Feb 8, 2022 - Food and Drink

D.C. restaurant workers face an unpredictable industry

Illustration of a rollercoaster with salt and pepper shakers instead of cars.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

The pandemic has been chaotic for the DMV’s food and service workers, as they whipsaw from finding enough work earlier in the pandemic to being overworked while short-staffed.

The big picture: The Omicron variant led to a rough start for local restaurants in 2022. The National Restaurant Association reports that 90,000 restaurants across the country have closed due to the pandemic (some closures are permanent, others are long term).

  • The association predicts that overall sales will be up this year, but when adjusted for inflation, they'll likely stay below pre-pandemic levels.
  • Plus, we know Washingtonians have been cautious to return to in-person and indoor dining, which impacts the industry’s recovery.

What they’re saying: “It was really stressful,” said Andrew Shapiro, a long-time D.C. bar manager and bartender who has worked at more than five DMV restaurants since the pandemic began. “I was just … constantly job searching, constantly looking around for something that might be able to withstand whatever was happening.”

Similar to other industries, food and service workers have reevaluated their workplace goals and priorities during the pandemic, leading to demands for change, and workers leaving these industries altogether.

Shapiro tells Axios that the pandemic gave him an opportunity to explore other interests, and while he’s still working in restaurants, he’s balancing that work with roles in other areas. He fears the industry will never go back to normal.

Zoom in: Some who use restaurant work as a side job have had slightly different experiences.

Tristan Rivera, a D.C. server, says he left the District at the beginning of the pandemic when his full-time job went remote. He didn’t plan initially to return to his restaurant work when he got back to D.C., but he missed the social aspect of the job.

“I think I’m going to stick with it,” he says. “Now people are nicer, and it’s good to reconnect with the people who have been here and actually sticking through working the entire pandemic.”

  • He says the pandemic has made customers more understanding, and better tippers.

The bottom line: While workers are gaining more control in the food and service industry, COVID still has the ultimate say.

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