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Opinion

An Open Letter to the Community From a Bartender

Your local restaurants are dying. We will not make it without federal aid and without our community’s help.

The holiday season is usually my favorite time to work behind a bar. Bathed in the red and green glow of christmas lights strung across the back bar shelves, the busy air of December drinking feels more sincere than other months. It’s a time when my favorite out-of-town regulars come home to see their family and always stop by for a gin martini and a hello. It’s when rich winter dishes fly from the restaurant kitchen, filling the bar with the scent of garlic, rosemary, and gravy as bottles of cabernet and primitivo are opened to fight back against the cold. It’s when a low-lit bar feels a little more like magic than reality. 

This year is different. Restaurant workers like me aren’t just missing our favorite traditions this year. We’re missing income that is crucial to surviving through the holiday season and the cold months beyond, and it doesn’t seem like there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Without holiday parties, crowded bars, or valuable amounts of incoming patrons traveling for the holidays, it’s difficult to imagine how smaller, independent restaurants are going to make it past January.

“It’s killing our business. We are doing $800 a night instead of $5,000,” says Rebecca Severs, co-owner of Bari Ristorante in midtown, about the difference in earnings. She says November to February are her restaurant’s busiest months—a time you can usually count on to carry the business through the winter even if the previous months were less profitable than usual. As we enter December with PPP loans drying up, case numbers climbing, and a possible stimulus package that does little to nothing for restaurants, your favorite restaurants are facing challenges that could be insurmountable without aid. “We need help from the City right now,” Severs says. “We need money in order to survive until Spring or Summer of 2021. A lot of places will close.” 

Her sentiments are echoed by Brian “Skinny” McCabe, owner of beloved Memphis bar and venue, the Hi Tone. “I’ve lost over $300,000 of revenue so far,” he says. The Hi Tone was one of the last bars in Memphis to reopen its doors after initially being closed, and McCabe has diligently worked to be sure his venue follows all restrictions and safety directives set forth by the health department to keep his staff and customers safe. However, being forced to close his doors for several months, and complying with the new restrictions from the Shelby County Health Department, has come at a high price. McCabe says his business revenue is down 76% from 2019, and he has taken to driving part-time for Uber Eats to provide for his family and keep his business afloat. 

I’ve noticed that the stress of working face-to-face with the public through a pandemic rarely comes up in debates about restaurants. Being a bartender long before Covid-19, I’ve had my fair share of frustrating nights and downright dangerous interactions with guests. One of the more tame names I’ve been called behind the bar was stupid bitch. I’ve had a man “joke” about punching me in the face when he saw his tab. I’ve been snuck out of the back door of the restaurant by coworkers when a guest couldn’t take no for an answer when giving me his phone number.

So often when we discuss hospitality, we bring up what it is to be a customer—what we expect from a staff or employee in regards to their tone of voice, to what they look like, and the way they handle our (inappropriate) behavior. Very rarely do we discuss that for too long the humanity of restaurant employees has been forgotten or disregarded because of their profession. 

Restaurants have an obligation to their patrons to provide a service as safely as possible. We always have before the pandemic, and we always will after it. But I wonder when the obligation of a guest to treat a restaurant worker with dignity and respect ended? When did people who were taking shots with their friends at dive bars and going on dates at taprooms in February suddenly forget that their bartenders and servers are human beings with feelings, fears, and rent payments in December? When did the social contract of respect between patron and establishment dissolve so that only the restaurant has to hold up its end of the deal? 

One study from One Fair Wage reports that there has been a serious rise in abuse directed towards front-of-house employees as tensions surrounding mask mandates have become more strained. According to the report, 78% of workers have experienced or witnessed hostile behavior exhibited from a guest in response to staff attempting to enforce safety regulations, and 41% have seen a noticable increase in sexual harassment from guests towards employees.  Over 80% of tipped employees have seen a dramatic drop in tips earned through the pandemic, with “nearly two thirds (66%) reporting that their tips have declined by at least 50%.” 

These reports aren’t just numbers, they are tangible events that have had disastrous effects on the quality of life of your neighbors. The emotional and psychological toll it takes on service industry workers to even go into work is incredibly high. Guests are pushing the boundary for what they can and can’t say and do to staff, such as when I had a guest tell me to my face that my high-risk partner’s life wasn’t worth the “effort” to wear a mask. Acre bartender Paul Gilliam estimates that his restaurant earnings account for over half of his family’s income and that without aid, he isn’t sure how much of the restaurant industry will be left to come back to after a vaccine is widely available. McCabe has set up a Relief Fund for his employees asking for donations to help pay for staff’s rent, groceries, and basic necessities because the money just isn’t there otherwise. 

I understand the points concerning the need to stay at home and the argument for shutting down restaurants completely. I have lost people to the disease myself, and I do not believe that the loss of human life due to Covid-19 can be compared to the loss of revenue. However, as a person who has served the people of Memphis behind the bar for almost ten years, I do not think the conversation regarding restaurants takes into account enough empathy surrounding the position we are in as an industry made up of real people. An estimated 100,000 restaurants have already closed permanently, and more will be on the way without the support of our community. The loss of local restaurants would mean the loss of almost 11 million jobs—that’s 11 million families without rent money, food, or heat in winter. That’s myself and a vast majority of my loved ones facing homelessness and crippling financial debt that could change the course of the rest of our lives. While I appreciate the thought behind the idea that restaurants should close, it cannot—and will not— work if the fight for federal aid to save restaurant employees is not equally as vigorous and aggressive. 

In turn, restaurants should have to follow procedures that will keep their communities and staff as safe as possible. There should be restrictions to help guide us on public health policy. The bars and restaurants who choose to disregard regulations or say that restrictions are unnecessary are misguided, and drawing a line in the sand about procedure doesn’t help anyone in the long term when nothing can truly fix our situation except for real government aid. 

As a person who has been behind the bar for countless birthdays and weddings and graduations of guests, I will tell you that I feel forgotten by a large part of my community. As a person who has locked the front door and stayed hours past when I should have gone home because a guest needed a safe space to cry about a divorce or a death or a loss, I feel thrown away by my city and federal government. As a person who has dedicated my career to honing a set of skills centered around serving the community when they want it, I feel betrayed by the statement that I am selfish because I do not have the skills to pick up and leave my career to enter into a new job market. As Paul Gilliam says, “I don’t have the privilege of being able to stay home and still provide food and shelter for my family. I’m terrified of how this is going to end.”

If you care about your local restaurants, order take-out and tip well, but do it while you call your local lawmakers and command that they take care of us. Demand a mask mandate on a state and federal level so that we do not continue to be abused, berated, and humiliated as we are compelled to enforce what is right at the cost of our income. Wear your mask. Hold your loved ones accountable for the way they conduct themselves in public and how they treat workers. 

Your favorite restaurants will close without aid, and they will close sooner that you are expecting. Think of all the times a server or bartender has gone to bat for you at a dinner, on a date, or after closing time. It’s your turn to do the same for us. 

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