Bartender and comedian Alyssa Al-Dookhi used to enjoy whipping up pickletinis while getting a laugh out of her Devil’s Den customers. But these days, her job goes far beyond serving up cocktails and citywides, and there’s rarely time for jokes.
“The hustle has quintupled,” says Al-Dookhi. “Now I make the drinks, I manage the reservations, bus the tables, run the food, answer the phones, prepare the takeout orders, and wait on the tables. All while trying to enforce the laws mandated by the city and state.”
Like nearly every other restaurant right now, staffing at Devil’s Den is tight, and dining capacity limited. Two servers juggle all front-of-house duties, running to wash their hands every time they touch money or doors, or answer the phone, and running after customers, too, who seem to never remember the rules.
“It feels like working in Groundhog Day, we have the same conversations over and over again,” says Al-Dookhi. “Not just with guests, but with each other as a team — about folks not wearing masks, about how scared we are.”
As indoor dining resumes across Pennsylvania and New Jersey, we talked to servers to find out what they wish you knew when dining out right now.
“Every shift I think, ‘I hope people are understanding today,’” says Al-Dookhi. “I’ve been doing this for 10 years, but this is the first time I’m doing this in a pandemic. I’m going to mess up. I’m going to do things wrong, and so are you.”
Wearing a mask — one that fits securely over your mouth and nose — is required unless seated at your table.
“You can’t just pull up a shirt over your face, and walk to your table,” says Annie Lu, a server at Ooka Sushi in Doylestown. “I don’t care how far the table is. I wish people would just stop questioning us. Everything doesn’t need to be a fight.”
Once seated, many servers say mask-wearing isn’t expected whenever they drop by, but it’s appreciated. And at some restaurants, it’s a requirement.
If the weather’s turning and there’s no covering, ask for a check and take-home box at first chance.
“Your server may have another eight hours ahead of them, wearing soaked shoes,” says Al-Dookhi.
It’s fine to stick around if you don’t mind getting a little wet. Just pay the bill first.
“Takeout servers do a lot of work that you don’t necessarily realize, and they’re definitely busier than before COVID,” says Lu. “As soon as we open for dinner service, they’re slammed.”
At many restaurants, there aren’t designated takeout staff at all, but servers that do it all: taking orders, answering questions communicating pickup procedures, bagging food, adding condiments, double-checking orders — all in between serving in-person diners. And there’s no room for error. Restaurants are relying on takeout, and their takeout reputations, to survive.
“For you, it’s just a phone call and showing up. But it’s a balancing act inside an ecosystem that’s already short-staffed,” says Al-Dookhi.
Seating is now more calculated than ever, which means you can’t stroll in and grab your favorite stool at the bar.
“Please stop playing the ’I’m a regular’ card. It might have had weight before, but it doesn’t anymore in the face of actual government regulations,” says Lu. “If you sit and we ask you to move, then you’re mad, I’m embarrassed, and now I have to sanitize everything when I’m already extra busy.”
The shorter you make your interaction with your server, the better (and safer). Come prepared with questions, and then swiftly place your order.
“According to the rules, you only have an hour and a half to sit right now anyway, so why not have more time to enjoy your food?” says Al-Dookhi.
Knowing your order ahead of time is helpful, but ordering everything at once is even better. This includes sides and condiments.
“I can’t just go back and get ketchup like I used to,” says Jackie McCoy, a bartender and server at Miller’s Ale House in Montgomeryville. “Now I have to ring it in and have someone with gloves hand it off, and all these little things take longer for both of us than normally.”
If needed, jot down your order on your phone to read off. And when ordering another round of drinks, wait until the whole table’s ready.
“Ask for the water refill at the same time,” adds Jonn Klein, owner, waiter, and bartender at Watkins.
It’s always considerate to make it easy for your server to clear your table. But now you can view it as a requirement.
“I don’t want one glass here, one plate there, where I’m leaning over your table. I want you to limit as much time as possible that I have to breathe your air,” says Leanie Williams, a bartender at Philadelphia Distilling.
Another tip: Make it clear if you’re still working on your drink. Don’t let a final sip rest on the table.
Keep your hands to yourself. You don’t need to touch every table while heading to the one that’s yours.
“When you touch six other tables, we have to sanitize all six tables, change the tablecloths, sanitize the chairs, the vase of the flowers,” says Lu.
It’s not personal. Many servers actually wish they could spend more time chatting. But ongoing hand-washing and table sanitization alone leave little room for small talk. And, of course, it’s riskier.
“Some people want you to stand by their table the whole time, and I used to like that on a non-busy day,” says Al-Dookhi. “But now, I’m in fight-or-flight mode. I can hear the phone ringing inside. I can hear the receipts printing in my sleep. I don’t have time for that.”
In Pennsylvania and New Jersey, indoor dining is capped at 25% capacity. It can make a restaurant feel empty, especially when reservations are staggered.
“When I tell you we’re booked out, we really are booked out,” says Lu. “We take reservations up to capacity, and so if we say no, those seats are already claimed. There’s no need to get rude.”
If a server seems tense, be understanding.
“We do enjoy our jobs, but it’s just a scarier time,” says Williams. ”Think of the person behind the mask. They see 150 of you, and you just see the one or two servers. Our odds are a little bit higher — put that into perspective.”
Virtually any server will tell you: It’s harder to make money right now. Most earn an hourly wage of $2.83, and rely on tips to make a living. With dining capacity caps and limited outdoor space, servers are often serving fewer people per shift, while staying busy with extra jobs, like religiously sanitizing tables.
If weather makes outdoor dining a no-go, it could slash tips all together. And many restaurants aren’t operating on a full schedule, meaning there are already limited shifts to pick up.
“Please be generous. I will never complain about a 20% tip, but if you can afford to tip more than that, bearing in mind what everyone in the restaurant business is facing, every little bit helps,” says Klein.
There are a lot of new rules. And if restaurants don’t follow them, they may be forced to close. That’s not a risk worth taking just because, say, you don’t feel like ordering food with your drink or putting on a mask.