The pandemic pushed hospitality workers to make a switch

Layoffs and uncertainty in the restaurant industry drove managers, chefs, bartenders and servers to pursue other lines of work. For some, it’s been a rewarding move.
Photo illustration by RB Staff

For 10 years, Chris VandenHende worked as a server in high-end New York City restaurants and catering companies while he pursued his dream of performing on Broadway. He had recently landed as GM of Chef’s Dinner Table, a job that combined his talents for event planning and show biz, and was loving it. Then the pandemic hit.

“Private events ceased during the pandemic and Broadway shut down. I could have hibernated and waited things out,” said VandenHende, “but once I realized this wasn’t going to be short term and my funds were very limited, I decided to cut my losses, restrategize and rebrand.”

In September 2020, VandenHende moved back to his hometown of Tulsa, Okla., and began pursuing a “pandemic-proof” career in computer science. He is currently enrolled in an 18-month accelerated program, partially funded by grants made available to those who decided to go back to school to learn a new skill.

The former GM is far from alone in making the move from hospitality to another field. While VandenHende said he felt lots of emotion over leaving a field he’s passionate about, for others, the pandemic empowered them to seek greater job satisfaction.

“It’s the hours, the compensation, just the lack of opportunity, the limitations for opportunity for advancement based on your gender or your race,” said Tanya Holland, chef-owner of Brown Sugar Kitchen in Oakland, Calif. While there have been a lot of conversations about mental health in the industry, not much has been done to address the problem, she added.

In the Joblist’s recent U.S. Job Market Report surveying more than 13,000 employees, 58 percent of the people currently working at restaurants, bars and hotels said they are planning to quit before the end of the year, and about a quarter of them are expected to leave the industry for good. Some of the top reasons for quitting are unhappiness with how their employer treated them during the pandemic (19%), low pay or lack of benefits (17%), and lack of work-life balance (13%). But 20% of workers are leaving the industry to pursue a new career path, reflecting how the pandemic created an opportunity to switch fields or find a more appealing job situation.

Like VandenHende, Danielle Hengge, a former bartender at Butter & Scotch in New York City, went back to school. She’s currently studying to become a mortician—quite a departure from her work as a brand ambassador/mixologist. Hengge told New York Magazine, “the pandemic was the first opportunity I had to be able to have a moment to myself to say, ‘this is something that I’m really passionate about and I think I can do a lot of good.’”

On social media platform Reddit, members of the restaurant community subreddit shared their career pivots. The pandemic pushed a former chef-owner into construction, specializing in stucco and acrylic work. One long-time restaurant employee is training to become an electrical apprentice, while another transitioned to become a licensed aircraft maintenance engineer, saying “best decision I have ever made in my life, hands down. Making really good money and it's only the start. And I don't have deal with anyone's bullshit on a regular basis.”

Although VandenHende is more conflicted about his move, he is already thinking about how he can combine computer science and hospitality. “I’m exploring the concept of using augmented reality to interact digitally with menus and other aspects of hospitality,” he said.

Some restaurant industry dropouts have tapped directly into their hospitality skills to work in related fields. One member of the subreddit community said, “lost my job at the beginning of the pandemic as a bartender at a local place. Had been in the industry for close to 15 years. Found a gig as a budtender at a local dispensary and I’ve never been happier. I use a lot of the stuff I liked from serving and got rid of a lot of the stuff I didn’t like, such as living on tips.”

Others reported going into the supermarket sector, one as a cake decorator at an in-store bakery and another as a grocery store manager.

Thomas Boyce, who was laid off during the pandemic as chef de cuisine at Nike headquarters in Portland, Ore., started The Lasagna Project from his home kitchen, marketing his business on Instagram. He sells pans of homemade lasagna for $40 and has added home-baked focaccia to the lineup. He employs a part-timer to deliver the food to customers.

“I’ve been consistently busy and am working three days a week, which provides as much income as the chef jobs I had in Portland,” he said. Boyce particularly enjoys the flexibility and quality of life his work provides.

“I can feed my kids breakfast, then go for a run while the focaccia is proofing,” said Boyce.

Instagram is still his main marketplace, but he’s in the “logistics phase” of developing products for retail, hoping to branch out to supermarket sales.

Boyce admits he misses the social interaction of working with people. “My social circle has gotten really small,” he said. But “I wasn’t feeling great about all the sacrifices I was making before … working nights and weekends. I don’t love that lifestyle.”

Boyce has considered moving The Lasagna Project out of the house and renting space in a shared kitchen, “but the numbers don’t work unless I scale up,” he said. However, the idea is on his radar for the future.

Talking to friends in the industry reinforces Boyce’s feeling that he made the right decision to start his own business. “Being employed at a restaurant is not the inspiring work it once was,” he said. “It’s still a lot of hustle and dealing with difficult people.”

Even so, “when I see a vacant restaurant space, I think ‘maybe I’d like to open my own place,’” Boyce said. “But then I catch myself and say “you dummy, you don’t want to do that!’”

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