Despite the on-going global pandemic, Rito Loco, a Washington, D.C.-based burrito spot, and its sister restaurant El Techo have been open for carry-out and delivery since May. On June 10, El Techo, which is a rooftop restaurant, reopened at 50% capacity. Owner Louie Hankins tells Refinery29 they're open for business because he doesn't have another option.
"I'm watching people with more established restaurants than me saying 'Fuck it, I'm shutting down for now.' I don't know what they're doing — either going to their lake houses or beach houses, probably. I have way too much personal debt with family and friends to shut my doors, declare bankruptcy, take my PPP loan, and wait until next year to open something new when restaurants have bottomed out," he explains. Though some owners may be in a position to put off re-opening, the vast majority of restaurant workers need their jobs to survive. That means, even with fears about the pandemic, workers are reporting for duty.
Joana Hernandez, 26, is a manager at a restaurant in Los Angeles. She tells Refinery29, "We never fully closed, and I'm grateful to still have a source of income. It's a little scary, but we make it work." Hernandez, Hankins, and many others who work in the foodservice industry and are fortunate enough to still have jobs know firsthand how difficult working during a pandemic can be, especially when customers are adding to the problem. That makes them uniquely equipped to spell out exactly how not to be an asshole when dining out during this health crisis.
Comply with safety protocols without complaint
"I've had people come in without a mask, just a shirt raised up to their nose, and I tell them it's unacceptable. They have to wear a mask," Hernandez says. "I've had a customer ask if I was going to require him to wear a mask, I said 'if I have to wear it, so do you.'" Customers' unwillingness to comply with new safety protocols is one issue that was raised by all of the restaurant workers we spoke to, and masks, of course, are at the center of these struggles. Marie Perez, 25, works as a barista in a coffee shop on an Air Force base in Western Florida. She has to deal with quite a few customers who don't want to wear masks and has even had to refuse service to someone who wasn't wearing one. She calls those situations "very frustrating."
In addition to requiring customers who are placing and picking up to-go orders to wear masks, El Techo has other new safety measures including taking guests' temperatures before they're allowed entry and recording guests' names and contact information in order to assist with contact tracing if necessary. These new rules don't always sit well with customers, according to Hankins. "People come in and cop a major attitude about taking their temperatures, and giving their names, and wearing masks," he explains. "I had some guy cussing out my staff member because he had to wear a mask to come inside and place his to-go order."
Dealing with customers who refuse to follow rules or simply make a fuss about the safety regulations causes added stress for workers who are already putting in extra time to make sure they, their fellow employees, and their customers are protected on top of their regular duties. It can also make them feel even more unsafe at work. Even if you're put-off by a restaurant's new requirements, comply without complaining. If you can't do that, don't go to the restaurant.
Don't bail on reservations
Because many restaurants have had to re-open at limited capacity in order to maintain social distance requirements, every bit of business counts. Customers bailing on reservations without any notice is one of the most significant issues El Techo has been dealing with recently. "Last week, I had a party with two tables reserved from 9 p.m. to close, and they no-called, no-showed. For three hours, I kept these 12 seats open expecting them to show up. Not only did they not show up, but we also had to turn away 40 walk-ins," Hankin shares. "On Sunday, we had three tables with 18 people who didn't show up, and we turned away 35 walk-ins."
If you make a reservation, try your best to keep it. If you can't make the reservation, be sure to call ahead of time and let the restaurant know you won't be there so that they can give your table to other paying customers.
Use contactless payment methods
When it comes to protecting against COVID-19, reducing person-to-person contact is the name of the game. This practice can be observed even when picking up food or drinks from a local cafe or restaurant. Perez suggests using contactless payments. In June, Forbes reported that the overall usage of contactless payments has risen 150% in the U.S. since March 2019. Still, Perez says, "You would be shocked at how many people still pay with cash."
When possible, use tap to pay systems or at least, use card readers provided for customer usage. This will help you avoid having to pass cash back and forth with the worker, which protect them and you.
Don't leave bad reviews
Asking customers to refrain from leaving negative restaurants reviews might be controversial, but restaurant workers seem to agree that it's a bit unfair to base your opinion of a restaurant's service solely on the experience you had dining there during a global pandemic. "We had someone leave a positive review, but dock us one star because 'service was rushed.' Of course, it was. We are doing our best to limit our interactions and keep you and ourselves safe," Hankin explains. "We're doing the absolute best we can."
On the flip side, positive reviews about how hard a restaurant is working to make customers' dining experiences feel as safe as possible can go a long way right now. "Every positive review, every word of mouth recommendation of how safe people felt is huge," he says. "If you have nothing nice to say, don't say it. This isn't the time to beat people down. We're fighting tooth and nail for our livelihoods." The restaurant owner recommends going straight to management with issues you have instead of writing about it online. Even in non-pandemic times, that's usually a productive way to get problems address.
Aimee, 25, returned to her job as a server at a restaurant in Toronto at the end of June. Since then, she too has had to adjust to the new safety restrictions and measures. Working through these changes is made much easier with compassion and understanding from customers. "As a server, I am constantly navigating people's emotions and matching their level of enthusiasm. Sadly, lately, people's main emotions are anxiety and fear. Many people are bringing this out to eat with them," she says. "I have already dealt with an overwhelming amount of abuse while trying to reacclimatize myself to my position."
The restaurant she works at can serve fewer people at a time and customers who call in to place to-go orders have mentioned they have a harder time hearing her speak due to muffling caused by her mask. Adapting to these new challenges takes time. "Patience is really a virtue these days," the server shares. "Be kind, be patient, give people their space. Yes, even the staff... People are going through a lot right now and don't need the bad attitude of one person to infect the many."