restaurant permanently closed in June. “We’ve been taking lockdown pretty seriously,” he says. “My wife and son have some autoimmune conditions. I didn’t want to put my family in a position where I’d be working in a very public-facing job and potentially bringing something home.” 

He misses clocking in. “It’s been really tough,” Hofford says. “It’s a lot of what my therapist and I talk about—how to re-define my identity outside of work. I’ve been in the industry since I was 16. I’m 32 now.” But he isn’t going to hurry back to just any job. “I’m being choosy. I’ve only sent in two or three applications. If I’m going to be working, it has to be a place I want to be.” 

After reflecting during this time off, some hospitality workers want to return to a better version of their industry. “One of the jobs I applied for is trying to implement a much more equitable wage structure,” Hofford says. “For me personally, it might be a step down from what I was making before, but I firmly believe in restructuring how front-of-house and back-of-house gets paid. I’m eager to get back to work and hopefully be a part of a shift in what I hope the restaurant industry ends up becoming.”

He didn’t divulge where he applied, but a number of restaurants are trying new labor models that enable kitchen workers to collect a share of service charges. The Duck & The Peach is one of them. Owner Hollis Silverman says they add a 22 percent “service and equity charge” to checks, which is shared with kitchen employees. Diners can add additional tips. She also says she pays full-time employees $17 to $22 an hour and covers half of health, dental, and vision plans.

And yet, Silverman is desperately trying to hire like everyone else. “I think people are burned from this whole pandemic,” she says. “A lot of people I know have left the industry. They’re mentally done.”

Zoë Ezrailson, who has worked as both a line cook and a pastry chef, knows it’s a workers market. She and her compatriots can be more selective when it comes to pay, benefits, and working conditions. “This is a career job,” she says. “I want all of the things that people in careers have … Health insurance should not be a question if you’re in the kitchen working with fire and knives.” 

She too is being picky while interviewing for executive pastry chef positions. She turned one job down because she says the restaurant wasn’t taking proper COVID-19 precautions. Ezrailson lives with her parents and has been keeping tabs on which places have tried to keep workers safe. She wasn’t crazy about the igloos some restaurants erected over the winter. “It’s unfair to ask a server to be in there and if you’re serving from the door it’s awkward,” she says. Others agree. She’s also worried about line cooks working in tight kitchens.  

“I have not eaten in a restaurant in over a year and it’s the saddest thing that I haven’t been able to go where I love to go,” Ezrailson says. “I love what I do but the culture needs to continue to change. I think there can be a lot higher level of respect because restaurants do not function without cooks, bartenders, and servers.” 

File photo by Darrow Montgomery

But restaurant workers eager for employment utopia are butting up against restaurant owners and managers who are also ravaged and rattled by the pandemic. They’re exhausted and scrambling to make up for what must be the worst year for D.C. restaurants on record. For many, laying off team members was emotionally devastating.

Higher-ups were running their businesses while simultaneously applying for grants, fighting their insurance companies in court, negotiating payment plans with landlords, building streateries, pivoting to takeout, building websites, lobbying Congress for aid, and forecasting the weather. They had to step into roles they may not have held in years and that hasn’t let up. 

“I cannot hire a daytime dishwasher,” says Hummingbird Bar + Kitchen’s Zena Polin. She’s been pitching in on dish duty at the Alexandria restaurant along with co-owner Meshelle Armstrong, the executive chef, and the general manager. “We’ve increased our salaries and starting rates, but they still have to be reasonable,” she says. 

Polin thinks they’re struggling to find daytime prep cooks and dishwashers because one parent or guardian must be home until children can safely attend school. “It’s perfectly understandable why people aren’t available,” she says, while also acknowledging the mad dash to hire. “Now that people are getting vaccinated there will be more people in the market, but they’re being grabbed up.” 

Restaurant workers weren’t eligible for the vaccine in Alexandria until April 5. Polin says that was too late. “We were thrown down the line so far that people needed the safety net of unemployment,” she says. “You take unvaccinated people and give them a safety net and they’re not going to come back early.” 

Polin would like to see loosening of restrictions and stronger outreach to the Latinx community, through churches and community centers, to encourage more people to get vaccinated. D.C.’s vaccine registration portal is still available in English only. “Until those factors are taken care of, we’ll continue to see a lack of back-of-house applicants. We’re not even getting people applying.”

The restaurants that are begging for employees aren’t on an even playing field, which makes the competitive environment increasingly tense. Some hirers think restaurants that have yet to debut have an advantage. Despite the pandemic, a number of high profile openings are planned for this spring, among them Dauphine’s, Caruso’s Grocery, and Truluck’s.

“I know a lot of new restaurants are opening,” says Jenay Doganay, a manager at ala in Dupont Circle. “They’ve been hiring for months because they started hiring people when we were not busy because they had to train staff. I know a lot of people started in new restaurants and hotels. If they’re happy there, it’s too late for existing restaurants.” 

She’s been posting on job sites and hospitality industry social media networks without much luck. “Someone for a back-of-house position was supposed to be here at 3:30 p.m. today and he didn’t show up,” she says. “Even when you think you found someone, you didn’t.” 

As a result, she and other managers find themselves bussing tables. “Everyone is aware of what’s going on so no one is giving us a hard time,” Doganay continues. “But at some point customer service is our number one priority. If I’m going to do 500 covers but I don’t have enough servers, I have to limit the number of covers.”

Established restaurant groups with multiple businesses may also be at an advantage over stand-alone mom-and-pops. “There’s lots of competition as the city has opened back up,” says Manuel Olivera. He’s the general manager of Chi-Cha Lounge on U Street NW, which is becoming El Secreto de Rosita under the same ownership. “Bigger restaurant groups are offering signing bonuses—$250 or $500 just to come to work. It’s hard to compete with those offerings. What we’re trying to do here is very special. I’m trying to find the best people we can.”

Like others who are hiring, Olivera prefers hiring people through word-of-mouth over job sites. The idea that someone can vouch for the person you’re hiring is appealing. Restaurants don’t just want to hire experienced employees. They want to keep them from taking another job down the street for a dollar more per hour.

Taub from Bub & Pops was miffed when two employees left after he says they received two raises. “Even on days where we were negative $700, we did everything we could to keep people employed and here we are man,” he says. “What a disaster. As a small business owner, there’s a question of how much I can actually pay a cook versus the Ritz.” 

Polin, Olivera, and Taub are correct that some larger restaurant groups can pay more or offer better benefits and incentives. But they also boast something that’s become even more sacred: Stability.

“A lot of companies out there are offering short-term benefits like 50 cents more an hour, but are they going to be around in a year?” asks Clyde’s Restaurant Group Vice President of Human Resources and Recruiting Katie Barongan. The restaurants in her purview include 1789, The Tombs, The Hamilton, Old Ebbitt Grill, and multiple locations of Clyde’s across the region. “We’ve been around for 55 years and can really sell that and say there’s a commitment for the long hall.” 

The Clyde’s website shows 61 open positions as of April 12, including some rare opportunities at Old Ebbitt Grill, which is frequently lauded as one of the busiest restaurants in the country.

“We got a little further ahead of the curve than most of the industry,” Barongan says. “We’ve been working on it for about a month knowing that this wave was coming. We were able to recall and welcome back the hourly employees we had to lay off. Although we have an above average retention rate, there’s still a subset of employees who’ve left the industry so we had to make up the difference by externally recruiting.” 

Barongan has some advice for those who are hiring: “Be true to who you are. Candidates see that. They’re looking for stability, a company they can trust. As long as you’re doing what you say, hopefully you’ll find long-term employees.”

Chef Matt Adler agrees that demonstrating stability is critical. He’s a partner at Caruso’s Grocery and The Roost on Capitol Hill. They both fall under the Neighborhood Restaurant Group umbrella. The company is smaller than Clyde’s, but it’s been around since 1997, when Evening Star Cafe opened in Alexandria. He says they’ve done OK finding workers for their two newest projects, largely because of their strategy of promoting from within. 

“The staffing challenges have been there for years,” Adler says. “They were slightly alleviated in the pandemic when there were so many people out of work. But now it’s about standing out as a good employer, treating people well, and having a good work environment.” 

This story has been updated to reflect dLeña’s correct address: 476 K St. NW