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What it’s like to be a server during the pandemic: ‘The things that I loved about my job — they were gone’

“What became abundantly clear is that people were not excited, or really even willing, to put on a mask to interact with the team.”

Watkins Drinkery owner Jonn Klein (left) serves customers outside at his Watkins Drinkery, 1712 S 10th St. in Phila., Pa. on July 11, 2020.
Watkins Drinkery owner Jonn Klein (left) serves customers outside at his Watkins Drinkery, 1712 S 10th St. in Phila., Pa. on July 11, 2020.Read moreELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer

Jonn Klein was a server and a bartender in Philly for years before he bought and opened his own place. And in the 10 years since he opened Watkins Drinkery in South Philly, he’s been a regular presence behind the bar: pouring beers, running food, talking to patrons.

In the pandemic, that’s as true as ever. He’s the sole server/bartender/busboy/host four out of seven nights that Watkins is open for outdoor dining, weather-permitting.

It’s not much of a choice for Klein, 43, who also owns the still-closed Dive Bar on East Passyunk Avenue. He can’t afford to bring back most of his staff, and given the alternative, he feels comfortable taking on the risk.

With just 23 seats, he feels there’s not much opportunity for customers to misbehave. And so far, his customers are happy to have somewhere to go and are tipping generously, sometimes 30% or more.

“If I speak just as an employee of my own company,” Klein says, “it’s good to be back at work, and it’s worth showing up most nights.”

In some ways, his experience echoes that of other Philadelphia-area servers who have also waited on guests eager to get out again.

But in other ways it’s an anomaly, as evidenced by interviews with a dozen front-of-house staffers in the Philadelphia area. Some are back at work after months off; some never stopped; and some are still at home, dreading the call to come back. Many spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing concerns about dealing with customers.

Those who have returned describe a transformation in the nature of waiting tables. Restaurants that follow — and enforce — city and state health guidelines have become, for some, politically charged environments, confronting servers with another choice: to appeal to cavalier clientele to respect rules, or say nothing and take on even more risk.

“I don’t know why wearing a mask is politicized,” said one server. “If you don’t want to wear a mask, don’t come in. That’s also your choice.”

In turn, many restaurant workers are reevaluating their current jobs and their futures in the hospitality industry, which employs roughly two in 10 Philadelphians.

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‘We’re in hospitality. We’re not in public health.’

Paul Dellevigne is a bartender at Second District Brewing Co. in South Philly. The skills he’s developed over 20 years of serving — engaging customers, providing attentive service — now seem like bad habits that need to be broken.

But Dellevigne feels lucky. He’s comfortable with the brewpub’s coronavirus setup: one staffer works the takeout window, one makes drinks, and one waits tables outside. Customers, mostly regulars, have been respectful of mask-wearing and other policies.

“We haven’t had anyone try to squeeze eight people at a table set for six,” he said. “People ask, ‘Can we bring a stool over?' And we just tell them: ‘Everything is exactly six feet apart. If you add another chair, it’s not.‘ ... And no one is complaining.

“That being said, I’ve talked to other friends in the industry who aren’t quite so blessed.”

For some restaurant staff The Inquirer spoke to, returning to work has been nightmarish. One Fishtown bartender described customers threatening her, throwing trash at her, even spitting at her for asking them to follow the bar’s rules. The bad behavior has become so regular that she considers it a good night if she’s merely berated during a shift.

She praised her employer for their policies, but the customers have changed, she said.

“Sure, you see drunk kids,” she said of her bar’s pre-pandemic crowd. “Some of them are stupid, some of them are silly, some of them are great. Now, I would say 80% of them are combative. ... It is a different clientele walking in the door.”

» READ MORE: As more young adults get sick, Philly and Delaware County officials urge people to report bars and restaurants ignoring social distance rules

A manager at a different Fishtown bar recalled the first day of reopening for outdoor dining in June. “There were a lot of people that came out really excited to be going out and supporting restaurants,” he said, “but what became abundantly clear is that people were not excited, or really even willing, to put on a mask to interact with the team.”

At the beginning of July, his staff — many of whom had been working for the company throughout the shutdown — was reaching its breaking point. One server quit at the end of a shift; it was too much of a toll on her mental health.

“It’s hard for us to see,” the manager said, recalling a couple customers who squeezed into a single-person restroom at once. “I assume that they’re like, ‘Oh, I’m being bad right now, had a cocktail, feeling loose, whatever,’ but sitting there and watching hundreds of people behave like that all the time. ... It wears on you.”

‘You’re already doing so much to try to survive off tips.’

Besides the health risks and lifeguarding roles servers find themselves taking on, reduced seating at restaurants translates to fewer customers and tips. Some servers and managers reported better-than-usual tipping at the start of the yellow phase, or from regulars and customers grateful just to get themselves and their kids out of the house. But other accounts were more mixed.

“The money has just been really disappointing,” said a server in South Philly. “I just can’t understand. If I felt the need that I had to go out, that I was going to put this person in a position to risk their safety — and also they’re working in these hot, uncomfortable conditions? Twenty percent isn’t really going to cut it for me anymore.”

Pennsylvania servers earn $2.83 an hour, which makes tips everything. That’s true of takeout, too.

» READ MORE: Philly restaurants may not survive coronavirus due to confusing new sales restrictions | Opinion

One Montgomery County server described preparing a $270 takeout order — taking the order, processing payment, entering it into the computer, prepping the containers, boxing and bagging them up, then bringing them to the customer’s car. She asked if they wanted to leave a tip.

“We were being very straightforward,” she recalled: “‘Would you like to leave a tip on your card this evening?’ [The customer] said, “Eh, no. I feel bad, though.‘ ”

A former manager at a chain of brewpubs in Delaware painted a picture of how much takeout adds to a bartender’s balancing act: “If they’re taking a $200 takeout order, they’re on the phone for at least 10 minutes. Plus, they’re taking payment. So in those 10 minutes, they might have also gotten a table, they could have a couple new bar guests, six service tickets come in. Now they’re buried,” she said.

The takeout order most likely won’t tip as well as the bar guests in that scenario, but the bar guests might perceive they had lesser service, reducing their would-be tip.

» READ MORE: Gov. Tom Wolf imposes new restrictions on bars, restaurants, businesses as the coronavirus surges

The pandemic “kind of exposed the general lack of understanding that the American people had for the service industry and how it functions,” the manager said.

“There’s so much more that goes into it now,” said the Montgomery County server. “You’re showing up to work, you’re putting yourself in the public, and you’re having to sanitize everything. It’s made me look at my job, where it’s like ... almost underappreciated,” something she had not felt before.

‘Not working isn’t fun, but the alternative feels worse’

In this environment, it’s no surprise servers are hesitant to return to work. And many haven’t. Several restaurant owners and workers have said they’re short-staffed.

Some servers felt they stood to gain more, monetarily and otherwise, by going back to work. For others, the math doesn’t make sense — especially factoring in the $600-a-week in unemployment benefits, a bonus set to expire at the end of this week.

But even some well-paid servers are sitting it out, like one Center City bartender who made between $25 and $40 an hour. She expressed how much she loved her job, being able to make customers forget their troubles over dinner and drinks.

But since March, she’s grappled with being one of the lucky few. The fact that so many of her colleagues can make more money staying home than working, she said, is an admission that most weren’t paid enough to begin with.

“I was happy being a part of that system,” she said. “Now we have to come to terms with: That wasn’t a system that was very good for everybody.”

» READ MORE: Philadelphia City Council bill would cap fees that delivery services can charge restaurants

Many of the workers interviewed expressed hope that this period will lead restaurants to pivot toward a living-wage payment model, possibly by switching to built-in service charges, like those that the Kensington restaurant Martha recently instated. It would require ingenuity and sacrifice on the part of already-strapped business owners, but it may be necessary to keep restaurants open, even for the short-term.

“Over the next year, if we’re just working for tips and we can’t have indoor dining, can’t be at capacity and probably don’t want to be,” Dellevigne said, “you’re going to see more and more career service people leave.”

Several servers said they and their friends were looking for work in other fields. But it stings.

“When you put so much of your life and your work — and you spend so much time away from your home and your family — to create a successful, fun, cool, and profitable business, and then to go back to it and have it be completely different in three months,” said the manager in Delaware, “it’s a huge identity crisis.”

» READ MORE: Service workers are still undervalued during coronavirus | Opinion

‘This is reality that we’re living in’

Restaurant staffers understand why customers come out. They love restaurants, too, and want them to survive. They miss being able to create experiences for customers — and they miss enjoying it themselves.

And while most don’t feel comfortable dining out right now, some have.

Take Adesola Ogunleye-Sowemimo, who works at Laser Wolf in Kensington. She reluctantly returned to work recently, despite being immunocompromised. She feels safe when she’s inside with her masked coworkers, but when she steps outside to deliver food to tables, “it’s a little scary. But I have to go back to work.”

Ogunleye-Sowemimo has also gone out with friends three or four times since outdoor dining returned. Like many people, she still wants to support restaurants. When she ventures out, she tries to take every precaution but acknowledges there’s only so much one can do if eating or mid-sentence when a server approaches.

“You have to catch yourself,” she said.

Having been on the other side of the table, she empathizes with the server, too. “Knowing these people have to come back to work as well because they need the money. ... There’s a lot of guilt there.”

For the conscientious customer weighing the guilt of going out with the desire for normalcy — the sweet escape of enjoying a meal away from home with loved ones — the solution isn’t perfect, but it’s simple.

If you can, get takeout; maybe go to the park. If you stay to dine, be thoughtful; wear a mask when your server is nearby.

And whatever you do, leave a good tip.