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Pressure Cooker: The Impacts of COVID-19 on Restaurant Workers

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Maya's Kitchen - FILE: OLIVER PARINI
  • File: Oliver Parini
  • Maya's Kitchen

Maya Gurung-Subba and her husband, Suk Subba, had high hopes for 2020. On January 24, 2020, their small restaurant in Burlington's New North End, Maya's Kitchen, celebrated a year in business. They had developed a loyal following for their regional Himalayan dishes, including chicken choila with chickpeas and crispy rice, fried pork-chile momos served in a spicy tomato sauce, and chunky vegetable curry.

The couple did everything themselves: sourcing specialty ingredients, cooking, washing the dishes. Maya's Kitchen broke even by the end of its first year, a notable achievement in the notoriously tough restaurant sector.

"It was really good in 2019. It was really, really busy," Gurung-Subba said. "Our big American dream in 2020: We were hoping to buy a house."

But 2020 had other plans.

Months of pandemic-dampened sales forced the couple to dig into their savings to cover expenses. COVID-19 disrupted school, daycare and family childcare options for their two young children. Desperate, the couple tried bringing them to the restaurant. "It didn't work," Gurung-Subba said. "The kids [were] running here and there."

In January 2021, one week shy of what would have been the restaurant's second anniversary, the couple announced on social media that they were closing Maya's Kitchen for good.

Since spring 2020, the Vermont Department of Labor has reported significant monthly job losses for the Food Services and Drinking Places sector compared to 2019. While there has been some recovery from April's nadir, the most recent available payroll employment data from November 2020 show 11,800 jobs in that sector, down 8,000 from the previous November.

Behind most of those lost jobs is a Vermonter grappling with financial and psychological uncertainty. Even the "lucky" ones who still have jobs often are coping with fewer hours and more workplace stress. For a rare few, a forced hiatus has opened new windows of opportunity.

And all who have made their careers in restaurants and bars are asking themselves when, if ever, the industry they love will return to normal.

"We don't know how this ends," said Gordana Huizenga, a full-time server at Winooski's Waterworks Food + Drink, which closed temporarily on November 16 due to the pandemic.

'Fighting for the Dream'

Maya Gurung-Subba as a student in the Community Kitchen Academy in 2018 - FILE: OLIVER PARINI
  • File: Oliver Parini
  • Maya Gurung-Subba as a student in the Community Kitchen Academy in 2018

Gurung-Subba, 36, was 5 years old when her family was forced to leave their native Bhutan for a refugee camp in Nepal; she was 23 when they were finally able to immigrate to the U.S. Her husband has a similar background.

The couple married in 2010 and had two children, now 3 and 9. Subba, 38, worked in Burlington restaurants while Gurung-Subba was employed as a licensed nursing assistant in an assisted living facility.

They dreamed of opening their own restaurant. Gurung-Subba enrolled in the 12-week Community Kitchen Academy offered at Feeding Chittenden in partnership with the Vermont Foodbank.

There she learned both professional culinary technique and business skills. But nothing prepared the couple for the challenges of a pandemic.

Throughout last summer and fall, they put in long hours trying to stay afloat. "We [were] working, fighting for the dream," Gurung-Subba said.

They closed the restaurant temporarily on November 7 when a relative tested positive for COVID-19. "We [were] trying to go back," Gurung-Subba said, but the question remained: "Who is going to take care of the kids?"

Subba took it especially hard, his wife said: "He was really, really depressed. He [was] not talking ... He [was] not ready to give up."

A new restaurant, Gurung Restaurant & Bar (operated by relatives but not immediate family of Gurung-Subba), opened last week in the North Avenue space vacated by Maya's Kitchen. (See Side Dishes for more on the new restaurant.)

For now, the couple has revised their dream. Subba is working daily to renovate the former Nepali Dumpling House at 78 North Street into a store.

Maya's Mini Mart & Deli will require only one person on-site. From its small kitchen, the couple will offer limited prepared foods, including momos and fresh-baked flatbreads.

"We can still chase our American dream," Gurung-Subba said resolutely. "Maybe one day we'll have a restaurant [again], when the kids are grown ... I miss my customers. I know everybody's names. I recognize their voices when they call."

The Loneliest Number

Caitrin Roesler in front of Pascolo Ristorante - DARIA BISHOP
  • Daria Bishop
  • Caitrin Roesler in front of Pascolo Ristorante

You must be a people person to work front of house in restaurants.

"Humans are social creatures. If you're in the service industry, you're probably a little extra social," said Jeff Baumann, general manager for the joint Zero Gravity Craft Brewery and Great Northern operation on Burlington's Pine Street.

This personality trait can add extra strain for many laid-off restaurant workers.

"I've always been a social butterfly," said Huizenga, the Waterworks server, explaining why she made a career in restaurants. The 43-year-old lives by herself, which has exacerbated her isolation during the restaurant's two temporary closures — the current one and another at the start of the pandemic.

Huizenga tries to get outside daily and connect with friends and family online, but "I'm definitely struggling with that part a lot," she said. "Our world is so small right now."

Caitrin Roesler, who was laid off from her full-time front-of-house job at Pascolo Ristorante when it closed temporarily in mid-November, feels similarly isolated. She lives in Moretown with her chef-husband, who is still going to work at the Pitcher Inn in Warren.

Heading into the holidays, Roesler, 37, stayed busy making knitwear for her Etsy shop, but now she finds herself at loose ends and lonely during her husband's long shifts.

When her dryer recently broke, Roesler joked that it gave her an excuse to pop over to her neighbors to visit and borrow theirs.

She was hoping to take some digital art classes online but can't justify the expense. "I have way less things to do and way less drive to do them," Roesler lamented.

Hoping for Health

Gordana Huizenga picking up free weekly groceries from Waterworks Food + Drink - JAMES BUCK
  • James Buck
  • Gordana Huizenga picking up free weekly groceries from Waterworks Food + Drink

Huizenga makes a weekly trip to Waterworks to pick up food staples that the restaurant offers laid-off employees. The program provides both a human connection and helps stretch her unemployment income.

She has cut all extras from her budget except for one small boost: She dyed her naturally dark blond hair pink, and then purple. "I just needed some color," she said.

The grocery assist also enables Huizenga to keep her "bottom of the barrel" health insurance, which went up $20 a month this year. "Twenty dollars is a lot right now," she said.

She could let her insurance lapse, but it seems especially important during a pandemic. Huizenga said she felt safe working when the restaurant was open, but she recognizes the risk. "When you approach a table, you are always thinking, What if?" she said.

Roesler concurred that she felt safe at work — even though she has multiple sclerosis. She lost access to affordable health insurance when she was laid off, and then experienced what she thinks was an MS flare-up in early January. "With MS, it's hard to know if it's MS or stress," Roesler explained.

She tries not to think about how long it could be until she is insured again. "If I keep speculating, I'll go insane," Roesler said.

Pancakes and Dish Pits

Nico Gee preparing food in the kitchen at Sneakers - DARIA BISHOP
  • Daria Bishop
  • Nico Gee preparing food in the kitchen at Sneakers

For those still on the job, stressors are both similar and different.

Nico Gee, 28, started in kitchens as a dishwasher when he was 17 and worked his way into cooking. He grew up mostly in foster care in Vermont and New Hampshire. Restaurant work was something to rely on, and he liked the pace and focus.

"I always thought that no matter where I go, I'll always be able to find a job," Gee said. "Now, that's not so true."

Prior to the pandemic, Gee was a line cook at Our House Bistro in Winooski. He left that job during the summer for non-pandemic-related reasons and cobbled together full-time hours working at Waterworks and Sneakers Bistro, also in Winooski.

As of November, Gee is down to cooking at Sneakers the three days it's currently open. He also started a pop-up dinner chef collective called New Burlington Society. "I was working a solid 70-plus hours. Now I work a solid 18," he said ruefully.

Gee is making do on one-third of his normal income and is trying to collect unemployment. "I've been calling and calling," he said. "Nobody has the same answer."

Recently, Gee has struggled to pay rent on time. "I text [my landlord] frequently to let him know I'm working on it," he said. "I'm living very thin, which is very stressful." At home, Gee makes a lot of tuna sandwiches and risotto with chicken and frozen spinach; at work, he eats a lot of pancakes.

Baumann, 48, built a successful career as a bar manager. He has worked for the business partnership behind Zero Gravity and the Great Northern for about six years. He thrives on the creativity of building a bar program and the performance aspect of serving bar customers, but COVID-19 dealt that job a mortal blow.

The bar manager went from salary to hourly wages and knew he was lucky to be on payroll at all. From summer through fall, Baumann's weekly hours seesawed wildly between about 30 and half that. He did whatever was needed: prep cooking, packaging takeout orders and batching to-go cocktails.

But mostly, he did lots and lots of dishes.

It took a physical and mental toll. "Bending over and scrubbing, my body got wrenched," Baumann said. "I'd have these moments in the dish pit wrapped up in my thoughts. I went to a couple dark places, [thinking]: I've been in this industry 20 years. What else was I gonna do?"

Baumann was promoted to general manager and put back on salary in December. He's still covering the dish pit when needed.

Time for Art

Omega Jade - FILE: LUKE AWTRY
  • File: Luke Awtry
  • Omega Jade

Musician, spoken-word performer and comedian Omega Jade worked in restaurants for about five years, always squeezing her art in around her day job. "The shit-talkin' in the kitchen was amazing and helps me with a lot of material," Jade, 42, said with a laugh.

After regaining custody of her three children in November 2019, Jade cut her hours from five days a week to two as a banquet prep cook at the Hampton Inn Colchester. She was laid off last March, at about the time schools were closing for her 8-year-old son and 6-year-old twin girls. "It was kind of impeccable timing," she said wryly.

The family managed on survivors' benefits from her kids' late father while Jade made countless calls to the state unemployment office. She worried about how she could safely get to the laundromat and the grocery store with kids in tow. A Burlington neighbor helped by offering her unlimited laundry loads for $5 a week.

In April, Clemmons Family Farm reached out to Jade about its teaching artist training program. The Black-owned farm and African American cultural center in Charlotte has been building a roster of artists to share and teach about African American and African diaspora history and culture.

The relationship generated several freelance gigs and support that landed Jade a $1,000 artist grant to help her equip a home recording studio.

She recently signed a two-year contract with Clemmons Family Farm for its newly launched Windows to a Multicultural World curriculum. Jade is hoping that will provide income consistent enough to allow her to continue focusing on her art.

"I guess I miss the stability of having a regular job," Jade said. But, she added, "Being laid off forced me to try to figure out a way to use my art to pay my way and take care of my family."

'Step Back'

Jeff Baumann pouring negronis into to-go bottles at the Great Northern - DARIA BISHOP
  • Daria Bishop
  • Jeff Baumann pouring negronis into to-go bottles at the Great Northern

Restaurants and bars provide places for us to unwind, to enjoy the company of friends, to savor a world of flavors. For millions around the country, and thousands in Vermont, the industry also provides a living and a career — even a path to the proverbial American dream. Among other lessons, the pandemic has prompted many of us to reevaluate what we take for granted.

Baumann of Zero Gravity and the Great Northern said he misses stopping by T. Rugg's Tavern for a drink and a chat with the bartender on his way home from work.

Gee, the Sneakers cook, put it this way: "It's given me a chance to step back. It's made me grateful for the work I do."