‘It takes a toll.’ Staff in native eating places and bars confronted a yr of stress, changes
This story was originally published March 28, 2021 in the South Bend Tribune.
In March 2020, Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb declared a halt to dine-in services at restaurants and bars because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Although dine-in services would resume two months later, restrictions such as capacity limits and increased spacing between tables remained. There was also the fear of many customers who didn’t want to risk contracting the virus.
Holcomb announced last week that he would lift the state’s mask mandate and the restrictions on businesses on April 6. Local jurisdictions can still implement their own restrictions, but business owners are facing the prospect of soon returning to pre-pandemic operations.
It may mean relief for restaurants and stores that have faced unprecedented headwinds during the past year, with dozens across Michiana closing. In a recent survey of 100 businesses in Indiana by The Tribune and other newspapers, many owners and operators expressed optimism about their future.
What has been hard to measure, however, is the anxiety by workers in the hardest-hit industries this past year.
These four people — a longtime waiter, a liquor sales associate, a breakfast diner owner and a bartender for a new restaurant — provide a glimpse into the stress and challenges the pandemic and ensuing restrictions have taken on workers in local establishments.
‘People behind the mask’
Tony Cephus has always been a “roll-with-the-punches” kind of guy.
“I’ve worked since I was 18 and I’ve never been unemployed,” he said. “You just got to be able to have flexibility in this industry.”
Affectionally known as “TC,” the 56-year-old has worked as a waiter at South Bend’s LaSalle Grill since its inception in 1991 and now leads the service team that founder Mark McDonnell prides himself on.
Cephus has seen the restaurant adapt through good and bad times, through a recession and now, through a pandemic.
Last March, he pivoted from supervisory and serving roles to helping with carryout. During that time, his wife started to work from home and the dynamic changed.
“So I’m going off to work and she is staying home for work and the streets were like a ghost town,” he said. “I remember thinking that this looks so weird and just what the hell was going on … But you just wanted to keep going and keep your mind occupied and didn’t want to sit around and start thinking about it.”
Cephus said he was concerned about being exposed to COVID, with his stepson having asthma and his wife having allergies. As a Black man, he also couldn’t ignore the fact that people of his race were facing higher risks.
“When you see in the paper that the Black community is being hospitalized at a higher rate, that makes me uneasy,” he said. “There’s been a lot of things happen with civil rights as well. There’s a lot of things that happened that year and it takes a toll.”
But Cephus kept working out of loyalty to the restaurant and to keep busy. Last summer, when the CARES Act added an additional $600 a week for unemployment, there were times when Cephus could’ve made more money sitting on the couch.
“It was frustrating at that point, but I knew I wanted to stay professional,” he said. “I wanted to keep the restaurant alive and was just fighting for the restaurant at that point.”
In November, he contracted the virus. He followed protocols and quarantined himself from work and from his family for two weeks.
He experienced headaches, a fever and body aches, but he eventually recovered and returned to work.
Since dine-in services have resumed at Indiana restaurants, Cephus said, customers at LaSalle Grill have been respectful and mindful of mask and social distancing restrictions.
And he does his part to make sure staff and customers feel comfortable and safe under his watch.
Before, he felt a bit overlooked in his position. Now, diners engage with him more, and they ask how he’s doing and how he’s been this past year.
“I’m touched by the people that have banded together to help us out as people and as a business,” he said. “People care that much and people want us to survive, not just for them but for us as well. One guest was asking me how I was and we talked for about 20 minutes about it … It’s nice to be seen as people behind the mask.”
Looking for help
A year after the initial dine-in shutdown, Kathy McDonald is still struggling to staff her restaurant.
McDonald, who owns Macadoo’s Family Restaurant with her husband Tim, was able keep seven full-time employees to help with carryout services at the start of the pandemic. As dine-in services started to reopen last summer, the McDonalds tried to keep the restaurant safe for employees and its typically older, early-morning customers with extra sanitation practices.
And the customers remained loyal.
“The (servers) were making unbelievable kind of money,” she said. “I was shocked at the kind of business we were generating.”
But then, employees, especially cooks, started to leave for a variety of reasons. In January, one longtime cook quit because his son was struggling with e-learning and he needed to be home to help.
Ever since, McDonald has been without a reliable cook, and she also needs servers to help on busy days.
“When people don’t fill in, I’m the one who has to pick it up. … I had gone from being partly semi-retired back to full-time,” she said. “I just wish I knew that it was only going to be temporary, and that’s the part that is frustrating.”
McDonald and her husband have operated Macadoo’s for 30 years. The long-beloved restaurant was first known as a place for hamburgers at its original location in River Park. Then, with a move to its current location on the east side of Mishawaka, it became known as a go-to breakfast place with specialty pancakes and homestyle biscuits and gravy.
With McDonald at the front of the house and occasionally helping with serving, and Tim in the back with dedicated employees, the restaurant has operated like a family kitchen.
In July, Tim had a stroke, and he is slowly making his way back to working in the kitchen. Kathy McDonald is still looking for help. She has held open hiring events and has set aside time for interviews. But a lot of times, she said, the applicants don’t show up and offer no explanation. Or they do show, are hired and work for a couple of weeks, then abruptly stop. She can’t explain why.
Restaurants nationwide already faced labor shortages, with NPR’s Marketplace reporting in August that the industry came into the COVID crisis with a hiring problem. The pandemic exacerbated the staffing crunch, with many workers being more vulnerable, having concerns about exposure or being able to get by with enhanced unemployment benefits.
“It’s harder now than before, definitely,” McDonald said. “Sometimes we all go through phases, but not like it is now. I mean, I don’t think there is a restaurant that isn’t having this issue.”
From salesperson to confidant
Meghan Kirwan says her day-to-day sales job hasn’t really changed from a year ago. But everything else around her has.
The 35-year-old works with about 80 bars and restaurants, mostly locally owned, in St. Joseph County and Elkhart to fill liquor orders, such as whiskies, wines and other spirits. The businesses she works with have been among the hardest-hit this past year. With all the stress that business owners and managers encountered, Kirwan became a confidant.
“You feel for these people and you see this overall drain of morale because there were some people who were tired of being the babysitter,” she said. “They would say ‘I’m not your mother or father or mask police,’ but they have to be in their establishment or they are the one that gets in trouble.”
The stories started to weigh on her, bit by bit.
She also had to work with businesses that weren’t strictly adhering to mask and distancing guidelines.
“I ended up, at times, turning them into phone call accounts,” she said. “And my company was very supportive in that they too said, ‘If you ever felt uncomfortable, then we 100% support calling in that account to service them.'”
In order to cope, Kirwan began meditating.
“I keep up with the meditation to deal with the stress,” said Kirwan, who is also six months pregnant.
Kirwan has started to adjust her way of communicating with people. She, too, encountered a rough year with her employer, Southern Glazer’s Wine and Spirits, furloughing her for two months last summer. She understood the necessity but went stir crazy after a couple days of not working.
She turned to social media, posting a picture of her at-home bar and asking bartenders to suggest cocktails from her stock. She would then send them a “virtual tip,” using Venmo to transfer money to the bartenders, for their creativity. It was a way to connect with the community of people she serves in her job, while also keeping everyone engaged.
Now, back at work, Kirwan has helped businesses brainstorm new ways to serve customers, such as navigating updated liquor laws, creating QR codes and coming up with different styles of to-go alcohol packages, while also selling new spirit options.
“There really hasn’t been much change (with my job) other than being more conscious of people’s business and feelings and being able to tread lightly when needed,” she said. “If anything has changed, it’s my observation tactics and communication. But as far as overall job requirements, I’ve become a lot more efficient in my approach because you have to be and … creative in trying to help places succeed.”
Managing uncomfortable situations
Rae Kujawski is in the business of putting people at ease.
The 27-year-old bartender has worked in the hospitality industry for six years at area restaurants such as Render and The Exchange Whiskey Bar, making a career out of crafting signature cocktails and small talk.
But the pandemic has put her in uncomfortable situations.
After the initial shutdown, Kujawski was hesitant to come back to work out of concern of being exposed to the virus. She also took the time to transition to a new position from Render to Fatbird, a Southern contemporary restaurant that opened in downtown South Bend last November.
During the summer, in preparation for the opening, she spoke openly with the owners about not just the new menu but also what safety procedures would be put in place.
Once diners started coming in, Kujawski said, almost every aspect of her day-to-day work style changed. She moved fruit used for fresh juice and garnishes to the back so customers wouldn’t grab them and, with a mask on, spoke louder and more clearly. The days of casual conversation have now been paired with a more conscious use of body language.
“Over the weekends when it’s busy, I was losing my voice from talking louder. But some people get really frustrated too so you have to get more patient,” Kujawski said. “I speak really fast sometimes and I can mumble my words so I have to speak more clearly and project more than I ever had to do. Then being more expressive with my arms, my hands, my body motion and my eyes. I try to really be an earnest listener when I’m with somebody and now I have to show that through as much body language as possible to fill that gap.”
Fatbird instituted a strict mask policy when it opened, and while Kujawski agrees the policy is necessary, it has also put her in some tough situations with customers.
“I have had a lot of people where they would take their mask off as soon as they walk in the door and I had remind them that they have to keep their masks on till they sit down, and I’ve had people roll their eyes at me,” she said. “I don’t want to be the mask police, I don’t want to do any of that. … We have a lot of anxiety and a lot of fear of how to protect the business when there’s not a lot you can do besides saying, ‘Please wear a mask.'”
Kujawski has kept open lines of communication with management and also confided in fellow employees who are in similar situations.
“At first, it was through the quarantine coping mechanism, which was drinking, and that doesn’t help anything,” she said. “I confide in my family and the owners and talk about what I am not comfortable confronting in this situation and asking how we go about this … We’re all still learning things day by day and they don’t see everything every day.”