Left to my own devices, look what happens over here! Beef dumpling/mandu mac and cheese! Recipe on @tablehopper on Instagram.
Happy New Year, friends! I know, should I put the “happy” in quotes? It has been a rough start to the year for anyone in the restaurant industry, with many places temporarily closing last week due to staff exposures during this beastly Omicron surge. So many restaurants made the hard decision to close for New Year’s Eve—the last thing they wanted to be doing—but they had no choice with such short-staffing and challenging access to and timing of Covid testing (and trying to keep their remaining staff safe). Some places are closing their dining rooms and moving to takeout-only right now, while others are choosing to close for a couple weeks to try to ride this out—shutting down a restaurant really takes a toll on the business (and all the folks who work there), it’s not like you’re just turning off the lights and saying, “See ya!” Try to show your support to places when they reopen, they need it.
This week’s column is my annual installment of the bore, which is different from my usual snarkfest, for obvious reasons. Watching this recent setback with horror and talking to industry friends about how they’re coping made me want to help speak up on their behalf. Thanks for reading.
I pretty much canceled all my plans last week, and was lucky to be able to enjoy a crabby New Year’s Eve dinner with my sis at our dear friend’s place, just a block away from us. Three tested beloveds hanging out at home, that was about all I could handle. This was my New Year’s Day Breakfast of Champions—the stay-at-home version.
Last week, I was basically hermiting with Fortuna, catching up on work and sleep and chores and cooking and movies (some favorites: “Zola,” “The Power of the Dog,” “The Sparks Brothers” documentary [a must-watch for any creative, even if you don’t know their music], “Sunshine Hotel” [oof, that was a tough one, but so powerful], and “What We Do in the Shadows” when I need a belly laugh) while watching the rain.
I’ve also been test-driving all kinds of new cannabis products, like these fast-acting Sparkling Strawberry Rosé Gummies from Garden Society, bringing me a functional and subtle, floaty mood lift with just 1mg THC and 5mg CBD. Yes, please. The Rose Delights Grenache Grape Singles Delights (just 1mg THC per edible) are another little magic friend who treads lightly. These Kikoko Boost mints (with 2.5mg of THC and THCV for extra oomph) have been great for house-cleaning, cooking, and exercising. And when it’s time to say nighty-night, these Papa & Barkley CBN Sleep Releaf Blackberry Elderberry Gummies have really been doing the trick (2mg CBD, 4mg THC, 1mg CBN). If you’re trying a Dry January, then my favorite Italian-style cannabis aperitif, Artet, is your new bestie. (Use code mymilligram for $30 off your first Sava delivery order!) Thanks for always getting me through, weed.
As we hunker down—again, ugh—I hope you can keep your spirits up, stay healthy, and keep checking in on your friends and family—even a love emoji text can brighten a crap day. We gotta take extra care of each other and our community…and ourselves. Sending big hugs. Treat yourself to some crab. Or caramelized onion Detroit-style pizza. Pizza fritta. Spicy beef tan tan udon. Don’t get me started!
Well, we’re pretty much in an eerily similar, exasperating pandemic position that we were in last winter. We’re seeing restaurants (and bars) making the hard decision to close their dining rooms, or temporarily close completely so their already severely short-staffed teams can stay healthy, quarantine, or recuperate from being infected with this Omicron variant that is surging and bringing the industry to its knees, again. Does it feel like a time for me to bitch about ten things I don’t want to see in the new year? Yet again, no. (Tinned fish, you currently get a stay of execution!)
So, this year, I’m putting the list on us. Here are ten things we should consider, do, shift, improve upon, and change as diners if we’re going to show the F&B industry some true support as they try to survive yet another hellish winter as we move into the third year of this pandemic nightmare we can’t seem to wake from. It’s time for the customer to not always and automatically be so right all the time. Some of this may come off as a bit accusatory, but you know who you are—I’m just saying it louder for the people in the back.
- Be patient about restaurant service. As you have (hopefully, maybe?) been hearing for the past two years, there’s a huge labor shortage. A number of experienced servers have left the industry, many of the new folks on the floor right now are pretty green, and almost everyone is short-staffed. I’ve been out with friends who get impatient that a server hasn’t come over to the table as quickly as they’d like, or annoyed that the food took longer to come out, or the restaurant was out of their favorite dish. You gotta let all that go right now. Take a look around. Observe. Be aware. Do you see how fast people are running and hustling? Do you see just a few people working the floor? Adjust your expectations accordingly. Places are so understaffed and over-extended, and the situation changes daily. Just take a breath and be understanding—people are trying their best. It definitely isn’t 2019, Toto.
- If you’re eating in SF restaurants, you need to show your proof of vaccination and i.d. at the door, which is part of the city’s health order. (And at a few places, they’re even asking for proof of your booster, which is a business’s choice to do so.) The request to see your vax card and i.d. is no surprise at this point in the pandemic, so have everything ready for the server or host or manager who now has to act like a door person at a club, in addition to every other task they’re doing. Create a favorites folder in your photos with just your vax card (and booster) and a pic of your i.d. so you can find it all and show it quickly and get this whole door gatekeeping thing over and everyone can start the fun part of their visit. No complaining, no comments, just show your documentation like you’re at the border to get into Germany and move along. Schnell!
Can you imagine how hard it is to be wearing a mask for an entire shift, running plates to tables or working the line in a hot kitchen or pouring drinks at the bar or talking to people all night at a host stand? It’s stifling, exhausting, and uncomfortable. Folks in service have lost half their face to communicate with a smile (or a smirk), let alone their enunciation and projection over a loud room, so do your best to listen, pay attention, and follow their eye cues and expressions.
Please approach the restaurant or bar with your mask on until you’re seated. We all know it’s a bunch of mask theater because once guests are seated, people take their masks off until the end of their meal, but maybe it’s time to rethink that. I try to get my mask back on when my server approaches the table, especially when it’s ordering time or something that will take a little conversation—I want to help protect them from who knows what I may unknowingly be carrying right now. Inside, outside, doesn’t matter. Don’t forget to put your mask back on whenever you’re getting up from the table, heading to the restroom, or going home—the staff really appreciates it, as well as your fellow diners. We also don’t want to see your nose. It has been two years, you should know how to cover it up with a mask that fits properly. And for crying out loud, if you need to cough or sneeze, do so into your mask and cover your mouth. No one wants to see you hacking over your steak au poivre.
- Are you seriously no-showing on your reservation, or do you know someone who thought it was okay to cancel a large group dinner at the last minute? Unless someone in your party has something Covid-related going on and you need to cancel, these other flaky cancellations are really messing up restaurants’ books (both reservations and revenue). It’s much harder to fill tables on the dime, which is why you’re going to be seeing more cancellation fees when you book a reso. Try to reschedule if someone is sick, but straight-up canceling an hour before your primetime reservation on a Friday because you just don’t feel like going out anymore and want to watch Netflix isn’t a good reason.
- I still can’t believe people are double- or triple-booking tables at places and deciding at the last minute where they want to go and dumping the other reservations. Don’t do that, ever. Just pick one and stick with it. That’s table hoarding, not unlike what happened with TP and hand sanitizer a couple years ago, which was not a good look.
- Do you have a sore throat? Weird cough? Funky fatigue? Are you supposed to be going out to dinner with friends? Now would be a great time for you to stay home until you can get tested, ideally with a PCR test. Don’t get your friends sick, industry people sick, your rideshare driver sick…the list goes on. Even if you don’t have symptoms, it’s a great idea to get tested regularly—especially if you’re out being social.
- So, you’re going out to dinner. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, guess what: prices have gone up! There are supply-chain issues, rising costs of goods, ingredient issues, labor shortages, restaurants being forced to close on New Year’s Eve and eating their revenue that night and looking at a bunch of food waste, being rained out for five nights with barely any customers who want to sit in their parklet, having to buy Covid tests for their employees because our government is so inept, the list goes on. We need to adjust our expectations of what it means to go out, and how much it costs to have food served to us, whether it’s a BLT to go (bacon won’t cost what it used to) or an omakase dinner at the counter with wine pairings. Restaurants aren’t making money—they’re barely surviving with a mountain of debt—so the prices you see are where things are at for that business. We need to manage our expectations of what things should cost right now, and it’s not just because we’re in San Francisco, either. This is a global shituation.
Here’s another thing to think about: if you can’t afford to tip a minimum of 20 percent, you probably shouldn’t be dining out. With everything the service industry is going through and being exposed to, the least you can do is tip well. If someone gives you a taste of wine or some other extra nicety, you absolutely should tip more. Even if they don’t do anything extra, can you afford 25 or 30 percent or more? Great, please do it! (Same goes for takeout: 20 percent says, “Thanks for everything you do and risk to make my food”—even more says, “I love you for it.”)
I know, it adds up, and money is tight for many of us, but criminy, they’re wearing a mask all night and stressed out and exhausted dealing with cranky Covid-y customers and still barely making a living while trying to stay healthy. And guess what? Many places are now sharing tips with the house—which includes the hard-working kitchen (but not managers or the owners)—so don’t assume your $60 is allllll going to your server.
- Support old favorites. Order some takeout from your neighborhood joint. Grab lunch from the little mom and pop. Sure, it’s exciting to visit new places and check out the latest hot opening, but the spots that have been with us through thick and thin really need to see us—they’re fighting so hard to stay open. The closure of Universal Cafe a few weeks ago is an example of this—a quintessential SF neighborhood restaurant has left us after 27 years. Go see an old friend.
- Be nice. Be appreciative. Be kind. Be gracious. Thank the team for feeding you. It feels good to be a great customer, and the restaurant feels it too! Win-win. Tell your friends about your fabulous meals. Post compliments on Yelp and Google and social media—and maybe hold back on the negative quibbles for a momentito? So many of those things are entirely circumstantial right now. Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive!
Thanks for reading, listening, taking some of this to heart, and reflecting upon how we can show up for the industry right now. We should be deeply concerned about this winter, and this upcoming year without more federal aid/a replenishment of the Restaurant Revitalization Fund. Follow the Independent Restaurant Coalition for action items and updates on next steps—subscribe to their newsletter and follow them on social.
If you really miss me bitching about avocado toast and sunchokes, you can read past issues of the bore here.