Coronavirus has Lafayette’s restaurant workers living on the fly

The skeleton crew manning Spoonbill Watering Hole & Restaurant in Downtown Lafayette Photo by Travis Gauthier

It’s a quarter after 11 a.m. at the restaurant where I waitress in Syracuse, New York, and chef has called me back to the window for today’s lunch special: roasted cauliflower tacos, served on white corn tortillas with queso fresco and a fragrant, sort of pleasantly half-separated red chili paste. I pick up one of the tacos while chef is describing what’s in the sauce. I bite. It’s perfect. And while a good recommendation does tend to get you another dollar on that six-buck lunch tip, I’m not really thinking about money right now. I’m thinking about how good this taco tastes. I’m feeling excited to set it down in front of people, watch them smile, and feel victorious when they love it, too.

Except I don’t sell a single special. Instead, shortly after taking that first bite, I wake up. I’m lying in the back room of my mother-in-law’s house out in Scott, where I’ve been sheltering in place for the past two weeks. It’s 5 a.m. I’m unemployed, laid off almost three weeks ago alongside 6.6 million other Americans as a viral plague sweeps the planet. My life has lost its whole structure, its whole integrity. I blink a couple of times, the dream still with me, and wonder if it might be possible to fall back asleep.

“It happened overnight,” says Tanner Dimmick, bar manager at the Downtown Lafayette restaurant Spoonbill. “It still just feels…not real.”

Dimmick, 27, has been bartending in Lafayette for going on a decade. “As soon as I turned 18, I got a bar card,” he says. “Before that I worked in kitchens. It’s all I’ve done my whole life.” When offered the opportunity to run the bar program at Spoonbill, which opened its doors in 2018, Dimmick leaped. “Especially after they told me the location: the coolest patio in Lafayette, right Downtown.”

But when Dimmick answered my video call on April 2, that patio was deserted, following a March 16 directive from Gov. John Bel Edwards to reduce the spread of COVID-19. In the Lafayette metro area, where 10% of all non-farm-related jobs are in the leisure and hospitality business, this meant thousands of folks like Dimmick either lost their jobs or saw a significant cut in their hours.

Spoonbill has so far avoided laying off any of its staff. “Everyone’s grateful to be able to still come to work,” Dimmick says. “But everyone got reduced hours, myself included.”

The first week, he notes, saw an outpouring of support from the community, with folks streaming in to support the restaurant with orders and generous tips. “Very Lafayette strong,” he says.

“Now it’s kind of tapered off,” he adds. “It’s a lot of waiting around. We got the whole place deep cleaned, and now there’s really nothing to do except wait for to-go orders.” He pauses, runs a hand through what he’s been calling his quarantine beard. “I’ve been reading a lot.”

Not all restaurant workers have been as lucky. Madison Lagrange, 23, a server who works just a few blocks down Jefferson Street, lost her job at Central Pizza & Bar alongside many of her coworkers in mid-March. After contracting both bronchitis and the flu within a few months of each other earlier in the year, Lagrange began to feel anxious about catching COVID-19.

“I know my immune system,” she says in a phone interview. “I knew I was gonna get sick.”

However, financial concerns about the likely downturn or closure in business kept Lagrange clocking in. Like many workers in service industries — restaurants, retail, and child-care among them — Lagrange isn’t afforded the luxury of working from home. According to The New York Times, only 60% of service workers get paid time off when they are ill.

“And if I take a day off,” Lagrange says. “That’s $200. I lose so much money.”

Nationwide, the average restaurant food server made around $26,800 in 2019, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Bartenders fared only slightly better at $28,000. According to the Economic Policy Institute, one adult living in the Lafayette Metro area, with no children, can expect to live modestly on about $35,000 a year. In other words: Servers and bartenders making significantly less than that are forced to cut costs around healthcare, food or rent. Setting aside money for savings is not often feasible.

Ultimately, Lagrange decided to keep working despite her fear of contracting COVID-19. She says the weekend of March 14 and 15 was especially nerve-wracking. “We were insanely slammed. There were hundreds of people. And I knew it wasn’t a good idea to be at work. But I also knew that I probably wouldn’t be able to work for a while after.”

It was nearly St. Patrick’s day, she notes. “Everyone was drinking like the world was ending.”

Three weeks since losing her job, Lagrange has yet to receive any government financial assistance.

“The unemployment server was crashing on everyone, just so many people were on it, it overloaded,” she says. By the end of March, more than 97,830 benefit claims had been filed in Louisiana alone. This trend has played out across the country, as unprecedented numbers of unemployment claims rolled into all 50 states by the end of March.

In a sudden reversal, many folks who spent their lives bringing food to others are waiting on the state’s help in order to feed themselves. Lagrange was in the process of applying for food stamps back in early March. “I had a phone appointment scheduled, but they just never called.”

“So it’s been stressful,” she says. “Right now we’re all in limbo.”

Lagrange mentioned that, more than anything, she misses “the hustle.”

After 10 years of waiting tables myself, I find that I’m missing it, too, that sensation that grips you on a busy night: heart pumping, six-table section full, adrenaline that’s got you ready to lift a car.

After much repetition and many years, that hustle becomes second nature, such that without it, people like Dimmick and Lagrange are a bit lost.

“The whole situation leaves you feeling helpless,” Lagrange says. “Having to revert to seeking help from people with more steady income? It’s a bit of a hit to the ego.”

Three weeks into an attempt to adapt to this new life without hustle, my ego gives out and I descend into a minor depression at my mother-in-law’s house. Perhaps I read one too many opinion pieces like this, written by celebrity chef David Chang, in which he predicts that “without government intervention, there will be no service industry whatsoever.”

My spouse, who has been cooking in restaurants as long as I’ve been serving in them, knocks gently on the bathroom door and asks if I’m hungry. I grunt something noncommittal from the bathtub. Twenty minutes later, though, I’m out of the tub and Nel is at the stovetop, toasting a couple of pieces of sliced bread in a cast iron.

I watch her making lunch for me and her mother, and she doesn’t notice me watching, because she’s in it. Focused. Not with the same intensity, perhaps, than she’s spent most of the last decade focused on making food for a restaurant full of strangers, but still. Focused enough to put the right amount of mustard and mayo on the bread. Focused enough to notice when a piece of avocado’s gotten stuck on my finger while I eat, and hand me the red kitchen towel to wipe it off with. Stripped to its essence, what we do is a kind of practiced attention, and as I eat my sandwich, for the first time in a while, it doesn’t seem sentimental to call that kind of service love.

Both Lagrange and Dimmick have a similar brand of love for their work. “I love taking good care of people,” says Lagrange, and immediately tells a story of an elderly couple she enjoyed waiting on one of her last shifts in March.

Dimmick, too, says that servers are, as a people, accustomed to uncertainty in their work. “I mean, we’ve all worked with servers who freaked out and had to go and cry in the walk-in because they messed up something or a table got mad because they forgot their ranch, or whatever.” He laughs. “You just have to be able to move with that and adapt.”

I ask Dimmick if he thinks this quality of restaurant-industry workers might make us especially well-suited to handle the unexpected challenges of life during a global health crisis.

He laughs. “Oh yeah,” he says. “We live on the fly.”