The restaurants are back. Bravo! Restaurants are open or starting to open across the country. Bottom up!
But something is wrong there. Something unexpected and still unexplained is happening: There is a nationwide shortage of restaurant workers.
During the lockdown, I was one of many who lamented the fate of those who cooked, cooked, served, and tidied up, enduring bad hours, difficult conditions, and uncertain incomes.
However, there have always been those who wanted to work in restaurants. For some, such as college students, it is a way to earn money while traveling to another location. For others, and there are many, it’s because they love the ethos of restaurant life: its human intensity and its real-time energy and urgency.
And for those who combine ambition with ingenuity, restaurant work has always encouraged the opportunity, as I have heard waiters say, “having a place of your own.” Chez Moi waves to those who sell foie gras as well as those who sell hot dogs.
For brash entrepreneurs, it’s probably impossible to beat restaurateurs. For me, the chance of self-employment is the great motivation of free spirits. A food truck is a start and can be enough.
We knew the pandemic was going to change things. But to change jobs in the catering industry, also a reduced one? Not only is this a mystery, but an indication of how the pandemic has changed things.
There are people in Congress and in the statehouses who think restaurant workers loll around at home because they’d rather receive unemployment benefits. I doubt if there are hundreds of thousands of Americans who are so lazy and work shy that they would rather stay home – after staying home for more than a year – than return to their restaurant jobs.
Something else happened.
Horizons have changed, new jobs have been found and the strenuous but satisfactory work of the restaurants has given way to something else. A new morning after the plague.
The land is reset, and lives are reset too. A waitress in Florida I knew found work in a printing company. She prefers the regular salary there to the uncertain income from the waitress. This is a reset in their life.
As the pandemic is less dominant in our lives, we will see changes as we move forward – some are expected, others surprising, such as the restaurant labor shortage.
We don’t know if the entire workforce will return to their offices; We don’t know how schools will deal with the lost year, and we don’t know whether the mini-migration from city to country that marked the last year is a trend to stay or a product of panic.
What we know and what we are happy about is that we can be restaurant guests again. On brief trips to New England, Washington, DC, and Fort Lauderdale, Florida, I have found that people enjoy eating out.
Restaurants are milestones in life. In them we celebrate birthdays and anniversaries, promote romance or simply eat something that we would not get at home.
But that is not all. Restaurants, even if they are modest, are destinations. During this long pandemic, we have missed a target.
Restaurants in all societies are part of our lives. Eating out is built into our lives, whether it’s a humble hamburger or a big ethnic meal. The first step in the American Dream for many immigrant families is to start a restaurant to use the social capital they bring with them: their kitchen.
Good Appetite! We need restaurants because, with their great variety, they spice up our lives, especially after the long lockdown.
Llewellyn King is executive producer and host of “White House Chronicle” on PBS.