As Workers Quit, Are Restaurants Really Changing?

Frustrated employees have left the service industry over power inequities and compensation models, and restaurants are trying to act on lessons learned

Photo by Matheus Bardemaker/Unsplash

The movement started last summer. COVID-19 layoffs gave restaurant workers a chance to consider what it’s like to not work on Friday and Saturday nights. To not deal with racist remarks and sexual innuendo or worse from coworkers and customers. To ponder an industry they loved but that never quite loved them back.

And then protests in the streets following the murder of George Floyd ignited a spark beyond a racial reckoning. It became a general sense that working-class people were not being seen, and it led to a series of actions of workers trying to assert power in restaurants, bars, and breweries—not just in the city but all over the state.

“​​Honestly, people in the industry just don’t want to be jerked around anymore,” Marissa Hellzen said. She’s been a server at many restaurants in the Twin Cities over the last decade, managing St. Paul’s Saint Dinette during pandemic shutdowns and now serving at Holman’s Table. “We don’t want to be treated like garbage, no matter how much we’re getting tipped,” she said.

This past May, the Department of Labor reported 5.3% of workers quit their restaurant, hotel, leisure, and hospitality jobs. Pre-COVID, in February 2020, that seasonally adjusted rate was 4.1%.

We saw workers start to mobilize most visibly in a unionizing movement that began at Tattersall Distilling and Surly Brewing and then spread quickly: Tattersall. Surly. Spyhouse. Fair State. Some workers wanted more say in policies created to protect them during the pandemic. Others felt newly empowered to build their versions of a better workplace.

“To me, it feels like all of the things that are happening surrounding restaurant workers is an extension of all the social justice work of the past few years,” said Holly Besinger, a longtime server who has decided to go back to college and change careers. “So many restaurants are staffed with women and people of color, all who have had little to no say in how we are treated in the workforce.”

Others rebelled against new compensation methods. If you think you were confused as to what happened with that 15% to 20% service fee your favorite restaurant started charging—the one that is “not a gratuity”—imagine the fear and suspicion many workers felt.

Besinger had it happen to her. Ownership “decided to change the pay structure, implement a service charge, pay the staff a flat wage, and absorb some of that money into the business,” she said. Some spots charged a fee for takeout, or a 20% fee for full service, and still left a tip line on the bill. Legalese didn’t help things: “pursuant to Minnesota Statute Section 177.23, subdivision 9…” led to questions about where the money was going.

“Just say where it goes and be open for the discussion,” Joe Ehlenz told me. He co-owns LoLo American Kitchen and Lolito Cantina in Stillwater and Hudson. He said they add a 4% charge, “which goes to the back of the house.” He also added insurance to try to keep his staff. “I lost a bartender at Lolito who needed insulin and didn’t have insurance,” he said.

His newest restaurant puts a 20% charge on each bill. It mostly goes to servers, with some of it going to cooks, and his menus say, in bold type, “no additional tipping is necessary.” He averages the total fee collected over a two-week period, so if you have one bad night the worker doesn’t pay the price. Go in, clean the restaurant, and that person still gets paid. “Whatever hours you work, it all matters,” he explained. “I had a prep cook come in after his first paycheck and say, ‘Thank you for paying me more than I’ve ever made before.’”

Ashley Estrada has seen it from both sides: as a cook working for some not-so-great chefs and owners, and now as an executive chef at The Sample Room, where she is trying to hire. “As a woman and a mother in the industry, it has been extremely challenging, and I learned a great amount of what not to do before I learned what to do,” she said. So, what does she do? Estrada said, “I don’t yell at my cooks or micromanage. I’ll never ask them to do something I wouldn’t do. I make sure my staff is getting a wage that suits their needs.”

She describes herself as “one of the lucky ones with an amazing owner and management team.” But she’s concerned that the focus on bad workplaces conceals efforts to change things. “It’s heartbreaking posting a hiring ad on social media to be eaten alive with people automatically assuming we pay unfair wages and don’t care about our employees,” Estrada said.

So, where are we now? These changes are probably better for those in the back of the house, as cooks and dishwashers are almost universally getting paid more. But there’s certainly a perception that those improvements come at the expense of those working up front. And managers often earn less than servers, which makes quality leadership difficult to find. “There is no happy ending here,” said Amy Waller, who took a pay cut when she went from server to manager, and then lost her job when The Bachelor Farmer closed. “How do you make an unfair, inequitable system [better] … when it’s been broken the whole time?” she pondered.

Perhaps workers speaking out more is a start. Even though Surly’s employees didn’t approve forming a union (by a margin of one vote), base wages at Surly’s Beer Hall went up significantly and management has talked about “learning lessons,” a Surly spokesperson said. (Tattersall, meanwhile, did unionize.)

Restaurants are shortening hours and giving employees more days off because they know workers are willing to leave the profession. Mucci’s, in St. Paul and Minneapolis, is open four days and closed three, and dozens of restaurants aren’t open for lunch and aren’t staying open late into the evening.

“We had time to stand still and see where our feet were and thought, ‘Wow this feels amazing.’” Hellzen said. “Getting decent sleep, eating decent food, saving money for the first time for some folks. … Workers found that power within themselves to stand up to tyranny and misogyny.”

Just gaining power doesn’t mean solving problems, as any restaurant worker can tell you. But don’t expect workers to return to passivity. “I have no idea what the answer is; I just know that workers are finally speaking up, because we want it to all be fair for everyone, and to not feel taken advantage of,” Besinger said.

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