Denver restaurant workers clarify what it was prefer to work through the COVID

Around this time last year, thousands of Colorado servers, chefs, and bartenders were laid off overnight as the state closed restaurants indefinitely in preparation for the spread of the novel coronavirus.

According to the Colorado Restaurant Association, around 94,000 industrial workers – a third of the state’s restaurant workers – lost their jobs over the next 12 months, although those numbers will start to recover from 2021 onwards.

As restaurants continue to reopen, expand seating and serve alcohol (and food) later that night, more workers are back on the front lines of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. From mid-March they will be the next to be vaccinated.

We met a handful of hotel professionals, from baristas to chefs and managers, to find out how they’re doing a year after one of the worst days in restaurant history.

Some had one foot outside the door of the industry, others had stepped back completely, and yet there were those who were looking forward not only to their current restaurant work, but also to opening their own grocery store in the future.

We present here their first-person thoughts and stories, which were collected in early 2021 and edited and condensed for print.

Hyoung Chang, the Denver Post

Aaron Stevenson, Front Office, takes orders from customers at Hudson Hill, a coffee shop and bar in Denver, Friday, March 12, 2021.

Coleman Sisk

Barista, bartender and more at Hudson Hill

I’ve worked in restaurants and bars from McDonald’s to Morimoto since high school. Both of my parents worked in the industry here in Colorado and actually met. In a way, restaurants can make me feel at home. When the shutdowns first happened last spring, I was in a better financial position than my colleagues in other bars and restaurants, and I have Hudson Hills owner Jake (Soffes) to thank for that. He did a lot of research, applied for many scholarships, and even wrote checks for the hours lost in that pay period. I was unemployed but returned to work just a month later for takeout drinks. I was grateful for the work.

There are times when I get discouraged when the extra effort that goes into serving someone today is overlooked. I think the pandemic created a gap between staff and guests: when one party comes to the restaurant to pay their bills and the other to rest. (But) it’s more than just exchanging goods, we have to protect each other.

Hyoung Chang, the Denver Post

Customers will have breakfast at Hudson Hill, a coffee shop and bar in Denver, Colorado on Friday, March 12, 2021.

Annie Sage-Clontz

Former server at Coperta and Beast + Bottle that was recently discontinued at a tech startup

(My partner) had a major seizure (last) February and was diagnosed with epilepsy
Shortly after we both lost our service jobs with the mandatory shutdowns. He was later
Dismissed permanently and refused to return to my service position because I could not take risks
Bring COVID to his home.

Provided by Annie Sage-Clontz

Annie Sage-Clontz poses in front of Beast + Bottle in Denver with a wildly striped bass from Crisfield, Maryland. (Provided by Annie Sage-Clontz)

I don’t want to overly romanticize restaurant work. The organizational wizardry, expert communication skills, and emotional work required to be an excellent server are seldom appreciated, and the role is stigmatized to the point where I was asked what I want to grow up, while I’m 30 years old and work as the lead server and kitchen expeditor at a Michelin starred restaurant in Chicago. An employer-sponsored retirement plan was never available to me, despite having worked for some of the best chefs in the country. I had no option until 2015 to choose a health insurance plan outside of the short-lived health insurance plans I received from a hotel and country club over a decade ago, and I didn’t see a single paid sick day until 2018. I put off home ownership and family planning ideas while attending school during the day and working late into the night. I couldn’t save much for the future – while waiting to graduate as a post-traditional undergraduate and find “a big girl job”, “As if the restaurant career I had with all my heart and soul didn’t would be good enough. Because by the standards of most, it wasn’t like that.

I’m looking forward to my transition into the tech startup world. The position … has excellent benefits that allow me to support my household in ways I have never experienced before. I’d like to point out that while I had experience programming and learning new technologies in my geography degree, I largely relied on restaurant anecdotes (when applying for a job) to describe transferable skills and qualifications. The restaurant work is valuable across the board and I hope we can begin to shift public perception to accept that fact outside of the glorification of celebrity chefs, bartenders and sommeliers.

Zach Farnsworth, Head Chef, poses at ...

Rachel Woolf, Special at the Denver Post

Zach Farnsworth poses at Joy Hill in Denver on Friday March 12, 2021.

Zach Farnsworth

Chef and former kitchen manager at Joy Hill

I’ve been making pizza for 15 years. I started at Joy Hill last March, walked in, helped them open, and two weeks later we closed. At first it was really, really difficult. There were four of us working 70-80 hour weeks, and that kind of thing continued through the summer when we started putting people back on (on the schedule). I had some unemployed friends who said, “You’re lucky you haven’t had a day off.” And I would think, “You’re lucky to get a break.”

I asked to step down (from a position as a kitchen manager) to give days off and spend time doing my own thing. I was planning to open my (pizza) shop last fall. Now I’m just trying to take it slow and looking for popup locations. Nobody is trying to take care of jobs now. But there are (a handful) shops in the area that are competitive and I think there is room for double that. I love pizza, it’s my passion and I can’t imagine doing anything else.

Rachel Woolf, Special at the Denver Post

Pizza boxes will be stacked in Joy Hill, Denver on Friday, March 12, 2021.

Beth Hardin

General Manager at Streets Denver

(Restaurant workers) cannot work from home and are in constant, close contact with (the) exposed public; probably below average to zero health insurance, no benefits; and if they don’t work they don’t get paid. (We) are regularly yelled at and attacked by the same public that asked for bars and restaurants to be open. Our industry is on its death throes and more and more facilities are closing on a regular basis. People cannot afford not to work because they have exhausted unemployment or the government cannot get them to give them their money, and when they work it is only a fraction of what they previously earned.

Ask how many people in this industry know someone who died or died (from) suicide during this pandemic. It’s a financial, physical, professional, and mental burden (that is overlooked) – the added regulatory stress and increased financial burden, as well as the isolation and loss of the support systems that we have all built. Our operating owner (John Elliott) died in November. Between that and the financial hardship of COVID, our business has had some difficult times.

RELATED: Streets of London owner John Elliott dies after signing COVID-19 a second time

Maggie Maxwell

Currently unemployed, soon to be general manager of a new restaurant in Denver

I’ve had a latent fear of working indoors since the worst day on March 16, 2020. In the beginning I was scared of being inside with my colleagues while we were just take away. We all flew blind. Unfortunately, as we learned more, I didn’t feel any better. Personally, I haven’t eaten inside since last year. I find it difficult to reconcile the expectation that someone else should serve me when I am afraid to do the same for them. It seems unfair.

I am at a crossroads as I think many of us are. I had always thought that if you know how to serve, cook, or be bartending, your employability is indestructible. They could feed anywhere in the world. COVID has proven that this notion is certainly wrong.

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Hyoung Chang, the Denver Post

Customers escorted social distancing seating at Hudson Hill, a coffee shop and bar in Denver, Colorado on Friday, March 12, 2021.

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