The waitstaff at a popular Santa Cruz restaurant share a running joke that could serve as a tagline for 2020. At the beginning of a shift, someone will inevitably say, with a mix of exasperation and ironic dark humor, some variation of, “OK, start the timer. Let’s see who’s going to get verbally abused first today.”
Just about everyone who has ever worked in a bar or restaurant has one—or two, or 10,000—stories about difficult customers. It’s been part of the job since a mastodon steak was served to the first hairy-knuckled paying customer.
Restaurants have generally operated on an ethic of “The customer is always right.” But Covid-19 makes no allowances for such conventions. When it comes to safety protocols that the government is compelling businesses to adhere to, the customer cannot always be right.
The pandemic has made a hash (or veggie-scramble, if you prefer) of the server’s everyday job, putting them unwillingly on the front lines of the increasingly volatile culture wars over masks, and in turn creating a serious health risk for people who depend on tips to stay afloat financially.
“It’s a constant battle,” says Nikki Grigg, a server at Linda’s Seabreeze Café in the Seabright neighborhood of Santa Cruz. “We’ve been met with a lot of resistance. I and my coworkers have basically put ourselves in between people at other tables to say, ‘Please put your mask on.’ And we get a lot of eyerolls, a lot of sighs, and a lot of ‘This is ridiculous.’”
“I’ve had people sit down at a table and take their mask off,” says Amy Di Chiro of the Crepe Place in Santa Cruz. “Then they’ll give me some coronavirus conspiracy theory speech. It’s so strange being in the service industry now, because you have to politely respond, and we’re all learning the right tone. You have to do it in an authoritative way. If you say it too politely, people brush it off. Basically, we have to learn to speak to customers like we’re their parents.”
Many restaurants and bars have instituted non-negotiable protocols—most set by the state—for social distancing and masks. Most customers, local servers say, are compliant and supportive of this new normal. But many are not. Enforcement of these policies has fallen on the shoulders of servers—on top of all their other responsibilities—at a time when many of them have been whipsawed back and forth between working in a risky environment and unemployment. Just last week, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s statewide rollback of reopenings brought on a new wave of furloughs and layoffs that disproportionately affect restaurant workers.
At Lúpolo Craft Beer House in Santa Cruz, guidelines for service are printed on laminated cards at every table outdoors. Restaurants have to allow people to take off their masks once seated at their table, but many are interacting with their server unmasked.
“The biggest issue is that people at their tables don’t put on a mask when they talk to you,” says Lúpolo server Tom Bentley. In the weeks since restaurants have been allowed to reopen, Bentley says he has counted exactly three customers who have shown the courtesy to wear a mask while talking to him at their table. (One of those, he says, was Santa Cruz Mayor Justin Cummings).
Servers are also bearing new responsibilities for added cleaning. Before it was closed again by last week’s order that shut down all bars statewide, the Rush Inn had been screening customers at the door, taking their temperature with an infrared thermometer and having them fill out a symptom questionnaire and contact sheet. I spoke to bartender Molly McVeigh there before the order came down; she was masked and behind a long transparent shower curtain separating her from customers at the bar, with a spray bottle in each hand.
“I’ve got bleach in one hand, sanitizer in the other, at all times,” she told me. “Any time someone gets up to leave from their section, we clean and sanitize it, let it air-dry for five minutes before someone else can sit there. We do the bathrooms and door handles, too. The first day back (after the June reopening), it was really overwhelming. But I’m surprised by how quickly I’ve acclimated, and now it’s just second nature.”
One common theme with local restaurants is the wild variation between the weekday and the weekend experiences. Weekdays, when the customer base is mostly local customers, are generally less stressful than weekends, when out-of-towners dominate. Nikki Grigg at Seabreeze estimates that during weekdays, she may have a confrontation with one out of every ten customers. On weekends, it’s about one out of every three, or more. And those confrontations, she says, take a toll.
“I’ll tell people what I have to tell them,” she says. “But my heart rate will go up, and I’ll be shaking afterwards. In the moment, I’m able to do it. But the lingering effects after the fact are unpleasant.”
Bentley of Lúpolo says an overlooked aspect of working in the food industry is the high number of servers struggling with mental health issues.
“Anxiety levels have skyrocketed,” he says. On top of having to deal with the stress of the job, the new demands of enforcing Covid-19 restrictions, and facing worries on the financial front, servers are also expected to keep their serenity intact through it all.
“You can’t really show stress,” Bentley says. “When people are asking how comfortable I am, I can’t really communicate how I’m actually feeling because my financial stability is totally dependent on how much they tip.”
The news is not all bad on the server front. Many servers report that some customers have been especially generous during the Covid-19 crisis—one said a customer tipped 200% in an effort to spread around their stimulus-check money to restaurants they love.
“The customer interaction right now is much more intense and heartfelt than it would be otherwise,” McVeigh explains.
But what many people are realizing—that servers deserve not only courtesy, but respect—others have not.
If Grigg could address the would-be diners of Santa Cruz, she would tell them, “This is not about you. It’s not a personal attack on you. It’s just an unfortunate situation that we’re all in together. And no matter how much you try to fight it, we’re not going to back down.”
“It’s a real act of service,” says Di Chiro, who tends bar at the Crepe Place. “You should realize that this person standing in front of you would probably rather be home, sitting on their couch safely. Know that they’re making a personal sacrifice, for whatever reason, to be there for you.”