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‘People are just walking out in the middle of shifts’: What it’s like to work in a restaurant right now

By Danielle Wiener-Bronner, CNN Business

Going out to eat might feel a little different these days. Maybe you’re waiting longer for a table, even though the restaurant doesn’t appear full. Or maybe your service is slower, and your server seems anxious.

That’s because restaurants across the United States are understaffed, and jobs that were already stressful have gotten even more difficult.

Workers interviewed by CNN Business said they’re struggling in the short-staffed environment. Servers are stepping into other roles as overworked back-of-the-house employees quit, and sometimes seeing their tips ebb as they scramble to keep up with the new responsibilities. Fed-up colleagues sometimes quit in the middle of their shifts.

They’re in this situation because during the pandemic, many workers were laid off, as safety measures required some restaurants to close dining entirely. Eventually, when restaurants started re-hiring, they found a smaller pool of potential employees. Some moved away, others found new jobs in other industries. Some are still staying home to care for children or other dependents. Some, fed up with what are often low wages for the arduous work, vowed never to return.

In an attempt to woo those still interested in restaurant jobs, some employers have raised wages or increased perks. The extras may help, but they can’t fix the fact that when restaurants are understaffed, those coming in have to pick up a lot of extra slack.

Some are planning to stick it out, while others wonder if it’s time for them to exit the industry themselves.

People quitting in the middle of their shifts

Joshuah Morton, 36, has worked as a server at a Cheddar’s Scratch Kitchen in Phoenix, Arizona for about four years. Morton is diabetic, and has a four-year-old son with an immune deficiency. When the pandemic hit, he stopped working, fearing for their health. But by October he was ready to return to work.

“Sitting at home all the time was getting depressing,” he said. And of course, the money was an incentive.

Back then, Morton noticed that the restaurant was having a hard time bringing employees back. Once it started bringing new people on board, many of those caved under the pressure.

“People are just walking out in the middle of shifts,” Morton said. “[Hostesses who] seat the tables, the dishwashers, the bussers … they’ll walk out,” he said.

Morton understands why people might quit. After waiting to be seated, customers arrive at their tables “already angry, already wanting to complain about things,” he said. A few weeks ago one employee started to cry because a customer was so mean to her.

On top of all that, there are far more takeout orders than there used to be. “It’s almost like we’re running double the restaurant, comparatively, with half the staff.” Darden, the owner of Cheddar’s, did not respond to a request for comment.

Morton has contemplated quitting himself.

“I don’t think there’s any server who hasn’t been tempted to quit,” he said. “Especially right now.”

But for now, he’s getting what he needs from Cheddar’s. Darden is “by far one of the better” employers he’s had, Morton said. Darden recently raised wages for employees, and offers health benefits, which are especially important given Morton’s medical costs. Morton is also going to school for biochemistry, so the flexible hours are important to him. “That’s the big reason why I’m here,” he said. “It’s hard to find a job where I can work 30 hours a week, and still make $35,000 a year.” That salary, along with the rent he collects from his brother, is enough to support himself, his wife and their son. “I don’t know what else I would do.”

Serving, bussing and running food

Karen McLaughlin, 58, has been working as a server at Provino’s, an Italian restaurant in Chattanooga, Tennessee for about two years.

Working conditions have been particularly tough recently. Some people get hired and never show up, she said. Others come in and quit after a week. For McLaughlin, that means wearing multiple hats per shift.

On some days “there’s no bussers [and] no food runners, so we have to take the orders, run our own food [and] bus all of our tables,” she said. “Servers have been called to work on the food line, to prep salads, to wash dishes. We come in and just have to fill the holes,” she said.

On some occasions, the current employees aren’t enough. “There was one day half of the kitchen didn’t show up,” she said. “So we had to open an hour later.”

The added responsibility means servers are spending less time with customers — and as a result, earning less in tips. “If you’re having to do other things … then you make less.” McLaughlin said.

John Miles, who has been the general manager at Provino’s for about 36 years, said that when employees take on other roles their pay is adjusted so that they make as much as they would normally.

Miles described the current environment as very difficult. “We’ve never experienced the issues that we have now, like not having enough employees,” he said.

Of the current employees, “I asked everyone to do their best,” he said. “And some of them have gone beyond that.”

McLaughlin has been working in restaurants for about eight years — she calls it her “pre-retirement plan,” after working in the telecommunications industry for decades. The flexibility of her restaurant job means she can spend more time with her grandson. Generally, “I thoroughly enjoy what I do,” she said. “Except for this year.”

Still, she expects things to turn around eventually, and she plans to stay in restaurants. But she can see why, for younger employees with less experience, the job is unappealing. “It’s harder work than it used to be,” she said. “So they’re coming into something [where] they can’t see that it’s going to get better at some point.”

Customers who don’t get it

Customers at the Richmond, Virginia, Asian fusion restaurant where Kat Combs, 18, works are generally nice, she said. But since reopening, some have behaved poorly.

“One of our first nights of reopening, some guy came to the bar and yelled at our manager. [He said] ‘you need to hire more staff,’ as if she could solve that problem right then, right there,” she said.

Some customers get frustrated when they have to wait for a table, even though many tables are unoccupied. They don’t understand that the restaurant doesn’t have enough staff to serve them or cook their food, Combs said.

“I try to explain and most of the time, they’re understanding,” Combs added. But sometimes, she said, they don’t really care what she has to say. Combs will leave her job at the end of the summer when she enters her sophomore year at college. There, she’ll likely look for an on-campus job.

Ingrid Moody, 56, has been working at a steakhouse in Riverview, Florida since November. She’s also found customers to be more difficult.

These days, some customers are “entitled,” she said. “We have less staff and less kitchen crew and people just don’t seem to care,” she said. “They’re very demanding. And they take it out on your tips.”

Moody is contemplating leaving her job. “If a better opportunity came available in a restaurant right now, I probably would take it,” she said.

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