Traditional recipes

Restaurant Only Hires Twin Servers

Restaurant Only Hires Twin Servers

The restaurateur was reportedly inspired by the movie 'Kingdom of Crooked Mirrors'

This restaurant only hires twins.

How's this for a themed restaurant? A restaurant in Moscow called Twin Stars was inspired by a fairy tale involving twins and now only hires twins as servers and bartenders.

The duos wait tables together, bartend together, and otherwise cause doubletakes in the restaurant. "My favorite film from childhood was Kingdom of Crooked Mirrors," the owner told BBC. "I like that type of fairy tale idea, that imaginative world."

The movie, an old fairy tale, follows a girl named Olya who goes through an old magic mirror and meets her twin Yalo. Word is, there's also a 2007 musical remake.

Of course, owner Alexei Khodorkovsky did have trouble finding twins with restaurant experience to staff his spot, but BBC reports that customers are happy with the schtick, even if it means doubling the tip for two servers.

Check out the restaurant below.


Hostility, Harassment, and Low Wages Are Keeping Many Restaurant Workers Home

As restaurants around the country rush to staff up to meet the increased demand from customers, owners are finding it increasingly difficult to fill all their open roles. One factor is simply the onslaught of new positions. But workers’ rights advocate Saru Jayamaran says many workers are exiting an industry that is asking them to do so much more for so much less.

Jayamaran, who is the president of One Fair Wage, a group fighting to abolish the tipped minimum wage, says front of house employees, who often rely on tips but have to enforce at times controversial mask mandates, are especially fed up. “We’ve just heard from so many, literally thousands of workers who are saying it is just not worth it anymore. It is not worth it to be paid so little, to get so little in tips and to have to put up with so much more in terms of responsibility, health risk, hostility, and harassment,” she told Eater’s Digest this week.

She and many advocates hope this moment becomes a turning point for an industry with a notoriously vulnerable workforce and offers workers leverage to get the benefits and wages they’ve been asking for.

Listen to Jayamaran discuss the dynamics at play for restaurant workers facing a return to their jobs right now, why higher unemployment benefits is not a contributing factor for many workers, and how this moment could lead to lasting change. Afterwards, listen to Culinary Agents CEO Alice Cheng talk about what the jobs board data is telling us about hiring and restaurateur Jenn Saesue explain what it’s like on the ground hiring up at two restaurants right now.

You often represent workers and fight for workers’ rights. So I want to hear your perspective on the labor shortage and what this situation is from a worker’s point of view.

So we’ve been trying to warn the industry for the last year that this was coming. We were hearing from workers all last year that they just were starting to feel like it just wasn’t worth it to stay in this industry, to stay in their jobs. Because during the pandemic, not only did workers lose their jobs and then often not qualify for unemployment insurance — because in most states they were tipped, workers were told their sub-minimum wage was too low to qualify for benefits — they found when they went back to work, about 70 percent of workers reported that tips are down 50 to 75 percent. And that health risks and harassment and hostility and their responsibilities are way up. So they are being asked to do so much more for so much less. They’re being asked now to enforce social distancing and mask rules on the very same customers from whom they have to get tips to survive, at a time when they’re saying, “Look, tips are already down 50 to 75 percent because sales are down.”

And 60 percent of workers said when they try to enforce these rules, they get tipped less. And by the way, it’s so much worse for Black workers. 60 percent of workers said they get tipped less when they try to enforce these rules. 73 percent of Black workers said they get tipped less when they try to enforce these rules. But worst of all, 41 percent of all workers have said that sexual harassment has gone way up during the pandemic. 50 percent of women said that sexual harassment has gone way up during the pandemic, mind you, in the industry that already has the highest rates undeniably now of any industry of sexual harassment, of any industry in the U.S. And as you have written about and know, we’ve been exposing that hundreds of women have been coming to us. Just today, we heard from more women saying, “I am consistently and constantly asked, “Take off your mask so I can see how cute you are, how pretty you are, before I determine how much to tip you.”

So they’re being asked to do so much more for so much less. And we’ve just heard from so many, literally thousands of workers who are saying it is just not worth it anymore. It is not worth it to be paid so little, to get so little in tips and to have to put up with so much more in terms of responsibility, health risk, hostility, and harassment. And so we did a survey of New York City workers, for example, earlier this year, and almost 40 percent of workers said they are thinking about leaving the industry. Top two reasons were health risks and wages. And number one reason they said that would make them stay is a livable wage, a full livable wage.

And speaking about the health risks, a lot of servers and back of house employees weren’t prioritized for vaccines. I think that’s important to point out.

That’s right. I mean, it boggles my mind. If we, as a society, as an economy, as an industry, are in such a rush to reopen, then why are we not vaccinating these workers first and foremost. If we want this industry to reopen and we consider these workers to be essential, which they are, we are relying on them to enforce social distancing and mask rules in these restaurants. If they’re essential, then they should have been vaccinated in the way that teachers and the nurses and everybody else. But if they’re essential, they also need to be paid. Because other essential workers are talking about hazard pay, additional pay on top of their work. These are essential workers are not even getting the minimum wage.

Do you think this is a moment where people will be raising wages? Like workers now finally have the leverage that people like you have been asking for, for so long?

That’s already been happening. All of last year, we were hearing from restaurants across the country who said, “You know what? We’ve changed our mind, or we’ve decided we’re going to move to a full minimum wage with tips on top,” because either they were moved by the murder of George Floyd and they didn’t want to perpetuate the sub-minimum wage as a legacy of slavery and a source of racial inequity, or they were moved by everything I’ve described in terms of women having to take off their masks and increased hostility and harassment, or they couldn’t get their workers to come back to work. And so they did start paying a full minimum wage. And so that was already starting to happen. And I think it’s going to be happening more so now. What I find very disheartening is some employers, especially chain restaurants that are saying, “Oh, it’s because they’re lazy and they want to stay home and get unemployment insurance.”

Well, let’s return to the statistic I said at the beginning. 60 percent of tipped workers couldn’t get unemployment insurance because in most states they were told their sub-minimum wage was too low to qualify for benefits. And the way unemployment insurance works, if you’re offered a job and you turn it down, you lose. If you’ve got unemployment insurance, which a minority of these folks did, you lose it if you turn down a job. So truly, these workers are choosing between the restaurant industry and no income. And because the benefits are so low, the wages are so low, the tips are so low, and the risks are so high, many of them are choosing no. No income, or I’m going to find something else because it’s just not worth it anymore.

When you said that some people have left permanently, do you think that is going to be a broader trend over the next few months?

I hope not. The industry is losing amazingly talented, skilled professionals. I hope it’s not an ongoing trend. But I fear that if the industry fights against wages going up and doesn’t as a whole really embrace the idea that its workers need the chance to survive, to thrive, to live, to be able to take care of themselves, then that is what will happen. We will lose incredible talent. We will lose skilled professionals.

Listen, this was a trend that was already happening. I know you’ve written about it. We were facing one of the worst labor shortages in our industry even prior to the pandemic, in the industry’s history in the U.S., prior to the pandemic. It’s just gotten so much worse. Because again, when you, as a human, weigh the risks versus the benefits of taking a job, it’s just not adding up right now. Being asked to take off your mask and expose yourself and your family to the virus, being treated with such hostility and harassment for trying to do your job, and at the same time, tips are so low and the employer’s not raising the wage, it’s just not worth it.

I think what you hear a lot from the business owners is that if they don’t have staff, they’ll raise the wages because they need to get staff. So like kind of the market corrects itself argument. So how do you respond to that?

I think that is a good thing, and that is already happening in a lot of cases. But I can tell you, there are hundreds of small business owners. We have an association (called RAISE High Road Restaurants) of 850 small business restaurant owners across the country. And a lot of them are people of color owned businesses, and they are saying two things. “One, we are having to do this. We are having to do this to get workers to come back. We’re having to do this because we need to raise wages to ensure there’s consumer spending during this horrible time. We need to ensure people can spend in our restaurants. So we need to raise wages. But we can’t do it alone. It has to be a level playing field. Everybody has to go up at the same time. That’s how we all survive together.”

So I would respond and say it’s a very good thing that some employers are finding that they have to raise wages, because it’s long overdue. And that as those employers raise wages, I think they’re going to join us in the call for this to become policy and not just individual businesses having to do this. But I have a second thing to say here, because there’s been a lot of talk in our industry about addressing racial inequity after George Floyd, now with the rise in Asian-American violence. Like a lot of the small business owners of color that are part of our group also want to make sure their colleagues in the industry here, that being woke and addressing racial equity is not just about putting something up in your window. It’s about paying people a livable wage, ending a legacy of slavery, ending a source of racial inequity, which is forcing workers to live exclusively off tips.

Have you seen any business owners employ creative solutions? I know there are probably a lot of people listening to the show who are saying, “I just got ravaged by this pandemic. I don’t have the money to raise the wages for my staff. And I can’t find people to work. What am I supposed to do here?”

Yeah. Well, we would love to talk to those people because we have an association that has a whole training and technical assistance program to help employers figure out how to do it profitably, how to raise wages and stay profitable, how to find other . The thing about raising wages is, A, you can do it slowly over time, but B, it actually reduces turnover. So there’s all kinds of additional costs that are saved. It increases employee morale and longevity and customer service, their excitement to work, their willingness to stay, their ability to upsell goes up when they’re paid better.

On top of all of that, in 2018, we passed a law in Congress that says if you pay the full minimum wage to all workers in the restaurant, you can share tips with the back of the house. And this is a really, we think, great, not just great solution, creative solution, it offsets some labor costs in the back of the house. But more importantly, it creates equity between front and back. Everybody goes up together. You share the incentives and burdens of tips. It really creates a better sense of team between front and back. So this is one of the best solutions we’ve seen.

Did you say that’s proposed, or that is legal now?

And is it your goal to push towards eliminating tipping in general?

No. We are trying to get everybody to a livable wage with tips on top. There are some employers that choose to go all the way and get rid of tips. We are supportive of that if they can guarantee that, with a full salary, these workers are getting what they used to earn. Everybody’s getting what they used to earn with tips. What we do know is that actually the states that pay a full minimum wage with tips on top, every quartile of workers from the highest tip earners to the lowest tip earners earns more than their peers. So that fine dining servers in California earn more than the fine dining servers in states with sub-minimum wage. And Denny’s servers earn more than in states with the sub-minimum. Everybody earns more with wages and tips, and it just doesn’t happen that tips go away or tips are lessened. So we are supportive of various models, as long as people end up with a livable wage and certainly not less than what they earned before.

The $15 minimum wage was floated around in this recent government package. And then there was criticism of it from people saying like it’s a no-go with the tipped minimum wage being $15. Do you see a world in which a $15 minimum wage gets passed, where there’s still a much lower tipped minimum wage in there?

That’s certainly what the National Restaurant Association is fighting for. But we’ve got incredible support from the White House, from Senate leadership, that’s really pushing that we finally end this legacy of slavery. So that’s what I’d love everybody to know. This train is moving. It is happening. This is the future of the industry. We are going to move away from this legacy of slavery as a country, as an industry. Consumers want it, workers want it. And so rather than fighting it and resisting it, let’s work together to make sure employers can survive and be profitable and thrive and see the benefits of paying people better.


Behold the 'Labor Inducer,' a viral burger that's taking social media by storm

Any woman who has ever tried to induce labor at the end of a long pregnancy knows the struggle is real. But the owners of one Minnesota restaurant think they've found the perfect recipe to help speed things up — or, at the very least, they've cooked up a pretty tasty marketing stunt.

The Suburban in Excelsior, Minnesota, is now home to a special creation called the "Labor Inducer." The juicy, cheesy meal is already being praised by two locals who claim it helped induce their labor.

Kelsey Quarberg says she was the first to experience the burger's powers this April when the restaurant's head chef was testing new recipes to enter into the Twin Cities Burger Battle. Quarberg, who happens to co-own The Suburban and was nine days away from her due date, tried a sample of the then-unnamed burger.

She certainly wasn't expecting what happened next.

"While we were taste-testing the burgers in slider form, I loved the burger so much that I asked our chef to make me (another) full-sized one," she told TODAY Food. "I figured I was 38 weeks pregnant, so why not indulge? About six hours later, my contractions started."

Soon after, Quarberg gave birth to her first child, a son named Samuel.

At the time, Quarberg thought that her eating the burger shortly before going into labor might have just been a coincidence, but when it came time to name the delicious new dish, she didn't have to look far for inspiration.

"When we were picking a name for the Burger Battle entry we thought the 'Labor Inducer' was a cute name . but had no idea it would work on anyone else," she said.

Over the summer, The Suburban added the "Labor Inducer" to its official menu. It's made with an angus beef patty, topped with American cheese, spicy Bavarian mustard, a few slices of honey-cured bacon, peach caramelized onions and a Cajun remoulade sauce, all served on a toasted pretzel bun.

In May, Quarberg said it worked its magic on another customer, Katy Engler, who gave birth to a daughter named Elise.

"The second woman came in for a date night with her husband on her due date," Quarberg said. "(Engler) didn’t know about the burger until she arrived, but said she had to order it since it was her due date. She also went into labor at midnight that same evening."

So will bacon and beef really help induce labor?

Dr. Donnica Moore, a New York City-based OB-GYN, previously told TODAY there's no clinical proof that certain foods or herbs will kickstart labor. (If you're past your due date, she did suggest speeding things up with sex or a little nipple stimulation.)

Even though no one food item can officially trigger labor, this isn't the first time women have turned to mythical meals to help get the process started. When she was pregnant with her second child, Hilary Duff tried eating the popular "Maternity Salad" from Los Angeles cafe Caioti Pizza Cafe. It's made with romaine lettuce, watercress, walnuts, pasteurized gorgonzola cheese and a super-secret dressing. Siri Daly also tried the salad and guessed the dressing may be laced with "castor oil, or Pitocin."

And women in the Atlanta area have been turning to an eggplant Parmigiana dish that a local restaurant claims has helped more than 1,000 women go into labor.

The Suburban clearly has a long way to go before it can claim that it's really helped women go into labor, but since they've shared the story of the burger on Instagram, Quarberg said she's seen a lot more pregnant women coming in.

"Suddenly we are the go-to spot for pregnant women in the Twin Cities" she said. On average, the restaurant co-owner says she's seen at least two pregnant women come in a day since she posted a photo of her son next to Engler's baby girl in September.

The cute name and even cuter babies may just be part of a clever marketing stunt but, regardless, the burger looks delicious and even captured third place when it debuted at the Twin Cities Burger Battle.

For now, Quarberg is content enjoying watching other pregnant women try the burger, even if it's just for fun.

"We had several women eat it over the weekend that we are waiting to hear from," she said. "In the long list of things to try to induce labor, eating this burger has been a fun one for women in their last weeks of pregnancy."


Lowertown’s new Brazilian steakhouse makes for a fun night out

It seemed as though I was the only person I know who hadn’t been to a Brazilian steakhouse.

The restaurants, called churrascarias, are very popular with meat lovers the world over, and we have a few in the Twin Cities.

So when Bullvino’s Churrascaria opened in the former Octo FishBar space in Lowertown, I knew I’d have to visit as soon as humanly possible.

At a churrascaria, grilled meats, often skewered on swords, are served by wandering servers, who dramatically slice bits of steak, lamb, and even chicken and sausage onto your plate until you either explode or turn over a little color-coded cardboard sign at your seat that tells them to stop.

Actually, I did that at one point, needing a break, and still got offered some glistening beef.

It’s a charming way to stuff yourself, and chef/owner Marcio Demorais has transformed the once segmented space into a cohesive, open and attractive restaurant.

We visited on a Tuesday, and Bullvino’s was packed full of families celebrating special occasions. That makes sense, because the all-you-can-eat experience, while not prohibitively expensive, is also not what I’d call cheap.

You pay either $44.95 or $54.95 for the experience — at the higher price you get all the meats offered at the lower price plus New York steak, beef tenderloin, beef ribs and lamb chops. I suppose in order to get that lower price, you’d need to be cognizant of what meats are coming at you and when. We were so overwhelmed by the sheer volume that I don’t think any of us really thought about which meats were top shelf.

The self-serve salad bar at the Brazilian steakhouse Bullvino’s Churrascaria in St. Paul’s Lowertown. (Nancy Ngo / Pioneer Press)

That price includes an unlimited and well-appointed self-serve salad bar that includes everything from seafood salad to smoked salmon to leafy greens, beets, asparagus, hearts of palm, potato salad, tabbouleh and more. There were a few self-serve hot sides, too, including an alfredo-y pasta, rice and beans. Velvety mashed potatoes, yucca and a caramelized banana were delivered to the table.

As for the meats, most were seasoned simply and prepared well. We were especially big fans of the beef tenderloin and fraldinha, or bottom tenderloin. A bacon-wrapped chicken, which was overcooked and dry, was the exception.

We loved the small touch — probably in deference to the local population — of offering Hmong hot chili sauce for drizzling. There’s the traditional chimichurri, too. You have to ask for them, but they’re free.

Cocktails were the usual downtown price, $12-$14 a pop, and they were passable, but nothing spectacular. We ended up walking to another nearby spot for a nightcap.

In all, it was a fun experience and I can see why these places are so popular. I love that Bullvino’s isn’t a chain, too.


Restaurant servers adapt to masks, added tasks and a new kind of difficult customer

Think dining out has gotten difficult? Consider it from your server's point of view.

Just as there are all kinds of restaurants in Maine – seafood shacks, sports bars, pho noodle joints and farm-to-table meccas – there are all kinds of servers, hosts and bartenders, too: Those who feel safe working during a pandemic, and those who don’t. Those who want the tourists to return right now, and those who aren’t so sure, though for sure they miss the tips. Those who blame President Trump for the mess we’re in, and those who hold Gov. Janet Mills to account.

But on one thing there is universal agreement: damn, those masks are hot.

SUBSCRIBER EXCLUSIVE EVENT: THE OTHER SIDE OF THE TABLE

Join us on Zoom at 7 p.m. Wednesday, when Press Herald food writer Meredith Goad will sit down with a panel of restaurant owners to talk about how dining out has changed in the age of COVID-19.

Guests are: Mike Wiley of Big Tree Hospitality (Honey Paw, Hugo’s, Eventide Oyster) Jay Villani of Salvage BBQ, Local 188 and Black Cow Alec Sabina of Hot Suppa and Rebecca Charles of Pearl Kennebunk.

This event is for subscribers only. Register at pressherald.com/events.

Reached during the recent heat wave, front-of-house restaurant employees around the state were broiling — masked for extended shifts working mostly outside (read: no AC) because many indoor dining rooms remain shut wearing, in some cases, slacks, bistro aprons and button-down shirts when they’d prefer shorts and T-shirts in the sweltering heat and doing extra heapings of extra work to comply with CDC guidelines about sanitation and social distancing.

Related

Restaurants adapting to new ‘normal’ as they reopen

Asked about the workload during a wide-ranging interview on what it’s like for front-of-house restaurant workers in the middle of a pandemic, Morgan Rancourt, a longtime server at Central Provisions in Portland, had something else on her mind: “The biggest factor for me personally has been working in the heat,” she said. “Ninety-degree days. Twelve hours per day. A mask. That’s the hardest part.”

MORE WORK, LESS FUN

As restaurants have gradually reopened in Maine, dining room staff have returned to jobs they barely recognize with never-before-imagined pandemic-era responsibilities and demands. There are new tasks like constant sanitizing of bathrooms, door handles, pens, menus, salt shakers, and chairs and tables. There are new customers, people who didn’t frequent their restaurants pre-pandemic but after months cooped up at home will dine anywhere that’s open. There are new challenges, like confronting – politely – customers who flout COVID-19 safety rules, either aggressively, forgetfully or out of ignorance. Staffs are stretched thin. At a fundamental level, almost every process in greeting, seating and cleaning has been transformed.

“Everything is completely different,” said Amber McIntyre, who has worked as a server and bartender at Pepino’s Mexican Restaurant in Bangor for almost 20 years. She returned to her job on June 22. “I am glad I am back because I love my job,” she said, but “the quote unquote ‘new normal’ is very disorienting.”

Joshua Chaisson takes an order during a shift at the Porthole Restaurant in Portland in late July. Chaisson says that he sanitizes his hands about once a minute during his shift, and he also tries to compartmentalize his tasks between what he can do with clean hands and what he can do with dirty hands. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

For example: McIntyre now works outside Pepino’s is not open for inside dining. The city has blocked off the street to help businesses meet social distancing requirements. McIntyre estimated that Pepino’s seating area is some 150 feet away from the restaurant door. “I am not going table to table,” she said. “We put all of their food on a tray. We don’t hand out the food. We put the tray on the table. Then it’s back to dining room, wash my hands, use sanitizer. Then go to another table.” Back and forth. One hundred fifty feet. Over and over. In the heat.

At Moody’s Diner in Waldoboro, server Erica Genthner has also seen her job of 20 years change overnight and grow significantly more onerous. She returned to work on May 18. “I was ready,” she said. “You can only stay home for so long.”

“As excited as I was to get back to work, I quickly realized there is much more involved now than there ever has been,” Genthner said. She spelled out a list of new tasks and requirements, including wearing a mask, endless sanitizing, busing her own tables, filling the many to-go orders, and handing out and collecting contact tracing forms. Normally, she prides herself on giving customers “great service,” but with so much to keep track of, she is anxious. “I don’t think this is easy right now.”

Joshua Chaisson poses for a photo inside the Porthole Restaurant. “Our bosses have given us permission to relentlessly tell guests to put their masks on,” he said. “They have been very gracious to let us be very strict enforcers.” Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

The coronavirus has also reshaped a subtler aspect of front-of-house life: the once pleasurable, easygoing exchanges with customers, or “guests” in industry argot. Many longtime hosts, bartenders and waiters say such interactions used to be a favorite aspect of their jobs.

“It’s weird to not be able to engage our guests, to have that intimate one-on-one conversation with our guests – and to work that tip percentage up, let’s be real,” said Joshua Chaisson, who has worked as a server at the Porthole in Portland for five years. With 20 years of restaurant employment under his belt, he calls himself an industry “lifer.” He returned to work on June 1, because, he said, “I wanted to be part of the phoenix story, rising out of the ashes.”

“But talking at length with you, even with those masks on, is not the safest thing for me to do,” Chaisson said.

He misses that, as does Genthner, who grew up in Waldoboro, went to work at Moody’s when she was 16 and can probably name all the 5 a.m. regulars. Moody’s isn’t open at 5 a.m. these days. Pandemic hours begin at 7. She met her husband working at Moody’s, and like her, he still works there – he’s a kitchen manager. The couple have a 9-year-old son.

Joshua Chaisson cleans his hands during his shift at the Porthole Restauarant in Portland on Friday. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

“I haven’t been waitressing for 20 years just because. I stayed because I genuinely like my job,” she said. “I love summer, because it brings the tourists, but it also brings different people I can interact with. People from all different walks of life. It makes it interesting. This summer, it’s not really interesting. It’s just hard. Waitressing in summer is hard anyway. In past summers, I’ve enjoyed the fast pace. I’ve enjoyed the hustle, but this is a whole new ballgame and it’s not fun.”

DISAGREEABLE DINERS

Something else that’s not fun? Difficult customers. Front-of-house staff, in many cases backed up by owners and managers, are now charged with enforcing a host of safety regulations. But in a politicized pandemic, some customers object – vehemently – to what they see as impingements on their freedom.

Restaurants have always had difficult customers, though in the past such headaches have not carried the risk of illness or death. And to be fair, many interviewed for this story said that most customers have been understanding – or better – in the face of the new dining out realities like eating off disposable dishware, no table hopping, no large groups, no sharing and no standing at the bar. Take the regular who came to the Porthole one day not long after it reopened. He “threw 50 bucks at the bartender, didn’t even have a bottle of water, just threw the money at the bartender, said, ‘I’ve missed you,’ and left,” said Chaisson, who serves on the board of directors of the national advocacy group Restaurant Workers of America.

But it’s the encounters with truculent customers that front-of-house staff, and restaurant owners, can’t erase from memory.

“Our regulars are still awesome,” McIntyre at Pepino’s said, “but I’m really finding a lot of people who we’ve never seen are going out, which is great. I would love to have another customer base. But they are not being that kind, to be blunt. They are being rude.”

Related

Lack of clarity about mask-wearing causing a face-off

How? “In every single way possible,” she replied.

Anti-maskers, predictably, are the worst offenders. The state requires customers to wear masks at restaurants except when they are seated at their own tables.

“We have signage on the door saying masks are required,” said Moody’s server Genthner. “Still, people were coming in without them. We’d have to say, ‘I’m sorry, but masks are required in here.’ We had a few people say some nice words. I’m kidding. They weren’t nice words. They got angry. They said they’d go elsewhere. I thought, ‘OK, good luck with that because masks are mandated everywhere you go.’ ”

In mid-July, Christian DeLuca, who owns breakfast and lunch restaurant Brea Lu in Westbrook, posted about the issue on Facebook: “Just had 2 people storm off because they didn’t want to wear a mask to their table,” he wrote under a photograph of himself holding a little girl in glasses. “This is my daughter Stella. She’s had open heart surgery 3 times. If you think for one second I’ll choose you over her (you’re) sorely mistaken. The mask is not for you it’s for her. So if that’s too much to ask then don’t bother coming.”

In a telephone conversation, he elaborated, and spoke about the tremendous strain restaurants are under. Many customers, he said, seem to feel that the rules don’t apply to them. “We are only asking you to wear a mask for about 10 feet. We’re not asking you to wear a mask for two hours. They want to go to the bathroom – they are not wearing the mask. They want to leave – they are not wearing the mask. You know they are passing six tables without wearing a mask.

“People come in and unload on the waitress,” DeLuca continued. “She or he has nothing to do with it. My 16-year-old hostess didn’t make the rules.”

Morgan Rancourt, longtime server and bartender outside Central Provisions in Portland on Friday. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

A nightmare that doesn’t pay what it once did. That has DeLuca worried about staffing come the slower winter season, and even in the best of times, staffing has been a struggle for Maine restaurants. For now, he is allowed just eight tables inside. “I already have girls that don’t want to come back because it’s not worth it,” he said. “They are not making any money. You go from making $350 on a Saturday to $100.”

McIntyre, at Pepino’s, shares his concern. “We are going to open up the dining room at some point, but that is going to be nine tables,” she said, “so I don’t see how I am ever going to make the money I made before again.”

For now, the state requires that restaurant tables be spaced 6 feet apart. Fewer tables means fewer customers, which, in turn, means fewer tips. And keep in mind that tourism, with restaurant-going holiday big spenders, is down. By law, servers may be paid below minimum wage with the understanding they will make up for it in tips (a calculation known as the tip credit). With one exception – a server at Cook’s Lobster House on Bailey Island – front-of-house restaurant employees interviewed for this story said they are earning less than they did last summer. But most added that the financial blow has been cushioned by the fact that restaurants are operating with smaller crews.

“None of us are making what we did the year prior,” Chaisson, at the Porthole, said. “But who could expect that? Who could expect 2019 numbers in 2020?

In the past, cruise passengers disembarked and sprinted to the Porthole for its unbeatable Twin Lobster deal, served on a classic Maine working wharf: Two 1 1/4-pound lobsters with corn, red potatoes, bib and lobster-eating tutorial for just $24.95. “Cruise ship season was an enormous amount of my income,” Chaisson said, repeating the statement for emphasis. “And that income has simply evaporated.”

Moody’s Diner, too, has been a popular tourist draw since it was founded almost a century ago. “The highest customer count I’ve ever had was last summer,” Genthner said. “I believe I waited on 182 people in one day. So far the highest customer I have had this summer was 81.”

She’d like the tourists to return. She is not worried they’ll spread the virus. The daughter of a nurse, she is confident her immune system is strong, plus she washes her hands diligently. Genthner said she has long lived with other viruses like flu and strep throat, and she can’t let coronavirus anxiety “rule over my life.” Her bigger concern is keeping her job. Without it, she said, “How am I going to pay my bills?”

Morgan Rancourt, a longtime server and bartender outside Central Provisions in Portland. “Ideally, it would be great if this would all disappear and everything could go back to how it was before, with no masks and full capacity,” she said. “For the foreseeable future, it feels like I am being well taken care of where I work, and I can keep going with how things are going right now.” Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

SAFETY FIRST

Front-of-house employees credited caring, meticulous management – and in some instances health insurance – with their willingness to go back to work in what Chaisson called a “front-facing industry.”

Rancourt, at Central Provisions, has two little girls, a 4-month-old and a toddler. Central Provisions pays half her health insurance. The restaurant’s owners, Chris and Paige Gould, have small children of their own, so Rancourt knew they would take every precaution to avoid an outbreak. The current counter-service-only setup also makes Rancourt feel safe.

Likewise, McIntyre trusts her co-workers and employees, including her “really awesome boss.” “All my co-workers are as careful as I am. They are taking it very seriously,” she said. She is more worried about stranger danger from recalcitrant customers.

“In my head, if you are going to give me a hard time about not wearing a mask to the bathroom, what other precautions are you not doing in your everyday life?” McIntyre wonders. She is happy to do the extra work her job now entails “to keep people safe, as long as they care about keeping me safe.” She has two school-age children and a stepson at home, and no health insurance. With a husband who also works for a small company, its cost is prohibitive, she said.

According to the 2019 national Restaurant Success Survey conducted by Toast, a company that makes software for the restaurant industry, just 31 percent of restaurants offer employee health insurance. Chaisson, who is 38, doesn’t have it. And given what he reads in the news these days, he thinks his chances of catching COVID-19 are high he estimates them at 80 percent. “We deal with a significant amount of germs, dirty cups, dirty plates, so there is obviously that added exposure for anybody in our industry,” he said. But he feels reassured that his chances of recovery are even higher. He hopes the winter will bring a new administration in Washington that will pass legislation to cover the cost of COVID-19 treatment.

Chaisson is by no means cavalier about the pandemic. Seated customers don’t wear masks. When he brings them food and drink, “they may be protected from me,” he said, “but I’m certainly not protected from them.” Several of his co-workers are mothers. “That is definitely a lingering feeling in the back of their heads: ‘Is today the day I bring it home to my family?’ ” (And forget about child care. It’s never been easy in an industry where parents work weekends and nights. These days, it’s nearly impossible.)

He gets it. His own mother is immunocompromised. “I haven’t hugged my mom since March 15,” Chaisson said, choking up slightly. “On a personal note, it’s a very messed-up feeling.”

HOPES, DREAMS AND FEARS

What goes on in a restaurant in ordinary times? You gather, often bumper to bumper, in tightly packed tables so that a business with notoriously tight margins has some hope of making a profit. You hang out for hours with total strangers, whose own habits you know nothing about. You eat, clearly impossible to do in a mask, sharing small plates of bone marrow toast with horseradish creme or slices of banana cream pie with your date, food that has likely come out of a cramped, no-way-in-hell-to-socially-distance kitchen. You touch shared bathroom sinks, check presenters and bottles of ketchup.

But in the ongoing pandemic era, the run-of-the-mill life of a restaurant feels bizarrely fraught, and the health of the industry itself in jeopardy. Locally, Piccolo, Drifters Wife, Uncle Andy’s and Woodhull Public House, to name a few, have permanently closed.

So what do front-of-the-house staffers hope for?

“In an ideal world, I’d like everything to go back to normal,” McIntyre said. “But that’s not going to happen for a really long time. I just wish everybody would be a little nicer. I didn’t make the rules. We’re just trying to follow the rules so we can be open. To put it bluntly, I don’t want to put up with their crap.”

Genthner echoed that comment in small part. “I’m sure you’ve heard other people say that ‘I would hope things would go back to some sort of normalcy.’ Is it ever going to be normal again? I don’t know. I never in a million years thought my job might be in jeopardy. I can only hope and pray that Moody’s doesn’t go under. They’ve been open since 1927. They’ve seen the Great Depression. They’ve gone through wars. And it’s sad to see that a virus would potentially take it down.”

Forget 1927. Rancourt is taking the short view: “We are taking it a day at a time,” she said, “like everyone else right now.”

Restaurant critic Andrew Ross contributed to this story.

Joshua Chaisson gathers drinks to bring to a table at the Porthole Restaurant in late July. Chaisson says that he sanitizes his hands about once a minute during his shift and he also tries to compartmentalize his tasks between what he can do with clean hands and what he can do with dirty hands. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer


Waitresses get ranked before each shift

For a restaurant that bases a substantial part of its whole concept on "ogling," you may not be surprised to learn that the objectification of women at Twin Peaks is fairly commonplace what's unusual, however, is how brazen the company is about evaluating staff members strictly on appearance, often seemingly in violation of the law.

Servers are given gym memberships, tanning salon packages, and appointments at nail salons, and provided diet, exercise, makeup, and hairstyling tips to help achieve that "NFL Cheerleader" aesthetic. Before each shift, staff members are evaluated on appearance and given a ranking, with servers who earn higher marks given more profitable sections of the restaurant and more lucrative tables for service, ensuring more customers and potentially higher tips.

How does the restaurant get away with this kind of institutionalized sexual harassment, that creates a toxic work environment and degrades and offends many of its waitresses? Twin Peaks (and similar restaurants) operate under a legal loophole, called a "bona fide occupational qualification," which allows them to ignore little things like the American Civil Rights Act of 1964 and freely discriminate on things like age, gender, and appearance, as long as it's "reasonably necessary" for the operation of their business. Staff at many "breastaurants" are hired not as servers, bartenders, or hosts, but as "actors or performers," and as such can have subjective standards of appearance, weight, makeup, hairstyle, breast size, body fat percentage, and uniform written into their hiring agreements.


Diners are returning, but restaurant staffers aren’t

Elijah Decious John Steppe

With COVID-19 vaccinations and warmer weather showing promise for bringing restaurants back to pre-pandemic levels, owners and managers trying to prepare for increased business are facing a drastic shortage of job applicants.

As diners find more confidence to go back out to eat, a dwindling pool of both front-of-house and back-of-house employees could impact the path back to the normalcy that customers may be expecting.

“In the old days, we’d get 30, 50, 75 applications for a job,” said Steve Shriver, co-owner of Brewhemia, a breakfast and lunch cafe in downtown Cedar Rapids. “Now, we’re getting one or two if we’re lucky. It really makes it hard to make a good hire.”

And though back-of-house positions for workers like line cooks were tough to fill even before the pandemic, the shift posed by the pandemic has also sharply affected front-of-house hiring for servers, hosts, bussers and bartenders.

“For front of house, it hit all at once,” Shriver said.

Though Brewhemia has found the staff it needs to tread water for now, the restaurant anticipates future challenges as it sees sales volume increasing. The cafe currently is at about 75 percent of its pre-pandemic staffing and sales levels. Though it wants to expand, it’s being cautious after emerging from a calamitous time in the service industry.

“Once you go through catastrophic events, you’re a lot less bullish on making business moves,” Shriver said.

Some new restaurants, like Ramen Belly in Iowa City’s Peninsula Neighborhood, have stabilized hiring enough to get off the ground by tapping into new employee sources.

“In the beginning, it was extremely tough,” said co-owner John Lieu. “It didn’t used to be that way.”

The former owner of Iowa City’s Takanami, which first opened nearly 20 years ago, said his new venture had to hire high school students — something the restaurateur had never done before. Though his younger hires have been good employees, he said, they come with some caveats like being able to work only limited hours during the school year and being unable to serve alcohol.

“This is the first time I’ve had to hire students under 18. Back then, I’d have stacks of applicants,” Lieu said. “You could pick and choose. Now, it’s whoever comes through the door. Hopefully they’re a good person and willing to work hard.”

With staff levels at Ramen Belly sufficient for now, he sees the need increasing in the near future if business does well as he anticipates. Brewhemia expects to be at pre-pandemic sales levels by the end of the summer.

Jessica Dunker, president and chief executive officer of the Iowa Restaurant Association, said restaurant owners have told her the need for workers is the worst it has ever been.

“Right when we’re on the cusp of being able to fight back from what is arguably the single-most devastating thing that has ever happened in our industry, now we don’t have the people to come in at exactly the time we need them,” Dunker said.

The lack of available workers is especially problematic with outdoor dining resuming as the weather warms.

Danny Standley, managing partner at Big Grove Brewery and Taproom in Iowa City, said the restaurant usually hires an additional 15 to 25 employees between front-of-house and back-of-house positions in the warmer months.

“We’re getting busier, but we’re not quite getting enough people to help out with that” higher level, Standley said.

Dunker attributed some of the worker shortage to the combination of lack of child care and additional unemployment benefits available during the pandemic.

“Maybe their kids aren’t fully in school, and they can still get that enhanced unemployment,” Dunker said. “Until life settles down for their families, there are those situations with a lot of working moms in our industry.”

Some restaurant employees who were let go or faced reduced hours at the start of the pandemic since have moved on to work in other industries that aren’t so financially vulnerable at the “tip of the spear,” Dunker said.

“If all of a sudden you are the industry that is on the front line of being closed in case of a public health emergency or a pandemic and you are supporting a family and there’s the opportunity to work in another industry, you might take it,” Dunker said.

While many other industries are nearing pre-pandemic levels of employment, the leisure and hospitality sector, which includes restaurants, hotels and event planning, still is seeing substantially lower employment.

In March 2020, Iowa had about 141,400 people employed in leisure and hospitality, according to seasonally adjusted data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. This March, Iowa had about 121,800 people employed in the sector.

It has forced many restaurants to get creative about how to serve customers with fewer people.

At Big Grove, employees have been taking on tasks that usually would be outside their purview, Standley said as he was delivering baked goods to the Solon location on a Thursday afternoon.

“I normally would not be the one doing this,” he said.

He was planning on spending the rest of the afternoon calling potential applicants, a task usually for the chef de cuisine — but the chef needed to be in the kitchen.

Standley said Big Grove’s leadership team is reiterating to staff members to take breaks and be “very conscious” of their hours to avoid burnout.

“If they’re not taking care of themselves, then they won’t be able to take care of their co-workers and our guests,” Standley said.

Other leaders in the industry are hopeful that quality tipping, which saw a marked increase during the pandemic when diners expressed more appreciation for those working in service positions, continues.

“One thing crucial to sustaining and bringing back employees is tips,” Shriver said.

Many quick-service or fast food restaurants, Dunker said, have kept their dining rooms closed while operating with a reduced workforce. “It has nothing to do with COVID,” Dunker said. “It has to do with you don’t have the people to do a drive-through and a dining room, so they just stick to that drive-through.”

Dunker has also heard of one restaurant group having “rolling blackouts” where different restaurant locations are closed on different days.

On certain days, Ramen Belly had to resort to limiting the number of orders it accepted, with cooks overwhelmed by the number of tickets. Some orders at the fast-casual restaurant took about 45 minutes to prepare when that happened. Other times, Lieu said understaffing meant that both owners came in for hours of food prep, only to still run out of food by the end of the night.

Restaurants like theirs, either wanting to expand to serve another meal or expand capacity with patio seating, are forced to wait until more help arrives.

Other restaurants have tried to lure help in a more straightforward way: pay increases. Brewhemia has offered 25 percent more than its standard wage and still sees little movement for its back-of-house positions. Ramen Belly said servers could potentially make $18 per hour after tips, and chefs or cooks could make over $20 per hour. Lieu heard of other businesses offering signing bonuses.

“I wouldn’t have made that kind of money when I was their age,” Lieu chuckled.

The need to hire more employees is a good sign for business, some restaurant owners say. But until that area of the industry recovers, restaurants are forced to work with what and who they have.

“I think the only thing that’s going to heal the current challenges is time, ” Shriver said.


Step 6. Register Your Business With the State

A restaurant that will operate as an LLC or a C Corporation must file registration paperwork with the state.

The state might require other filings or reports, as well, such as an initial report.

An attorney can assist restauranteurs in completing and filing their business formation paperwork. Businesses that want to reduce their legal fees can use a business document filing service, like CorpNet, to ensure their business registration filings are handled accurately and cost-effectively in any of the 50 states.


They were slow to update the food

Remember when people used to defend their choice to go to Hooters? It wasn't about the girls, they would say, it was for the food. They had good food, right? You've probably heard people singing the praises of their wings, and while that might have gotten them by in the 1980s and '90s, we have higher expectations now.

When Hooters got their 30th-anniversary overhaul, USA Today reported they were finally giving their menu an update, too. It wasn't until then that they brought in a new chef with some actual fine dining experience, and he wasn't impressed with how they had been doing things. Chef Gregg Brickman told one reporter that when he arrived, the most important tool in a Hooters' kitchen was "a scissors — to open a bag." Yikes.

Those wings? Frozen. The burgers? Frozen. You get the idea. In an era of social media and celebrity chefs, people just want to get more than that for their hard-earned dollars, and Hooters spent far too long coasting on the idea that people were really actually going there just for the food. Honest.


Haute cuisine: Touchmark hires top chef talent to revamp its dining program for residents

Special occasions are often celebrated with a fancy meal. Perhaps reservations are made at a favorite steakhouse for a birthday or a seafood restaurant for an anniversary.

Imagine if your next date night at one of Spokane’s top restaurants is in a private dining hall and only available if you know one of its 300 members. Sounds exclusive, right?

Assisted-living community Touchmark on South Hill is that private dining hall. Over the past year, Touchmark’s management team has decided to reinvent its culinary program in a big way.

Gone are the days of buffet-style cafeterias and cellophane-wrapped sandwiches. Touchmark has hired some of the Northwest’s top chef talent and curated an extensive and continually updated menu.

The reimagined program is under the direction of chef Micah Henderling. A Navy veteran who worked in the nursing field until 2014, Henderling decided to follow her passion for cooking and baking and became the corporate chef for Microsoft in Redmond.

After moving to Spokane, Henderling combined her catering, restaurant and nursing background by joining the Touchmark team.

“The goal is to create the same experience you’d get if you were in a fine-dining restaurant,” Henderling said. “With that comes an entire team of servers, line cooks and chefs.”

One of those chefs is Chong Vang, whose resume includes Eyvind and Inland Pacific Kitchen. Vong’s knowledge of food and artistic plating has kept him at the top of the heap in a city full of accomplished chefs.

His beet puree shrimp and grits at Touchmark is a delicious combination – it would be difficult to find a comparable dish in a local restaurant.

Henderling also brought in chef Bethany Meyer, who, after working for years with James Beard-nominated chef Adam Hegsted, helped him open Incrediburger & Eggs.

Meyer’s eggs Benedict and ground duck sliders with pickled vegetables show off her strong suits and have become Touchmark favorites.

“What makes this different from a restaurant is we are serving the same customers every day,” Henderling said.

Atmosphere matters, too. For a recent themed menu for Mardi Gras, Touchmark was decked out in beads and red and purple streamers, and a jazz band provided entertainment alongside an authentic Cajun seafood boil.

“We throw events every chance we get. Whenever there is a special occasion, we get to theme an entire night around it,” Henderling said. “For Valentine’s Day, we transformed the dining hall and surprised the residents with a fine-dining candlelight dinner.”

One of those in attendance at the Valentine’s Day dinner was Candace Rouse, who has been a Touchmark resident for two years. She is a retired nurse and said some days she spends as much time playing doctor for her friends as she does relaxing.

“I love the variety of food,” Rouse said. “Before I came here, it was hard cooking for one. There were always so many leftovers.” Her favorite restaurant is Clinkerdagger but thinks the food, music and atmosphere at Touchmark can give the Spokane institution a run for its money.

Ron Schoenberger, a retired insurance broker, has lived at Touchmark for four years. He raved about the breakfast and how kind the servers are.

“They know breakfast is my favorite meal, and I love the eggs Benedict,” Schoenberger said. In his four years at Touchmark, the Eastern Washington University graduate has noticed the changes at the assisted-living facility.

Schoenberger enjoys dining at Dockside Restaurant in Coeur d’Alene Resort but now is just as excited to see what is the nightly special at Touchmark.

While putting the finishing touches on a giant, layered chocolate ganache cake, Henderling said she doesn’t know if she’ll ever return to a restaurant setting. She is enjoying serving the residents turned repeat customers at Touchmark.

“It challenges us to create new nightly menus that not only give the residents variety, but also are still something that they find comfortable and familiar,” she said.

Kris Kilduff can be reached at [email protected]

Local journalism is essential.

Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.


Despite fraud concerns, MN won’t limit free summer meals for kids

Under pressure from anti-hunger advocates, the Minnesota Department of Education has reversed course on who can serve free meals to kids this summer.

In a normal year, schools sign up to provide free meals to children during the summer, and community nonprofits apply to offer meals in neighborhoods that aren’t being served by a school. The federal government reimburses schools and other providers for those meals.

Because of disruptions related to the coronavirus pandemic, the U.S. Department of Agriculture since March 2020 has allowed community groups to serve meals during the school year, as well. They’ve also temporarily lifted rules that restrict free meal service to only lower-income neighborhoods.

Although those waivers are good through Sept. 30, the Minnesota Department of Education was planning a return to normal once this school year ends. They were going to first authorize schools to serve summer meals, based on the usual economic criteria, and then allow a limited number of nonprofits to step up in neighborhoods that aren’t being fed.

Assistant Commissioner Daron Korte said Friday that the department wanted to “ensure the integrity of the program.”

There are a lot of nonprofits reporting large numbers of meals served, he said, which has created a fraud risk. During a pandemic, the department lacks “the ability as an organization to verify all of those meal claims,” he said.

Korte provided data showing that in January, the most recent month for which claims are closed, 1,110 community-based sites across Minnesota asked for $14.5 million in meal reimbursements.

Anti-hunger advocates worked behind the scenes to change the department’s decision, concerned that more children will go hungry this summer with fewer organizations providing meals.

The Food Research and Action Center said in an email to Rep. Ilhan Omar’s office that Minnesota was the only state they were aware of that was going to limit summer meals in that way.

Omar did not take a position on the issue, a spokesman said.

Sen. Tina Smith’s staff met with the department last week to discuss meal service, but staff said they did not weigh in on whether nonprofits should serve meals this summer.

The Department of Education informed advocates on Monday that it will not restrict summer meal service, after all.

“We will keep the statewide area eligibility waiver in place for this summer, as it has been throughout the pandemic. This will allow the existing sites to continue operating under the waiver for this summer,” spokeswoman Ashleigh Norris told the Pioneer Press.

LARGEST PROVIDERS

In January, seven of the 1,110 community-based sites submitted claims for over $250,000 in meal reimbursements: