Restaurant industry workers, from left to right: Jenna Perez, Diana Zamora, Ernesto Garcia, Justin Jett. Elizabeth Lavin

Coronavirus

The Workers on Dallas’ Food Frontline 

A grocery clerk and four servers about what their jobs look like amid a pandemic. 

We’ve heard a lot from business owners and restaurateurs and big-name chefs. Especially now, as we cover re-openings, ever-evolving safety guidelines, and government loan snafus, theirs are the voices from which declarations leap. Theirs were the horror stories as they shuttered restaurants, changed models, and made harrowing decisions. Their quotes make headlines.

And of course they do: They’ve got much to lose and heavy decisions to weigh every day. They have staff who depend on them, too. If it wasn’t clear before, as it is so plainly now, the front of house servers, back of house cooks, and clerks stocking your local grocery shelves are the lifeblood of the food industry. Those employees don’t get to work from home.

As some restaurants across Dallas reopened at 25 percent capacity on May 1, employees returned to work—reluctantly, in some cases. Unless they have “good cause” to stay on unemployment, which the Texas Workforce Commission cites as lack of child care or being a 65-year-old “high-risk” individual among other reasons, it’s back to work they go. So for many, concern for your health isn’t reason enough to remain on unemployment. Employees can be reported for unemployment fraud if they’ve rejected a job offer and try to continue their benefits.

But returning to work means a return to those low wages—a base pay of $2.13, which hasn’t changed for decades—plus tips shared among front and back of house workers. Often uninsured, will they receive health benefits if they didn’t before coronavirus hit? These are important considerations for an industry ground to a near halt, now attempting to slowly find its “normal” again. Except these days, for the same low pay, restaurant workers face higher risk of coronavirus exposure. When they have to work, they cannot avoid others.

Many see this moment as a time to pull back the curtain on realities that have long been ignored, like the lack of safety nets and the morass of bureaucracy through which restaurant workers slog.

And so, these are the folks we wanted to hear from—the ones doing their best to serve you food in dining rooms that are too close for socially distant comfort, the ones keeping their immunocompromised family members safe. These are their stories, edited for clarity and length.

Server, Dallas Steak House 


This person, a server with over a decade of hospitality experience, wanted to keep their identity and place of work anonymous. It’s located in Central Dallas. But as you can see from their words below, they still wanted to speak out about what they’d seen throughout the first reopening weekend which began May 1. Even with the best intentions and attempts, a small steakhouse staff and big crowds is an untenable combination.

I was called on Thursday afternoon and told I needed to be there Friday afternoon. They said, ‘Be here in 20 or 25 hours, or you’re fired and you’re probably gonna lose your [unemployment] benefits.’ I said, ‘Okay, I’ll see you tomorrow.’ At that point I hadn’t done the research. I didn’t know what that meant for unemployment, but I also don’t want to be jobless with so many servers out there looking for jobs. I thought, well, if I could keep some of these more at-risk servers at home, you know, I’m young and healthy so I don’t have any real health concerns for not going back.

Where I work is a steakhouse and it’s one of the nicer restaurants in Dallas. We’re super understaffed, which leads to problems with sanitation and, of course, doing things the way we should in this era, right? But even even if we had 20 more, 30 more employees, I’m not sure we could make it where I would consider it safe. I mean, we could do a much better job, but it’s just proving very, very difficult. We started with masks on. We have gloves. We have plenty of sanitizer, plenty of cleaning equipment, but time is more the issue. So, we abandoned the masks because we decided they were less sanitary. We ended up touching our faces more and not being able to change our gloves every single time.

Our guests—none wore masks in or out of the building—just have zero regard for social distancing. Another server, who was wearing a face mask, had a lady try to kiss him on the cheek and stuff. People are trying to shake our hands. They’re hugging each other. They’re hugging [people at] other tables. They’re laughing and they’re blowing their noses in their napkins. We followed all of the capacity rules. We’re absolutely making sure that there’s six or fewer [people] in the party, and six feet apart. But the guests just have no respect for it at all. Then you have people drinking a little too much and they lose their inhibitions. The guests don’t care. They’re touching each other; people are bar hopping.

At the end of their dinner, [a group] told their server (it wasn’t my table) that they were celebrating. And the reason they were celebrating: It was the fourteenth day of self-quarantine because the wife had gotten out of the hospital with coronavirus. They decided to go straight to a restaurant. I mean, they did the fourteen days, she says, but they were serious. They didn’t think you would think anything bad about it.

Spatially, there’s no avoiding passing other guests, other servers. The flow of the restaurant has never been set up to socially distance. And it proved impossible despite spacing and everything. It’s impossible. And it’s just been a disaster. Even when we were at capacity, there was a giant mob of people out front waiting for their tables or to get in. It was crazy. Some of those people waited for two hours for their reservation.

As a staff, we’ve all resigned ourselves to the fact that we’re going to get it, hoping we’re healthy enough to be asymptomatic. Then we’re focusing on after we’re leaving the restaurant ensuring that we don’t carry it beyond that.

I didn’t want to be there. I don’t want to be there. The guests have been very generous financially, so that’s been helpful. But it’s just a terrible situation.

Megan Musser, server, Original Pancake House

With 17 years of experience total as a server, she’s recently worked at the diner chain for six months . Her husband, also in the food industry, works back of house elsewhere. With four children, they’ve always done opposite shifts to manage child care. She’s faced food insecurity among other challenges.

We didn’t receive any type of benefit until the middle of April. Then we received unemployment: the state unemployment and then the extra $600 from the federal [stimulus]. Luckily, we had our last check and then a little bit of money from the [March 15] weekend and then some savings we had from our income tax, otherwise, I don’t think we would have made it.

We usually get SNAP benefits, but it was the recertification period. I had to escalate to a supervisor and I don’t really know why. That whole time as well, we didn’t have SNAP benefits.

It took me a minute to find out about the Heard That Foundation family meals at HG Sply Co. We did that, I think, once a week. And we went to the food banks. Luckily, the places that we did go, I didn’t have to wait very long at all. We went one time to one in Mesquite, but the line was crazy. I’ve never seen a line like that in my life.

I have four kids. I have a 17-year-old boy who goes to Lake Highlands High School. He’s in Richardson ISD so they already had a Chrome book. He’s been able to stay on track with his work. At first he didn’t realize how bad it was, but once they took the nets off the basketball posts, he realized. I have a 6-year-old boy and a 5-year-old girl and a 5-month-old girl. The middle ones were used to going to school all day and so it was a little harder on them.

The hardest thing was getting [my husband connected with] TWC and getting me the SNAP benefits. For him it was about a month and a half. For SNAP we waited a month and a week.

The electric was the one bill that had to get paid, from the little savings we had. The rent—they were real lenient with it. All they did was ask me to email the letter from my job that says that we were closed due to COVID. They did come to the door and give us one of the three-day notices because the rent hadn’t been paid. The next day, I got unemployment.

“As a staff, we’ve all resigned ourselves to the fact that we’re going to get it, hoping we’re healthy enough to be asymptomatic.”

Anonymous server at a Dallas steakhouse

I have a group chat on Facebook Messenger of the restaurant industry people I’ve worked with. And anything that I saw, like about Family Meal or any new postings from TWC, I would post it and keep everybody informed. A lot of my coworkers that have trouble reading and writing English have called me to have me try to help them out, because we had so many problems with TWC and all of the glitches and all of the hot mess that went down with that.

The Pancake House said wait until May 15 and check in again. I actually feel really good about that. They’re looking at everybody’s safety more than making money. It’s just having to work with the number of people, because the location I work at is right by Love Field—so many different people flying in from everywhere.

I think people fail to realize how much they rely on the service industry and what the service industry goes through just to provide an experience for people. You’ve got to put aside whatever you have going on personally and be in a good mood and offer hospitality. On the other hand, guests come in and they show everything, all their cards on the table.

I think everybody’s gonna be changed by it, because nobody’s gone this long without being able to do what they love to do. It should bring everybody closer together.

Diana Zamora, pastry chef who’s in the process of starting her own nonprofit Project La Familia. Photography by Elizabeth Lavin

Diana Zamora, pastry chef

The COVID-19 shutdown interrupted the beginning of her work as pastry chef at the newly opened Georgie. Before that, she’s worked at restaurants that include Filament, Mockingbird Diner, Foxyco, Stock & Barrel, Nosh Bistro, and Lockwood Distilling Company.  Recently, she left a temporary job at Deep Cuts butcher shop to begin a nonprofit, Project La Familia, serving family meals to those in need. For her, mental health has been in the largest issue that loomed.

I was restarting my life, taking my kids, and moving into the house I grew up in, because my mom has stage 4 cancer and was living alone. I was settled, financially settled, covering her bills. So I’m gonna go for [the executive pastry chef position at Georgie]. And I didn’t even get to start.

Literally me and [Chef Anastacia Quiñones-Pittman of José] had taken my daughters out to eat at Khao Noodle and we both started getting these phone calls: everything was getting shut down. And I was like, ‘Oh my god, what am I gonna do?’ And my phone is blowing up with former line cooks and former pastry cooks: ‘Chef, I need work! Chef, I need work!’ And I’m like, ‘I do too!’

So then my mom got super-super sick, and so that was terrifying. My kids went to their dad’s, and I was taking care of my mom. My kids are 14 and 9. I thank the universe for the relationship that I have with [their dad] and with their stepmom. I couldn’t provide that stability. I was working my ass off to make a third of the money I’m used to making.  I couldn’t do it. I was having breakdowns about it.

“When you’re on payroll and working for tips, you’re working at 4 a.m. in the dark, carrying kegs and cases of beer over a wet floor. It’s wrong that you’re getting paid $2.13 an hour—since the 80s.”

Anonymous Front-of-House Worker, with Headington Cos.

Everybody right off the bat tried to find whatever job they could. A lot of us do what we do and work these crazy hours because it’s a passion. But also because it’s an outlet. This has all taken a toll on our mental health. Everyone is leaning hard into depression. We don’t deal well with uncertainty. [A kitchen is chaos], but it’s controlled chaos. We were all just in a room full of anxiety together, but we were together. But then we had no human contact. And that will wreck your brain.

I relied heavily, for the last year, on Foundation 45 in Deep Ellum, which is group mental health sessions geared toward artists, service industry people, drug addicts, people with suicidal tendencies. They did afternoon and evening meetings. They stopped those, obviously. They did start doing Zoom meetings. And what I noticed is that a lot of people dropped out: people that I’d seen, people that I’d brought to the meetings, my friends that had come with me.

I think the scariest moments for all of us have been with regard to mental health. I think we all have that friend that you think, ‘Please, just don’t kill yourself.’ All this uncertainty, it’s terrifying.

I decided to open up a nonprofit. I’m still waiting for my tax ID number. That’s what I’ve done to cope with all of this. I read an article about DISD and how they stopped distributing food more than once a week, and all these kids that depend on breakfast and lunch, their families depend on it. I was one of those kids. My friends need to cook. We’ve grown up in the same kitchens. That’s where Project La Familia came up. We’re doing one-pot meals—fideos and caldos, Latino comfort food—and snacks. Especially for those who might be [undocumented]. We need each other right now. We’re the familia.

I’m afraid of the public because they’re not gonna take the precautions necessary. We’ve been doing this. What is so damned important that you have to go sit at a table and not wear a mask and not practice social distancing?

I think people should understand how much we work our asses off. It’s not for the money. It’s who we are. I don’t think people understand the immense sense of pride and community in this industry.

Scott Zenreich, grocery worker, Central Market

Scott Zenreich had worked as a server at David and Jennifer Uygur’s Lucia and Macellaio. When restaurants shut down, he had also just secured a position at Bullion. He is also an actor and playwright who had a play produced through the Elevator Project last year.  He was writing another and found his theater world interrupted as well. Zenreich is currently working part-time at Central Market as a cashier and in curbside order assembly.

I am fortunate to be in a pretty good situation. I was going so stir-crazy at home. Central Market/H-E-B has been a pretty amazing company, actually. They take care of us in a safety way very well. They have all these glass partitions and they give everybody masks and gloves. Everyone kind of has their own hesitation about going to a supermarket, so it’s nice to be a warm, kind of relaxing presence. And this is where people are getting food in this time.

It’s different in that I make a lot less money.

I miss the regulars we had at Macellaio and the sense of community that we had. I miss beautiful salumi. I’ve done a phone check-in with everyone I worked with at Lucia and Macellaio. Jennifer [Uygur] also sends weekly emails checking in on her staff and posts everything she knows, like who’s giving away free meals.

I think I’ve accepted that I have no idea what’s going to happen.

I’ve thought a lot about touching people’s forks and about how people eat and drink. There has to be a lot of progress to make me comfortable even thinking about going to eat at a restaurant. I’ve read all these things about how maybe air conditioners spread it, and I feel like it is irresponsible for me to put myself in a situation where I’m at risk if I don’t have to. If you’re gonna work with food, maybe now you have to work with food in a different way. Or if you work in theater, maybe now you have to work with theater in a different way.

It’s really hard, because all of what I love to do involves mass gatherings of people. I read that [a theater company in New England] is doing a whole summer of one-man shows and socially distant theater. And I think about radio plays and how important art has been in our lives. All of it is life to me right now.

“I’m afraid of the public because they’re not gonna take the precautions necessary. We’ve been doing this. What is so damned important that you have to go sit at a table and not wear a mask and not practice social distancing?”

Diana Zamora, pastry chef

I’ve been cooking a lot. Thai curries and chicken pot pie. Finding things that we crave. That’s been empowering. The food I was [serving] before had such a distinct point of view. Now I can [find] my own in this time I have. And I also get to see what people are buying. That is fascinating. A lot of comfort. But also people going outside of the box. I talked to a guy who had never bought langoustines and was going to cook langoustines for the first time, because, why not?

We just had our first Zoom reading of [my musical, Chicken Tinders, which is about online dating]. Some actors that I know and some actors that John [Gregor, the composer for the musical] knows. I’m encouraged to show it to theater makers when theater makers are allowed to make theater again.

Front of house staff, Headington restaurants

This source’s anonymity has been preserved upon request. She worked in front-of-house positions for Headington Companies most recently, in addition to many other service jobs over the last decade. The breadwinner in a household with an immunocompromised spouse, she comments on struggles with the labyrinthine workings of the Texas Workforce Commission (TWC), front-of-house and back-of-house inequities, and the need for a living wage. She also feels strongly that this is a time to look at the restaurant industry as a whole, where it has been and where it can go.

I’ve gotten one week of unemployment instead of five. You have to file a payment claim every two weeks. You have to answer that you’re not making money on the side. And after that first week, it denied me, and all the other weeks were denied. Which was maddening. There wasn’t even a letter saying why. I’ve been trying to call the TWC number every single day. I filed an appeal. It takes them three weeks to look at the appeals. So I’ve been calling every day.

I had one number, and I was given three other numbers by a representative, and I went onto Reddit and found numbers. A woman had taken a picture of her journal and she put that picture in a comment with these numbers. I think the eighth number I called, I got a woman on the line, and I was like, ‘Are you a real human?’ She sent me to another line. But I was on hold for four hours. To talk to a human. The issue was that it had gone down as a no-report. So they will hold all further payment claims, and that’s just an automated thing in the system. It’s like having a part- to full-time job to find the right information and find the route to be heard.

I’ll never forget [overhearing a diner say at my first higher-end job], ‘I just don’t know how somebody can live off $50,000 a year.’ It just astounded me. The higher end you go the more there are people that don’t realize that there are other people making sacrifices so they can eat out daily. I think the sense of entitlement is really difficult. It’s just people not realizing.

When you’re on payroll and working for tips, you’re working at 4 a.m. in the dark, carrying kegs and cases of beer over a wet floor. It’s wrong that you’re getting paid $2.13 an hour—since the 80s. And there are people still out there who tip whatever the tax amount is.

It should be common knowledge that we don’t get paid adequately. That $10 for a server is not a $10 tip for a server. That’s two to three, sometimes four to five dollars for the support staff. And then the remaining goes on a paycheck, so the government takes 30 percent. So 20 to 30 percent of what you’re leaving goes to the server. And if you don’t like that system, you need to take action. Where have they been for the minimum wage fight? Where have they been for the benefits fight all this time until now?

If there would be a way to move forward to see what a new normal would be and to find a model of a restaurant that would work. Even if we’re gonna keep $2.13 as a base rate, can we move to profit-sharing as a model or a restaurant? Can we have conversations about how to have a better industry? I think there are examples of chefs who are looking out for their workers. And that can be a starting point.

I think there’s gonna be a shift in who makes up this industry. There’s gonna be a wash-out and then a wash-in. I think that people will be more appreciative when they do go out to eat.

My husband, who is immunocompromised, and I cried over donated food probably half a dozen times. Food is the embodiment of hospitality.

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