MATT BRESLOW: There's something about the restaurant industry that is so much fun until it's not. And then once it, once you hit your burnout point, it, it's like falling off a cliff.
This is Death, Sex & Money.
The show from WNYC about the things we think about a lot… and need to talk about more.
I’m Anna Sale.
Melissa Montero had been cooking in New Orleans restaurant kitchens for over a decade when, late last year, she decided to leave it behind for good.
MELISSA MONTERO: I think I'll always miss the comradery of line cooks together. I mean, I still keep in touch with line cooks from my first restaurant job. We're lifelong friends, some of them I'm closer to than I'm closer to my own brothers. But I don't miss the hours. I don't miss the relatively crummy pay, and my coming home smelling like the fryer and, um, my beat-up old Dansko shoes in the corner. I don't miss any of that.
Melissa is just one of millions of restaurant workers who've reevaluated their career since the pandemic up-ended their work…
IESHIA TOWNSEND: I wasn't able to pay my lights and gas. I was not able sometimes to even get diapers and milk for my son, it was like, why am I working a job that I'm not able to provide for my child?
Nearly 7 percent of hospitality workers quit in August alone this year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s the highest rate ever recorded… almost 900,000 workers deciding to leave their jobs that month.
In the food industry, workers are quitting…and restaurant owners are closing their businesses.
MATT BRESLOW: I loved getting to make grilled cheese sandwiches for a living. It was so much fun. Man, can't believe I'm getting this choked up about this.
Low wages was the top complaint for food service workers in a May 2021 survey from One Fair Wage and the UC Berkeley Food Labor Research Center. Workers also described hostile work environments, with harassment from customers and managers.
KAT TALO: My chef came up to me and she said, I need you to work on these ice cream sandwiches like your life depends on it. And I think I quit like two weeks later. Like it's just not that important. And it's certainly not worth, like, intimidating someone over an ice cream sandwich.
In this episode, we’re talking with five people who worked in food service and made big career changes in the last year and a half… about what they are leaving behind, and what they are trying to build in its place.
Some have left the food world completely, while others haven’t gone too far. Like Melissa, who was working as a manager in a New Orleans hotel restaurant back in March 2020.
MELISSA MONTERO: All 30 of my team members, uh, were furloughed, um, and then eventually laid off. Uh, so, I was the cook, the server, the bartender and the dishwasher by myself, five nights a week.
ANNA SALE: How do you remember feeling when you were doing your job in that way and doing so many roles at once?
MM: It felt overwhelming. Uh, it felt demoralizing. It was a mess.
Melissa injured her back at that job and started looking around for other work. She left in February of this year. Now, she works as a recruiter for a staffing company that specializes in hospitality.
MM: I needed to find something that would not require the physical effort from me because I’m, you know, 42, not 72. So I have some time left and don't want to be. You know, in a wheelchair, um, in another 10 or 15 years.
AS: Hmm. Hmm. How did you find out about your current job?
MM: Um, our recruiter reached out to me and interviewed me and during the interview was saying, you know, it sounds like you don't really want to go back to restaurant.
AS: You're trying to get hired and the recruiters got your number.
MM: I mean... yeah, he called it 100%.
AS: And as you began this, this new phase of your career as a recruiter for people to work in restaurants, it's, it's, uh, you're starting this job at a time when, uh, the balance of power between employers and employees in restaurants is, is undergoing a big change. Um—
MM: Yes. I'm really excited about it.
AS: You are! Have you, have you felt that in your conversations with either, uh, people who are looking for work, or people who are looking to hire?
MM: Yes, absolutely. Um, on both sides. Across the country, it is incredibly difficult to hire, uh, hourly employees, so non-salary positions. It's, it's just small town, big city... and honestly, the employers who are offering better hourly wages and benefits don't have nearly as much trouble hiring hourly employees. And there's, you know, I know there's a lot of rhetoric out there in the political sphere of, 'Oh, well, all this unemployment people were just getting, making more money sitting at home!' It's, it's ridiculous to me. It's just, it's just not enough to live off of. So... yeah, I think, um, the employers who are willing to offer more money and, and sort of bite the bullet and, and deal with a higher labor cost, um, are having a much easier time holding on to quality employees.
AS: Are you having that conversation a lot with employers?
MM: Definitely. Um, we focus more and I focus more on management positions, but for most people right now, it's that they are not able to find hourly staff who are, you know, who are willing to do the jobs that maybe they did before the pandemic for $13, or $15, or even $18 an hour.
AS: What do you think is going to change as labor costs go up in restaurants?
MM: I hope that the menu prices go up. They just, haven't gone up enough to make it make sense for businesses. And so, you know, I understand as a business owner, you don't, you're afraid to push people away from your restaurant by offering a $42 entrée. Um, I, I get it. Um, and there's a lot of competition out there still. There's a lot of us crazy people who still wanna work in restaurants and run restaurants. Um, but at the same time... I, I wish more of the general public... knew the difficulty of being a line cook, or a dishwasher, or a server, or a busser for nine hours on your feet in a busy restaurant, and then go home and sleep and then get up and do it all over again. And do that in perpetuity.
Coming up, a pastry chef who left high-end, high pressure restaurant kitchens... and is now struggling to charge her own customers what her fancy cakes are worth.
This is Death, Sex & Money from WNYC. I’m Anna Sale.
Passion for food, and for serving people, is often what pulled workers into the restaurant industry. Kat Talo started making pastries as a respite from a taxing job as a social worker in Chicago.
KAT TALO: I think there was something really, um, useful for me about the fact that, you know, working on the line or plating, plating pastries, or doing rush like a service like that… um, it was adrenaline based in the way that some of my crisis work had been, but it was just so much less, um, I guess, important if I messed up.
Kat went to pastry school in 2017. It was a six month program that cost $26,000. Within a few years, Kat realized high-pressure restaurant kitchens didn’t feel like the right fit, and started teaching baking to kids, a job that went virtual during the pandemic. Her partner works as a barista, which covered health care for both of them, but it was tight… for them, and for many of their friends in food service.
KT: People were just sending each other the same $20 back and forth, like, that whole year, all of 2020, um, everyone was making sure that... we all stayed afloat.
AS: You mean, you mean just like Venmo-ing $20 in between each other?
KT: Yeah, literally. It was like, it's like, here's our like communal $20, like, who needs it today? Um, and in that way, everyone really looked out for each other, at least in, in my, from what I could see. But, the scary thing really was the having no control over when things would be open, and having no control over, um, you know, people coming into my partner's space, and some of them, you know, there was all that time where we didn't think we were supposed to wear masks, and just like, yeah, it was really, it was honestly really freaky because it's like all of a sudden your job that while it is certainly, I guess, dangerous in some ways like became like, it's like, okay, die for this coffee now. And it's like, oh my God, it's, it's just coffee. So I think the cognitive dissonance was what was like really disturbing to me. It really did feel pretty, um, disgusting to just see how, how little people were willing to give up restaurants, um, just to protect, you know, cooks, or the people who were actually making their food. Um, so yeah, I spent a lot of 2020 just, like, really mad.
And during those early pandemic days, baking again became a form of stress relief. Kat sold cookies, pastries, and cakes… and donated all the profits to her neighborhood’s mutual aid group.
But as Kat’s beautiful botanic-themed baked goods started getting noticed, especially on Instagram, even more people wanted to buy them. So they started their own venture, Butter Bird Bakery, last summer. But running this business brought up a whole new set of questions.
KT: I never really set out to... be a business owner, I guess. Like, there's something that I still I think I'm working through some shame around money and just like making money, in, in general. You know, all throughout pastry school, they were, they even made us sign this, like, form that was basically like, we understand the wages in this industry are, like, really low... It was like, honestly, very depressing thinking back on it. Um, and they're not wrong. It's just like... bleak that that's something that even happens. But, um—
AS: It was like a disclosure about the mismatch between the cost of the training and the earnings?
KT: I think so. I think they were like, you gotta know what you're getting yourself into. Um, and for me at the time, I didn't take it probably as seriously as I should have just in terms of, I was already used to the jokes in social work school of like, 'you're taking a vow of poverty,' That I was like, well, social work or pastry, like I'm I know I'm not ever going to be like rich. Um, I think there's like part of me that has had to remind myself that there's nothing wrong with having... enough. And like, I have to remind myself that I'm allowed to make money, because I have rent and needs just like everyone else. So once I started realizing that I'm providing, like, I mean, it is a product, but it is also like the labor of making the whole cake and doing all that. Um, so yeah, I became a little more comfortable and I'm still working on being comfortable with selling baked goods.
AS: Well, it sounds to me, it's interesting because you were describing the pandemic, caused you to have this really furious critique of the systems that you felt like were not humane, um, that you had worked in. And, when you start selling baked goods that you make for profit, you are, you're in a different position. You know, you're, you're a business owner. You're asking people to pay more than what it costs you to make because of the value of your labor. And it sounds like you have some suspicions of whether that's honorable.
KT: Yeah. And it's very, I mean, I've had some, I've had some very, very kind friends who I've made this year, who are also chefs, um, or makers of some kind, who have graciously reached out to me and, and said, 'Hey, I think you need to raise your prices. Like, I don't think you're, you're honoring yourself.' You know, I think when I started, I was charging $45 for a, a cake. Um, and to me, like I'm, I'm thinking of myself, I'm like that... like, I can't imagine paying like $80 for a cake. Like I just can't, I just can't process that. But for when it comes to myself, it's so much more difficult to accept that I also deserve a living wage and to make, um, to make money. Yeah, it's kinda does a number on you. All, all of, I don't know. I think it's like that, that vow of poverty, like, social work line, it's like that really, when you internalize that it's like tough to not feel bad about asking someone to pay for something.
For Ieshia Townsend, another food service worker in Chicago, the idea of wanting to make more money in the restaurant industry—has never been questionable. She left her job at a McDonalds earlier this year, and says she now makes about the same amount of money working fewer hours driving for delivery apps.
IESHIA TOWNSEND: Say, if I leave out right now, I could work for four hours and make $200 within four hours. And I'm still able to spend time with my kids and take my children to the park and take them to a movie or something.
AS: And you have the flexibility to say, I'm going to do this today, or I need to not do that, to do this today for whatever reason and you could do it tomorrow.
IT: Yeah. I want to see my kids grow cause I've, I, with my oldest son, he's 10. I've missed five years of watching him grow and I have a two year old and I missed like almost a year and a half working at McDonald's, not able to see his little milestones and the things, things that he accomplished as a toddler. So, I want to enjoy the time that I have with my boys. And if I gotta do the delivery apps for a little bit longer, I'm fine with that.
Ieshia did not have that kind of control over her schedule when she worked at McDonald’s. When she started, Ieshia was in her late 20s and a single mom.
IT: I was basically living off public assistance and public income, so I was struggling very hard to take a care of a five-year-old at the time. And seeing my kid wanting something and he can't get what he wants and I can't give it to him, it kind of hurt me emotionally. I went in McDonald's. It was not my intention to be working at McDonald's. Um, I had talked to the hiring manager and she asked me, why did I want to work? I said, 'I want to be able to provide stability for my children, and I want to be able to pay for school.' She's like, 'That's a good answer. I need you to make sure you come in with a black shirt, black pants, black belt, and... you start on Monday.'
Ieshia worked the cash register, bagged food, and cleaned. She started at $8 an hour, and was earning $14 an hour when she left.
While working at McDonald’s, Ieshia started organizing with the Fight for 15 labor campaign. When her hours were cut in the pandemic—and workers didn’t feel like they had adequate protective gear—they went on strike.
IT: It took us to go on strike for them to even provide masks. I felt like I worked for a couple of a corporation and a company that I can't trust. And they would risk my safety to make sure that we're able to supply burgers and fries to the customers. And that's not right.
We reached out to McDonald's for comment as we were working on this episode, and after it first came out, they sent a statement from the owner of Ieshia’s location, claiming that they provided masks at the beginning of the pandemic to crew members.
Work became much more stressful for Ieshia, and she started noticing chest pains. She has epilepsy, and gets some disability benefits, and her doctor advised her to quit her job at McDonald’s.
She’d started driving for apps a few years before for extra cash, and now she makes deliveries four days a week, for apps like Postmates, GrubHub, and GoPuff.
IT: But if I had to go back to McDonald's and they changes change some of their rules, I would go back. But if it were where they can not enforce a union, if they could not enforce the union, I definitely wouldn't go back, but if they could enforce the union for workers like me, then yeah, I would go back.
Anna Sale: You would prefer working at McDonald's with a union to what you're doing now?
IT: Yes and no. I like both. I like to know that the customers that come in is mostly elderly and they're so sweet and so nice. So I enjoy them. And then when I do the delivery apps, I have a peace of mind where I make my own time, where I'm able to spend time with my family. That was something that I could not do working for McDonald's. But if I had to choose a roof over my head, and my kids' head, and food in their mouth, I would go back. But it, it would have to be with a union behind it.
Ieshia recently started going back to school online to get her high school diploma. She wants to go on to get a culinary degree and open a neighborhood restaurant… one that treats its workers fairly… and has a daycare attached.
IT: So parents can get a break from their kids and the kids can get a break from their parents.
AS: I like that idea as a mom of two little kids. I would go to that restaurant. Do you think about what it might look like?
IT: You ever had, I say, you ever seen where you see everybody sitting at the round table and everybody's smiling. They're happy.
IT: That's the way I picture it.
Coming up, I talk with another parent... about how he decided to walk away from the food industry altogether.
MATT BRESLOW: I've always looked at the pandemic as not the reason we closed, but it was, it was the opportunity for me to get out. And it's, it's a very weird feeling to know that the, uh, global pandemic in some ways benefited my life.
As we were putting together this episode, we caught up with Cara Moody, the single mom and restaurant server in Pittsburgh whom I interviewed last year in an episode about child care difficulties during the pandemic. Cara’s still working at the same restaurant—making $2.83/hour plus tips.
CARA MOODY: It's not really as fun of a job as a restaurant job used to be, it's a lot more stressful. One night I was training a new front of the house server and, um, the dishwasher didn't show up. So I'm training, I'm waiting tables, I'm washing dishes. And, I mean, customers don't understand all of the things I'm doing on top of my added job.
AS: Did you hit a moment where you thought, this might be it, I need to find other work?
CM: I mean, yes. I've always thought about maybe applying for other positions and other jobs and, you know, I have been looking. Um... but like honestly, I don't know if I really, if it's... meant for me to sit behind a desk nine to five.
Cara did recently interview for a job doing property management, but the schedule was a challenge.
CM: I would have to work till six o'clock at night, which is much better than 11 o'clock at night, you'd think. But his, um, school, his after-school care only goes till six o'clock. And every minute you're late, they charge you by the dollar. So, I mean, I really wouldn't be able to get there until six-thirty... and that's too late for the afterschool program.
There’s a link to our original episode about child care with Cara in our show notes.
We also checked in with Lesely Crawford, who owns the daycare Cara sends her son Colton to. Lesely told us in an email that her business “continues to struggle with finding staff, but I am not the only person struggling through this.” She said, “I’m weighing options and figuring out my next plan of attack.”
This is Death, Sex & Money from WNYC. I’m Anna Sale.
Ten percent of American restaurants have shut down since the start of the pandemic, by one industry estimate. Chains fared the best, independent restaurants hurt more, and food trucks took the biggest hit.
MATT BRESLOW: I love being able to make a delicious plate of food and serve it to someone. It's one of my joys in life.
Until last year, Matt Breslow owned and operated a food truck business in Portland, Oregon called The Grilled Cheese Grill.
MB: Our tagline was, uh, come by for a taste of your childhood unless your childhood sucked. And then we'll share a taste of ours. [AS laughing] And it was that, that was something I wrote like maybe 30 minutes after having the idea to open a grilled cheese place.
And with the help of a $40,000 loan from his dad, he opened his first truck in 2009 when he was 29. It was an immediate hit and Matt expanded to more locations. As the business grew, he got married, and in 2017, he had a kid.
But even before the pandemic started, he’d downsized to one location. He had to move around real estate development downtown, and it was hard to stay staffed up.
MB: So in February, February of 2020, I'm, I just turned 40. I'm down to one location. I, my manager has just left, so I take over as the manager of the cart, I'm down to one. Um, on my 40th birthday, I had to fire somebody over the phone and it was exhausting. And I just had to son, we, you know, he was, he was about to turn three in March. Um, um, I'm running this business by myself at this point and it, I just knew the burnout was there. We were either going to have a Hail Mary pass that something was going to work or something was going to happen. And then the pandemic hits and March 16th is the last day we were open.
Then, at the end of 2020, he got a call from his landlord. Another developer had bought the lot that Matt’s truck was on.
MB: I said, there's, you know, there's no way I'm going to reopen. There's, there's no way. And so it was that's that's when I realized it's time to close that chapter, and figure out a new one.
AS: So when you, when you realized it no longer made sense to think about reopening, and then you let go of that... um, describe, describe the range of feelings that came with that.
MB: Oh man. It was wow, um, really bittersweet. Um, just being able to work with your friends and make grilled cheese sandwiches and, and to see this crazy business idea work and to see so many people have fun with it. You know, we would make sandwiches downtown and people would walk away and then they would walk back 20 minutes later and come to the back door and say, 'That was the best grilled cheese sandwich I've ever had in my entire life, thank you guys so much.' And just the, the amount of, of, of happiness that that gave me being able to do that, I, I don't know if I'll ever have that again. I have no idea. It was the best feeling I've ever had until, until I heard my son laugh and so it, it, it really, it was a tough decision. It's uh, it's, it's, it's, it's just an incredible, weird place to be, to know that, you know, I, I have to choose between two things that I love so much and they, they can't co-exist together. I can't be a father and run this business the way that I want to at the same time.
AS: Did you know that before the pandemic?
MB: Uh, probably. I probably did. Um, but he was still young. Like he, he, you know, that year that we spent together, like... is when I saw him, I guess, develop consciousness?
MB: And a memory.
MB: And so, you know, there were Saturdays where I knew I, you know, had to leave the kid and my wife at home and I had to go work. It was not that big of a deal because he was only one and a half. As he gets older, I thought to myself, how am I, you know, how I, there were, I definitely had that thought in the back of my head, like when, when, when he's seven and he has a soccer game on a Saturday morning, you know when he's seven and he has a soccer game on a Saturday morning and I have to, and I want to be there for his soccer game. And I have, and I get a call at 10:15 because you know, we, one of my employees didn't show up because they have a hangover and I have to drop what I'm doing, and tell my son, I'm sorry, I can't go to your soccer game cause I have to go sell grilled cheese sandwiches. You know, I, I don't know if I could have done that to him, and, or, how many times I could have done that to him before I knew this, you know, this, this was not going to work.
In May of this year, Matt started working as a substitute teacher at his son’s preschool. He told me that he eventually wants to get licensed to teach elementary school.
MB: You know, part of, part of every job I've ever had has there's a, there is a bit of a teaching component. Especially when you own a restaurant, you have to train your staff, and you have to connect with another human being to get them to... not just do the motions that, that you want them to do to make a good sandwich, but you have to im, imbue it with your, your culture and your character. And that's, that's not as easy as just saying, okay, now you put the butter on, and then you put it on the grill and you flip it when it's this color. You know, you have to teach them that there's, there's, there's heart to this.
Although many restaurants have closed in the last year and a half, new ones are still opening. There were 50,000 applications for new food businesses in the first two months of this year, according to the Census Bureau.
Ana Castro is one of those new restaurateurs, and she’s trying to create a business that runs differently than where she’s worked before.
Ana Castro: I don't want to hire robots, and like those, all the people that are like, yes, chef, yes, chef I know I don't need a day off. I know I don't have anything! I don't have any friends that have birthdays on a Friday night. I actually want to, want to create a business model that makes that a reality.
Ana is the executive chef at Lengua Madre, which opened in August in New Orleans. The restaurant where Ana had been the sous chef closed during the summer of 2020, and then her former boss offered her the space to open her own place.
AC: I'm interested in being a human being too, not just a chef, and I'm interested in not letting my role define the entirety of my life. And I'm interested in people, in working with people that feel the same way. So that, that mentality of being like, no, no, no. I also have my life. I think it's an indicator of like a higher emotional intelligence.
AC: Um, which I'm also trying on myself, you know, it's like, it's like some days are better than others.
AS: Oh, so this is, you said you're trying this on too.
AC: Oh, damn. I'm trying this one on for size too. I'm really, I used to be really bad about like setting boundaries with my work life, personal life, and making that separation. But, um, you know, obviously with the help and support of my employer, my friends, my therapist, blah, blah, blah, blah. It's like it takes a village.
For Ana and her staff at Lengua Madre, running things differently means everyone is eligible for health insurance after 3 months, and paid time off after 6 months. And they pool tips—so everyone from servers to dishwashers makes between $20 to $25 an hour, depending on how busy they are.
Ana, though, isn’t sure yet how much money she’ll be making from this endeavor.
AC: We agreed on a six months, uh, opening of the restaurant, just to see, like once we have, like, more specifics about how much money is the restaurant making, how much, like... once we have all those numbers, then we can go. And, uh, you know, we also talked about a combination of like, like buying into equity and sweat equity, because I am the person that it is, that is there most of the time, all the time. Ha! And, um, and I also think this project is not just a restaurant, this project is based entirely on my cultural identity. And like that has to come with, I guess, a price, which is also like, really, like, kinda weird for me to think of. Cause I'm just like, well, he's gonna ask me how much my cultural identity is worth… how much is the fucking Mona Lisa worth? I don't know.
AS: When you began to envision the kind of food you wanted to cook in the restaurant you were going to open, what did you picture? What was the, the idea?
AC: I was raised by my grandmother in Mexico City. And she's an extreme, like, you know, a very accomplished home cook. And, um, also she's a very emotional woman, and... she is governed by the tides of her moods, my grandmother. She's calmed down through the years. But like when I was a kid, woof! But even though like she could like scream at you and be upset at you and everything, she'll be like, but did you eat? [AS laughing] Yeah. Yeah. But have you eaten something? Like, nowadays when I cook, I, I, I want to like, just tell a story of kind of how I was raised. Um, and just share a little bit... through a more modern and contemporary lens.
AS: I want to tell you, Ana, the way you described your grandmother as, as governed by the tides of her moods is so like a loving and evocative way of describing There are a lot of less generous ways to describe someone who is governed by the tides of their moods. And I love the words that you chose there. Um, I get it.
AC: Thank you. I, I sometimes am too, you know, so I understand why she's an intense, she's an intense woman. And she has a big presence and she fills a room with it, even when she's not saying anything. Like, you know, just like her look just like sears into you is like, she's definitely like the driving force behind all of my family. And I fear for the day that she's not here.
AS: Is there a way you cook in your restaurant that reminds you of your grandmother?
AC: Only everything. But if you go to the restaurant, like, it's not, like there's like a photo of my grandma, you know? Like my grandma is there because I'm there and she's always with me, and I don't need like an explicit representation of her. And I also don't want her to be explicitly represented... because she's sacred to me, you know, she's mine!
AS: Mmm. Ana, when you think about the sort of best case scenario for this restaurant, for Lengua Madre, what do you picture?
AC: Best case scenario? We have a sustainable business model that allows everybody, um, to make, uh, not only a living, but hopefully a thriving wage. Um, I don't lose my sanity in the process, um... and we hopefully are a model for more restaurants to decide to do things a little differently.
That’s Ana Castro.
The New York Times recently included her restaurant, Lengua Madre, on a list of the 50 restaurants they’re excited about right now. That bright spot came about six weeks after Hurricane Ida hit New Orleans and caused serious water damage at the restaurant. The staff was all safe, and they continued serving at pop-ups at other locations around the city, and reopened at their original location earlier this month.
Death, Sex & Money is a listener supported production of WNYC Studios in New York. This episode was produced by Afi Yellow-Duke. The rest of our team includes Katie Bishop, Anabel Bacon, Emily Botein, and Andrew Dunn. Our intern is Sarah Dealy.
The Reverend John Delore and Steve Lewis wrote our theme music. I'm on Instagram @annasalepics, P-I-C-S, and the show is @deathsexmoney on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
And thanks to Preston Jutte in Washington, D.C., who is a sustaining member of Death, Sex & Money. Join Preston and please support what we do here by going to deathsexmoney.org/donate, or text the letters “D-S-M” to 70101.
One thing that's changed for people since leaving professional kitchens? They’re cooking differently now. Matt, for one, isn’t making many grilled cheese sandwiches anymore.
Matt Breslow: My wife, my wife wishes, I would make more, but, um, I d, I don't, I, I don't. No, they're not healthy. It's not good for you. [both laugh]
Anna Sale: You can finally say the truth!
Matt Breslow: I can finally say the truth. I would tell my staff, you know, people don't come here for health food. You're not putting enough butter on that sandwich.
I’m Anna Sale, and this is Death, Sex & Money from WNYC.