Face masks, grumpy customers, and fear of exposure — what it’s like to be on the kitchen staff for Virginia restaurants attempting to survive and thrive during the COVID-19 outbreak.
Virginia’s food scene is incredible. Across the state there are many restaurants run by talented chefs serving incredible food. The quarantine brought on by the coronavirus outbreak has taken a toll on restaurants across the state, though, as people are not only hesitant but altogether not allowed to dine out the way they once did.
Most media in the state has focused on how owners of restaurants are coping with the virus — what they are doing on their new takeout menus, how their daily turnover has shifted, what plans they have to reopen. However, less attention has been given to the actual staff of these restaurants and how they are coping with the changes the pandemic has brought to their work.
As someone who works in food service, I can tell you that working in a kitchen during a pandemic is a blessing and a curse. I’m more than grateful to have work, but because of my constant interaction with customers I fear that I am exposing my family to the virus.
I work at an artisan bakery in the Chelsea district of Norfolk, fittingly called The Bakehouse at Chelsea. I work on the pizza crew, slinging pizzas into and out of a 600-plus degree wood-fired oven. Every day I go through my prep list as I normally would; I slice pepperoni, I make sauce, I cook bacon, I cut onions, I shape dough, etc. Unlike a lot of the restaurants around the area, the Bakehouse has been doing well; I think that’s simply because people want pizza when they’re stuck at home.
It’s not rocket science to figure out that people like pizza.
However, the coronavirus has introduced challenges that I have to face every prep and dinner shift. At around 4:45 p.m. every Friday, I’ve seen a sort of passive-aggressive mad dash amongst the four line cooks working the shift to determine who will be the ones working the line and oven that night, and who will be the ones wearing masks and working the register.
“We’re required to wear masks by law and we do,” said my manager, Kenny Gerry.
Naturally though, that slips our minds at times; especially when we’re in the middle of a weekend dinner rush and facing hour-and-a-half wait times. We’ve become a lot better about it as we realize the importance of it.. Although the staff is required to wear masks, until last week’s order by Governor Northam, customers were not. About half of the customers that came in before the order weren’t wearing a mask or any kind of protection, and sometimes completely ignored the hand sanitizer on the counter.
Interestingly, the customers who came in without a mask were more often than not the rudest and most entitled customers. Even when we’re clearly slammed, they repeatedly ask when their food is ready and why they have to wait. If they tip at all, it tends to be very little. I think that the same mindset of “Why should I have to wait?” falls in line with the mindset of “Why should I have to wear a mask, even if everyone else is?”
“I’m glad our kitchen is separate from our seating area, because I worry about the people coming in,” said Eric Durham, a line cook at Luna Maya. Luna is a Mexican restaurant in the Ghent district of Norfolk, and they have some of the best mojitos and quesadillas I’ve ever had.
“I’m not worried about the people that work there bringing the virus in,” said Durham. “I’m more worried about the customers.”
The bright side, in my experience, is that people are grateful for our work. Customers have been tipping well, especially when you’re able to compliment the mask they matched to their shirt, or have somewhat of a nice banter despite both voices being muffled underneath a mask.
“Business has fluctuated drastically since quarantine,” said Durham. “Sometimes it’s like we never closed, and other times there’s absolutely nothing to do.”
When there’s nothing to do in the kitchen of Luna, Durham likes to get creative. One of his favorite things to make is the “Dunc Wrap.” His take on Taco Bell’s CrunchWrap is chorizo sausage, poblano peppers, rice, beans, onions, queso, and pico de gallo, wrapped in a large tortilla.
“That’s the standard one, but I like to change it up each time,” he said, “especially if there’s nothing else to do.”
At the Bakehouse, Gerry has been getting creative as well. He made a barbecue sauce out of ingredients lying around the kitchen; this has led to a barbecue chicken pizza special hitting the menu. My coworkers and I have been able to experiment with our own ideas as well, making pizzas with pimento cheese, kimchi, pears, and whatever else might cross our minds.
From a line worker’s point of view, restaurants in Virginia seem to have been coping well with quarantine and the slow reopening of the state. Takeout menus have been a way for cooks to get creative. Restaurants that don’t have patio seating have taken tables out to their parking lots and have done what they can to welcome business.
However, the pandemic still lingers regardless of reopening. While people go out, they still put themselves at risk, and the line cooks working at these restaurants face that risk every shift. Regardless, though, people can only eat so many home cooked meals before they have the desire to go out. And as the state reopens, they’ll have more chances to.
Photos by Noah Daboul