With a protracted pandemic leaving dining rooms at half capacity, the constant threat of another shutdown looming and restaurant coffers sitting near empty, longtime service professionals are leaving the hospitality industry in droves for greener pastures elsewhere.
At the beginning of March, Jaimie Seitz and Nichole Homfeld both worked as floor managers at Leila, a downtown Lebanese hot spot that had been riding high as the newly crowned Free Press Restaurant of the Year.
And though it took years of toil and sacrifice – missed holidays, family birthdays and the like – for both of them to work their way up to those coveted front-of-house restaurant jobs, today neither one works in the industry they’d spent the better part of their lives in.
“I didn’t have any intention of leaving,” Seitz said. “If COVID didn’t happen, I wouldn’t have left that job. I really loved working for them.”
At 28, Seitz had spent exactly half her life working in restaurants, keeping an 80-hour-a-week schedule during the most demanding times. Suddenly at home amid the state-mandated shutdown, she finally found the time to do the soul-searching her schedule had never allowed.
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“Once COVID happened, I got a little introspective and thought about doing what I wanted to do,” she said. “And I wanted to be my own boss. … COVID actually was a weird excuse to push on and do something different.”
For Homfeld, who had partnered into another business four years ago while still juggling the physical demands of restaurant life, the new safety precautions made it logistically impossible to continue to do both.
“If COVID wouldn’t have happened, I would’ve stayed at Leila,” Homfeld, 26, said. “I promised myself two years there, actually. … But with COVID, the safety protocols that are needed at my business and also to be working full time somewhere else is just too much. My business has to come first, so it was just time to finally make the decision that took me four years to make. It’s a hard industry to leave.”
Whether they’re now selling car insurance, like local kitchen veteran Chuck Morgan, or driving for Lyft while building their real estate business, as longtime area bartender Chuck Gellasch has done, hospitality employees are dropping decades-long careers in the industry and translating the skills they’ve honed behind the stick or the stove to sectors less affected by the ongoing pandemic.
“This isn’t an easy life,” said Leila proprietor Samy Eid, speaking about the realities of the restaurant business. Nearly half of Eid’s former managers at Leila have left the industry since the beginning of the pandemic.
“I think this time off may be kind of a vignette into what life could be outside the restaurant industry, and it’s made them see that it’s a hard life more clearly. And maybe their ability and wants and desire for the service industry wanes because of it. People are afraid to come back to work, too.”
Gary Chard runs Hired Knives, a Detroit-based restaurant staffing website that matches food-service businesses with qualified employees. Chard said usage is down 50% among applicants, many of whom Chard posits are hospitality careerists.
“It’s a sad state,” Chard said. “From our data, I’m seeing less people coming on looking for jobs in the food and beverage industry. The numbers are not dramatically different from a job-posting perspective, but the number of applicants is dramatically down.” Chard said he hasn’t seen a spike in applicants as many predicted would come after the enhanced unemployment benefits offered through the federal CARES Act expired in late July.
“Retail employees and food workers are putting themselves at risk, so if there’s ever a time to make a career switch, it’s now,” Chard said. “But it’s not only the risk – it’s the sustainability of the industry. These restaurants operating at 50%, their margins are already thin operating at 100%. So it’s just not sustainable unless you are a bigger operator and have some money in the bank. That’s a hug…