At 2 p.m. each day for most of the past month, Augustine Cubero has gone to the window of his Spruce Street apartment and waited for his mail carrier to round the corner.
“Maybe today’s the day?” he asks himself, wondering if approval of his application for unemployment and stimulus relief funds will finally arrive. He applied for them five weeks ago after being laid off from his job as a server at Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steakhouse. “Anything for me?” he’ll ask the carrier he knows only as Ms. Robin, whom he once had the delight of serving birthday cake when she coincidentally came into the restaurant for a special meal.
“I’m sorry, Augustine,” she has told him daily. “Not today.”
It has been an anxious and humbling month for Cubero, 52, who’s been a reliably cheerful fixture on Philadelphia’s dining scene for 28 years, having worked his way up from dishwasher at the Ritz-Carlton to a service captain at Le Bec-Fin before becoming a mainstay at local steakhouses. His colleagues affectionately call him “Uncle Augie" as a nod to his good nature and restaurant-lifer status. It’s a career he cherishes, he says, “because we bring joy and happiness to people, and we are part of their celebrations.”
But the joyous days of packed dining rooms seem like a distant dream now that Pennsylvania’s statewide restaurant shutdown in response to the coronavirus has stretched into its seventh week. Instead of waiting tables, Cubero is waiting for a promised lifeline. And with two-thirds of the nation’s restaurant employees suddenly now also out of work, according to the National Restaurant Association, he is hardly alone.
Matthew Graves, 32, and Leslie Turbett, 33, an engaged couple who work at Teresa’s Next Door in Wayne, are still waiting for their unemployment paperwork to make its way through the backlog of state bureaucracy. Graves, a general manager, and Turbett, a server, met at Teresa’s, where they’ve both worked for nearly a decade, and are now digging deep into savings they had set aside for their wedding in 2021.
Kim Mulherinn, 53, a server at the Dining Car diner in Northeast Philly, is also waiting — and wondering if help is coming at all.
“It’s frustrating,” says Mulherinn, who filed for unemployment on March 15. “There’s nobody to talk to, no one to email, and you’re not getting anything for weeks. I’ve never filed for unemployment my entire life. Been working since I’m 15. But now, unfortunately, when I need it, it’s not available. ... Rent is due next week, and it’s going to be tight."
The national restaurant group says at least 332,000 restaurant employees have been laid off or furloughed in Pennsylvania since the beginning of March. About 70% of those are front-of-the-house employees, estimates Ben Fileccia of the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association (PRLA).
“You’ll get paid [retroactively] from the moment you apply,” says Fileccia of the workers’ unemployment benefits. “They make it up. But it’s going to be a tough couple weeks while you wait.”
While kitchen employees are more likely to regain work first as some restaurants attempt takeout operations, the servers, bartenders, managers, and bussers will likely be the last to get the call.
“I think we do get forgotten [by the public], especially if a restaurant is still open and we’re not working,” says Scott Dickerson, 26, a server at Standard Tap in Northern Liberties, whose unemployment benefits finally began recently. “But I don’t personally feel forgotten because I’ve been so moved by the response of the restaurant industry to this crisis and the idea we can take care of our own.”
Dickerson cites efforts like those of Kalaya, the South Philadelphia Thai restaurant that offers free meals to out-of-work industry workers once a week. There are also relief grants like those from the Snider Foundation, the James Beard Foundation, and the PRLA’s Hospitality Assistance Response of Pennsylvania, among many other individual GoFundMe accounts of cohorts of chefs who crowdsource funds to cook for those in need (like H.E.L.P. Relief Philly). The Philly Service Industry Facebook page, a community bulletin board where more than 4,000 group members share job tips, experiences and advice, has grown by 25% this year alone.
In a sector where full-time servers in Philadelphia earn an average of about $50,000-$60,000 a year, unemployment compensation (50% of wages, up to $573 a week in Pennsylvania) and the $600 weekly supplemental benefits, can be crucial.
But the disruption to peoples’ lives has been traumatic. Cubero has had trouble sleeping, haunted by the fear his unemployment paperwork might never be processed. Mulherinn, who recently separated from her husband, “was finally getting on my feet before all this happened, thinking about getting new furniture. And now it’s all gone.”
Graves and Turbett say they’re fortunate to have the cushion of their wedding savings while many of their friends have had to move back in with parents: “If this goes into May,” Graves said, “we’re going to have to swallow our pride and start having the mom and dad conversations.”
And there’s little confidence the restaurant economy will be back to full strength this summer when the current stimulus booster payments end in July.
For industry newcomers like Kaamil Jones, 20, it’s been a shock but not a deterrent.
"I was just taken aback,” said Jones, a broadcast journalism major at Temple University who worked four days a week as a maître d’ at Parc. He was laid off the same day as both his housemates, Charles Velazquez, 19, and William Dos Santos Figueiredo, 21, who also are Temple students and work as bussers.
The three have been friends since high school at Science Leadership Academy and are getting along well in quarantine, he says. “But I hope to go back to work as soon as possible. Some people are thinking that [this assistance] is good, but you can‘t live on that. It doesn’t last forever. And there’s no fun in just staying in our house. ... Working at Parc is such a social job, and I definitely miss that aspect of it.”
There was also the loss of “staff meal,” the shared supper for restaurant employees that Jones and his roommates ate four times a week that would now need to be replaced. Parc, like many restaurants, put together care packages of ingredients and prepared food for staffers, said Jones, who says he’s improving his cooking skills. Who busses the table? “We all do.”
For some restaurant workers, the shutdown has brought an unexpected upside — the rare opportunity to pursue creative projects full-time.
“With some bartenders and servers, this is their job to fund their music or art,” said Perry Coker, a visual artist who’s a bartender at Standard Tap. “A lot of people I know believe a creative renaissance could come from this.”
Coker’s boyfriend Shane Handal, for example, a bartender at Garage Fishtown who was laid off, has spent 10 hours a day in the studio at Creep Records in Northern Liberties with his band Timelost recording their second album.
Coker, who’s been working the Tap’s takeout effort part-time, is grateful for the hours but also feels “a little bit of survivor’s guilt.” She, too, has managed to keep her hands in art, having been commissioned by Standard Tap owners Paul Kimport and William Reed to paint some wine-juggling frogs on a newly built bar dedicated to natural wines: “Hopefully people will come out the other side of this with a good project.”
For career servers like Cubero, however, the possibility of reinvention is unwelcome, especially when making guests happy feels like a personal calling.
“I put all my adult life into this business and you start thinking now when I’m 52, ‘What else can I do?’ Sometimes you wonder. And sometimes you doubt yourself,” says Cubero, a buoyantly social person for whom the isolation of quarantine has been difficult.
A Facebook post by a Del Frisco’s patron the week before the shutdown with a picture of Cubero holding her beaming grandmother’s hand struck a chord: “We miss this true gentleman," wrote Veronica Rose Matsinger. "My grams only gets out a few times a year and you always make her feel like a million bucks.”
Cubero says the posting “touched my heart, and brought back all those emotions of how our industry is so important. It also made me forget all the worries for a moment and my mind went a little bit, imagining the restaurant packed with smiling customers as steaks were delivered, candles blown-out, and the bar full of people laughing. We should not take it for granted anymore.”
And he’s not. On Wednesday, Ms. Robin, the mail carrier, finally brought Cubero the good news notifying him that his unemployment claim was being processed, bringing him one step closer to some help. “This letter cheered me up,” he said. He’s still diligently economizing, but he’s become even more worried about younger colleagues who are “looking for their next meal.” And so Uncle Augie sent them a gift card to help.