Candis Larsen has been in the restaurant industry for three decades but she says working outside this summer, while wearing a mask and following proper social distancing and sanitation protocols, is the “most challenging” experience of her career.
“Imagine being stuck in a forced interaction with a stranger where you cannot use your given industry talent of facial expression, charm, wit, or any other trick to communicate with an already irritated, inconvenienced customer,” said Larsen, general manager at Steamers Seafood Cafe in Tacoma, Wash. “Then add heat, sweat, humidity and the 20 extra steps of service involved to stay within the COVID guidelines for restaurants. Oh, and don’t forget, literally drinking your own lip sweat.”
Amid the still-raging coronavirus pandemic and with many dining rooms closed or forced to operate at reduced capacity, restaurant owners around the country are capitalizing on outdoor dining to stay afloat.
But those who must work outside say every shift is typically difficult and draining in the current environment of distancing and personal-protective gear. Some operators are finding ways to make the outdoor challenges easier on their employees. But there’s no way to completely erase some of the most difficult aspects, especially with temperatures soaring into the 100s in some parts of the country.
‘A few extra gulps of clean air’
Kim R., who asked that her last name not be used, works part-time as a server at a golf course restaurant near the Twin Cities in Minnesota. She must wear a mask and gloves, per state guidelines.
After trying surgical masks, she switched to a neck gaiter for face covering.
“I can more quickly and easily pull it down, just to gasp for a few extra gulps of clean air,” Kim said. “When you have a chance to cool off, the best thing is really big gulps of water and just air. We duck inside and hide in a corner, someplace guests can’t see us, and pull our masks down and gulp air.”
“Breaks are like a unicorn,” she said, because the restaurant is swamped during nice weather and staffing is so lean.
The masks add to the difficulty of being a server. But there are other challenges, too, she said.
Because of distancing, tables are now spread out farther than they normally would.
“I’m only 5-foot-3,” she said. “My footsteps are shorter than everybody and I am hauling butt.”
The restaurant’s operator did make at least one concession, changing the dress code from black pants and black button-up shirt early in the season to shorts or golf skirts and short-sleeve polos, she said.
Operators offer some hot-weather relief
Hearing the concerns of their hot and harried employees, some operators are making changes to their outdoor environments to offer some relief.
At Moonrise Izakaya in New York City, the restaurant has installed turbo fans at the doors, walkways, each server and POS station and at the bar. Workers get a quart container at the start of each shift to refill with ice water.
“Each team member is encouraged to take a break sitting inside in front of a fan for 15 minutes every 1.5 hours,” Jake Poznak, co-owner and managing partner, said. “Not only are we not used to operating in the heat with masks and gloves, but we aren’t used to walking the extra 100 yards, so it’s a lot of change to get used to.”
In North Carolina, Bill and Anita Greene, the owners of Peppervine and Artisanal, are trying to beat the heat by changing up which restaurants employees work at. Employees are being allowed to alternate between working at Peppervine in Charlotte, N.C., and the sister concept, which is located in the mountains where it is typically 10 to 20 degrees cooler.
At Evo Italian in Tequesta, Fla., the restaurant installed fans and white canopies above the patio, to protect employees and customers, chef-owner Erik Pettersen said.
Communicating under a mask and other challenges
Adding to the stress and the heat of working outside at restaurants are the challenges of communicating with customers while wearing a mask, workers say.
Larsen said she has had a couple of interactions in which she was misread by customers as being “aggressive.”
“I’ve had to tell my staff that, when you approach people, you have to speak slower and try to get your personality through it,” she said. “You do have to speak louder. You have to make sure it’s not a tone you’d use when you’re frustrated or irritated.”
Another challenge? Politely communicating to customers that they can’t move tables around or switch tables to get out of the sun, she said.
“These are measured tables,” Larsen said. “We’re spending a lot of time scolding people. You’re managing people. You’ve got to sanitize the table after people move to a new table. It’s challenging and it’s hot as hell and you’re just trying to move fast.”