The Pandemic Has Changed The Hospitality Industry.

Time to start dealing with the change.

On May 26th, the Washingtonian Magazine posted an article reporting that several servers and bartenders at “swanky” DC restaurant Del Mar walked out, forcing the restaurant to close to regular business for the weekend. The staff members had several complaints: toxic management, incidents of racial bias and insensitivity, and disgruntlement over the tipping structure. They sent a letter to management in advance of the walkout.

“To protest repeated examples of bad practices and bad faith on the part of corporate management at Del Mar, we the undersigned are informing you we will not be working our Friday, Saturday, or Sunday shifts this weekend.” It was anonymously signed, “servers and bartenders”. Nine employees have since resigned.

It’s time for operators in this industry to start thinking about their staff’s work environment. In the old days of this industry, a walk-out would have been dealt with easily, it would have been considered a “voluntary resignation.” And the staff would have been replaced within weeks, if not days. (Assuming that the situation was a non-union situation, which is usually the case in this industry).

Business is opening up. People are out of work. And no applicants are coming through the door.

But replacing staff with ease is no longer realistic. More restrictions are lifting everyday, yet no applicants are coming through the door. Business is opening up. People are out of work. And no applicants are coming through the door.

The most convenient “answer” is that “people are lazy.” I have heard a few operators fall back on this explanation: unemployment pays what would equal $16 per hour, so why go back to work? They’re sitting at home, drinking and having a great time! They’re taking the summer off. While I’m sure there are people who are taking advantage of the unemployment situation, they’re not the majority, or even a significant minority. Many restaurant employees who lost their jobs during the pandemic are taking advantage of the situation not out of laziness, but because it presents an opportunity to get out of work situations they view as unacceptable. For them, it’s an opportunity for change.

The “people are lazy” explanation is too easy, and unrealistic. It’s a justification. It’s an excuse that keeps operators from truly looking at the problem. It allows them to absolve themselves of any responsibility. It conveniently prevents them from doing what they really need to do, look in the mirror and search for the answer within. Because this problem is much more complex than laziness. If operators fall back on the lazy answer, the business will not survive. Staffing was tight before the pandemic. And now the situation is much worse. Work conditions that were acceptable before the pandemic no longer are. And the ball is in the employee’s court.

To solve the problem, operators need to focus on creating work environments in which their staff members feel safe, respected, protected, and properly compensated.

To solve the problem, operators need to focus on creating work environments in which their staff members feel safe, respected, protected, and properly compensated. Staff members are no longer going to accept toxic management, incidents of racial bias and insensitivity, or tipping structures that are viewed as not lucrative or fair. They will walkout, or worse, quit. And guess who quits first? The good employees.

Here are some suggested steps for operators to take to start resolving the issue:

  • Talk to your staff, starting with your managers. Restaurant managers face many of the same problems in the restaurant environment that staff face. Do not have just casual conversations. Meet with them in small groups. And let them create the agenda. Let them anonymously turn in a sheet with four or five topics that they would like to discuss. Then make those topics the agenda.
  • Listen empathically. Put yourself in their shoes. Do not immediately shoot down or dismiss anything. Let them have their say. Let them be part of the process. Some of the subjects will be uncomfortable and hard. The discussion may be rough. But you’ll get a much better idea of what is going on in your business. If the culture is toxic. trust me, they will tell you. Hear them out. Let them express how they feel. View this as a learning process.
  • Act on their suggestions. If a system or procedure is viewed as ineffective or unfair, resolve it. Begin resolving any inequities that are pointed out. If you have a manager who is creating a toxic environment, deal with that manager. Solve any problems that are brought to your attention that you can. And let your managers and staff be part of the decision process. Problems will not be resolved and systems will not be changed overnight. But you’ll begin heading in the right direction for success.
  • Start looking into things that may increase staff’s quality of life. Make their work more rewarding.

Having these meetings and schedule adjustments are good affordable places to start. If finances allow, helping with health insurance and child care are also great options.

Change is a process, not an event. The above suggestions are a first step in a process of change.

Open mindedness is a must. Be open to any new ideas. Rethink your systems and procedures.

Talking with your staff is a great way to start. You’ll get their buy-in on any new ideas. And you’ll earn their respect. Buy-in and respect are huge steps when you start the process of change. It’s time to rethink everything. And maybe you’ll avoid a walkout. I am sure the management at Del Mar wished they had.


Timothy Long is an educator, consultant, and experienced restaurant operator. Email: tlong@belmarinnovations.com.


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