It’s been nine months since the COVID-19 pandemic first shut down New York City hospitality industry. In that time, it’s gestated a monstrous stillbirth: a second indoor dining ban that has annihilated an entire reticulate of restaurants, bars, and service workers. Oft-forgotten (or blatantly disregarded) is the personality of such service, the who on the other side of your dining experience. So easy it has been to rush through an atmosphere and an evening when there were other places to be; ever so simple was it to book reservations for somewhere new and not look back. But what one neglects in these hurried instances is a labyrinth of queer, femme, and other marginalized workers who rely on the immediate and accessible nature of restaurants. Restaurants employ the thinkers, the innovators. We must unite to preserve its true greatness — its anarchy.
What exactly recruits the never-ending parade of wackadoos, eccentrics, and ingenues to the restaurant scene? If not the pressing necessity of a due rent, I imagine the immediate draw might be the autonomy, the something inherently lacking from the fitted suit and swivel chair class of yuppies and financiers of Lower Manhattan. Restaurants have become synonymous with proletariat mindfulness, a direct rejection of all things corporate and capitalistic. It offers full-time pay for part-time work, something integral for the aspiring artist and imperative for the reflective soul. The leisure and malleability of a dining room schedule provides breathing room and inspiration, something intangible to the proverbial ‘9 to 5er.’ It is an affable profession for those who’ve tried elsewhere and felt the gnawing panic of imposter syndrome on the outskirts of hospitality’s warm embrace. It is a necessary reprieve from the class pressures of America.
With the meteoric rise of dual incomes, 1990 saw a shift towards dining out regularly. Atomic families sat beneath pendant lights and neon kitsch, stuffed their maws with high-fat, high-cal slop, and built a workforce out of convenience. The restaurant racket boomed and in tandem, so did the price of higher education. Many college students and recent graduates sought supplemental income from an approachable and lucrative industry. And thus the Big Bang of thought was born, and the 21st-century Intelligentsia was conceived; atop epoxyed wood countertops and $20 buckets of sangria. The dejected philosophy, english, and arts majors flocked to the industry, disillusioned by an increasingly competitive job market. Dropouts and those who couldn’t afford the skyrocketing prices of a Bachelor’s degree picked up their first kitchen and dining room shifts, finding amnesty from the Reganomics raging outside. It was the beginning of a new and exciting era for middle America, one that afforded opportunity to a wayward batch of young people who sought to distance themselves from rugged individualism. A fringe society for the pariahs and outcasts who acted as tastemakers for the world at large.
The next two decades would help solidify restaurants as an immovable fixture in American culture. The weekly family outing, the special occasion steak dinner, and the celebratory nature of dining out would emphasize the need for service industry workers. Nowhere fit this definition better than New York City.
On the vanguard of the zeitgeist as it’s always been, New York saw the emergence of hospitality as an art form. Waiters became servers, bartenders became mixologists, and restaurants became a business. This metamorphosis gave rise to world-class beverage programs, the farm-to-table genre, and sommeliers at every white-linen establishment. The door was suddenly thrust open to gaze upon the menagerie of stick n’ pokes and emigres setting the tempo for a city of white-collar criminals and disaffected housewives. Restaurants were King.
They survived post-9/11 panic, the 2008 stock market crash, Hurricane Sandy, and increasingly expensive operating margins. But now, the industry now lies on the precipice of disintegration. Restaurants, bars, food carts, and caterers hang in the balance of an unstable and disorganized leadership. For the first time in its modern existence, this buoyant and triumphant staple of Americana stands to be eradicated. And not for lack of trying on the part of those who helped build her.
Restaurants cultivate communities. Friendships and rapport are forged in those rare and enchanted instances that only food and drink offer. Whether it be your regular dive bar that “misplaces” a couple of cocktails when you ask for the tab, the Mom & Pop shops that dole out the food of your youth, or the envelope-pushing ghost kitchens that dazzle and seduce with their innovative interpretations, you have undoubtedly been entranced yourself. But the invisible labor — undetectable to the untrained eye — is comprised of people on the margins of society. he folks who scrub the toilets, filet the fish, shelve the wine, and sweep the messes. They come in on holidays and take the trains at ungodly hours to every corner of the boroughs and tristate. They pull three doubles in a row because the busser no-called, no-showed again and the whole place will implode if they don’t.. Nothing inspires recidivism like turning a dining room three times in a brunch shift, or clearing a full board of takeout orders before the diners even know their food’s behind; nothing tastes better than the cigarette you earned after busting ass for ten hours without a break.
In a city full of grifters, slickers, and gentrifiers, it’s imperative that the innately radical nature of foodservice survives. Without the enduring push of its workers, whose political power helped secure a $15 minimum wage and fought against rampant sexual harassment, years of valuable hard work may be lost. Beneath its many roofs and storied buildings, its staff have been building a network of diplomacy, verbiage, and even taste. Never before has the proletariat been as mobilized as it is now, concentrated in imbalanced proportions under the Hospitality banner. Without the socialization and imminence of this line of work, we will lose much more than the physical spaces that have sheltered us: we will lose its people.
I even suspect there is another enemy lurking in the shadows of NYC’s restaurant graveyard: the monopoly. Soon the conglomerate vultures will descend on the corpses of moxie and character and bedeck the necropolis. The bones of the city will collapse beneath the weight of corporate absorption and we will all be offered nosebleed seats to the shitshow.
If we do lose restaurants — their magic and people and shine — we also lose the working and middle classes. As the chasm between the haves and the have-nots reaches a head, the fastest growing industry in the country acts as one of the few buffers between capitalism and feudalism. Providing the highest paid entry-level positions across any job market (between $32,000- $76,000/year) and employing the most marginalized communities across any industry, the entire landscape of American consumerism and politics stands to change also. Without the outcasts, we will regress to an era of non-advocacy. Without the purveyors of change, all hope is lost. We will enter a din of silence.
Where will the displaced and unemployed go? Service workers have attempted to unlock restaurants’ “golden handcuffs” and seek outside employment for decades to no avail. What sector is large enough to absorb the swarm of workers? What trade has come forward and offered apprenticeships and cross-training for the idle?
Hannah Lane is a screenwriter based in Bushwick who works in the hospitality industry.
Top picture borrowed from @thethreediamonddoor instagram.
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