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October 20, 2020
Indoor Dining In SF Is Back. What Do The City’s Restaurant Workers Think?
With the return of indoor dining, San Francisco servers, bartenders, and owners share their experiences with reopening - and their biggest concerns.
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We’ve all had to make tough decisions about eating and drinking in restaurants as San Francisco has navigated reopening. Dine al fresco on a socially-distanced parklet or patio, or stick with takeout for now? How do we best (and safely) support our favorite restaurants, many of which still struggle to keep the lights on, or have closed permanently? And last month, we were given a new option to consider - indoor dining at a reduced 25% capacity - which, as of November 3, is increasing to 50 percent.

Meanwhile, though, restaurant workers are wrestling with bigger questions: return to work despite rising COVID cases nationwide (the Bay Area’s infection rates are actually declining), or risk being unable to pay rent or live in one of the most expensive cities in the country? It’s imperative we don’t lose sight of the servers, bussers, bartenders, line cooks, dishwashers, and undocumented workers who are among the most vulnerable “essential workforce.”

We want to make these voices, often left out of the restaurant reopening stories, heard. Over phone calls and emails, we asked 10 restaurant workers about their experiences - from the shelter-in-place orders in March to today, and how they feel about working in restaurants during such an uncertain time, especially now that diners are allowed inside.

All interviews are kept anonymous, and have been edited for length and clarity. Photos do not reflect the people or restaurants mentioned.

Bartender, 10 years in the industry

Working at multiple bars that are open for takeout, indoor and outdoor dining.

“I’ve had a ton of high highs and low lows. At first, there was a lot of mutual aid happening in the restaurant and bar world. I used to work at five bars and almost everyone had a GoFundMe. There were also many programs to feed industry folks for free. With those early checks, unemployment, and money from the CARES Act, I felt safe for a while. But six months in, the CARES Act money is gone, and I had to go back to work. I don’t want to be there, but I have no choice. And in this new COVID era, everyone at my bar now has to host, serve, and bartend. We’ve also doubled the amount of bodies it takes to run the bar efficiently and follow new city guidelines - but the sales are lower, and in turn, the tips are lower.

“I disagree with indoor dining starting again - it seems like a slap in the face to someone like me who can’t work from home. The decision to take dining indoors will benefit the businesses and maybe help them survive the winter. I support that. But as a bartender, opening indoors doesn’t seem like a decision made for my personal benefit even though it might ensure that I have a job if and when we come out of this.”

Server, in the industry for 8 years

Furloughed since March.

“San Francisco reopening makes me feel disposable, like a one-time use utensil. It’s gambling with my life. It’s about money, and other people’s conveniences first. Am I going to put myself at risk just to make a living? I could contract the virus, if some stupid idiot comes into the restaurant without a mask, or is sick. And some of us, like me, don’t have health insurance right now. And if you don’t have the privilege to go to the hospital because you get sick, then you’re sh*t out of luck. During the summer, I heard you were more likely to get coronavirus from eating outside at restaurants. So that was even more, “I’m not going back to work and putting myself at risk.”

“I’m being displaced out of the city and moving. In the long term, it’s not sustainable to work for peanuts and then pay so much in rent*. As much as the hospitality industry was enough to help me survive one of the most expensive cities in the world, it hasn’t been as hospitable to the ones whose safety nets have been destroyed. San Francisco has been my home for the past 13 years. I don’t want to leave. Even the tech workers are leaving in droves. But tech workers get to move out of the city and pay less rent elsewhere while they work through the pandemic. They have an advantage over everyone that has to remain on the frontlines.”

*Despite “plummeting rents” in San Francisco, the median price of a one-bedroom apartment in September was $2,380, according to Zumper.

Server & Bartender, in the industry for 9 years

Furloughed since March. Their restaurant is open for takeout only.

“My friends are going back to work at restaurants, but I’m not ready. My restaurant hasn’t even asked me back, and they’re probably not going to reopen this year. Even if they did, it’s too risky. I freaked out a little when I drove past the Marina and Russian Hill, and saw people were out out, especially on the weekends. It just looks overcrowded at some restaurants, like COVID never happened. But restaurants are trying to survive.

“I’m also a single mom with a young son who just started school. He has Zoom classes every day. There’s a lot of computer stuff, and he needs more attention and focus. It’s a lot. And I have no help, so I have no choice but to stay home. Even if schools were to reopen next month, I’m not even sure I’d want my son to go. And it’s not just me. If you have kids, parents, or elderly at home, it’s too risky to go back to work. And we basically need all this support from the government. I’ve looked at work from home jobs outside of the restaurant industry, but there are a lot of scams going on. I go to a lot of interviews - I have a customer service background - but I’m not sure which jobs are legit. It’s also hard to find work from home jobs that fit my schedule.”

Bartender, in the industry for 5 years

Currently working at a restaurant that’s open for takeout and outdoor dining.

“I am lucky to have kept working through most of the pandemic. And being around to facilitate takeout and deliveries throughout the shut down made for an easier transition into outdoor and eventually indoor dining. The key to my restaurant’s success in the reopening process has been clear and open communication. Owners and management have been great about setting up team meetings, where everyone’s concerns are heard, and suggestions are given on the safest, most efficient way to adjust.

“Most of my concern right now revolves around the customer. I find myself walking a fine line between customer service and playground monitor. Having to constantly remind people of the rules of dining out, or having to explain, over and over, the reasoning behind a certain rule or guideline is beyond exhausting. The public wants to return to normal, and these reopenings are the first taste of that in SF, but customers really need to take cues from their servers. Most servers have researched to no end how to safely work in this industry during a pandemic, so diners need to be patient, and listen when they’re reminded of the rules, because for servers right now, it’s not just a job, it’s a matter of our personal health and safety.”

Server, in the industry for 8 years

Currently working at a small restaurant that’s open for takeout, indoor, and outdoor dining.

“I’m fortunate to have had positive experiences. That’s why I keep getting up. When the COVID shutdown happened in March, I embraced the break. I was really enjoying going to bed a little early, and enjoying my house, even though it sucked that the shutdown was the reason for it. I started at my restaurant again in June, with outdoor dining. I was always ready to go back, and wasn’t fearful because where I work they take precautions. They’re super safe, and have hand sanitizers, gloves, masks. People have also been really generous and friendly. And I like that everything is more contactless, and that we’re more hands-off in order to make diners comfortable and give them their space.

“But people are going to want to sit inside more as it gets cold. And we have to have proper ventilation, so the doors and windows will need to be open. I hope people understand that it’s not personal - these are the rules we have to abide by so we can continue to run the business. I hope people are aware that we’re all working really, really, really hard.”

Bartender, in the industry for 7 years

Recently returned to work at their bar, which has an outdoor patio and cocktails to-go.

“Indoor feels like a guinea pig lab rat moment. We live in San Francisco, there’s no damn snow. We’re hardly having rain. There is no need to go indoors. I haven’t been back to work for very long, and surprisingly, I feel pretty good about it. But the wild card is people getting drunk. People don’t know how to drink. And if people don’t know how to drink, how are they going to act right, like keep a mask on.

“Most of my concerns have to do with the health of everyone, workers, and diners. Something to think about is how we’re compensating service workers, especially since they’re making less money and putting their lives on the line. How are we breaking down tips? These structures need to be reexamined. Actually, the whole industry’s business model needs to be examined. It’s bad if a restaurant closes because of COVID, but some of these restaurants were already on the brink of closing. We need to go back to basics - more straightforward, smaller menus. How can we make our dining experiences more sustainable, fruitful, and safer, especially since this virus isn’t easing up any time soon.”

Server, in the industry for 24 years

Works at a restaurant that’s open for outdoor dining and takeout.

“What’s frustrating is the service industry is turning us into police. People are constantly approaching me without a mask, but don’t like to be told what to do. And in this industry, servers are submissive; It’s about making sure diners are happy. So by telling them to wear their masks, you’re essentially making them unhappy - and implying that they could make me sick. That implication is taken as an insult. Diners also complain when their food takes too long, and are so mean if their table is even five minutes late. But we can’t provide the service we did before COVID because of new reopening guidelines, and this bothers people. You see it reflected in your tips. I don’t see 20% a lot, more like 14% or 15% - and service workers deserve that 20% right now.

“The whole situation is multilayered. It almost feels like you’re being held hostage to the situation: The economy is going into a depression. Restaurants are shutting down everywhere, and we don’t want that to be us. There aren’t any jobs. You fear getting sick, and accidentally giving it to, like, the mailman who opens your mailbox. You don’t want to take these risks, but you don’t have much choice.”

Server & Manager, in the industry for 18 years

Furloughed since March from a restaurant currently offering takeout only.

“I dealt with depression prior to COVID, and working in restaurants has always been my saving grace. I miss the restaurant setting - even the sound of the annoying ticket printer - and the energy that comes with being around 200 strangers a night. To have all that taken away is a bummer. Even though I’m comfortable in my house, this crap is lonely.

“People are going out to bars and restaurants right now, and thinking, ‘Oh the service industry isn’t in financial turmoil anymore,’ because we’re going back to ’the new normal.’ That’s what I have trouble with. More and more people want to go back to normal, but we can’t lose sight of the fact that COVID is still big. Having a social life for mental health is important - I out of all people know that. I just hope that before people go out to a restaurant, they think about it before going. Maybe everyone needs to take a step back before we get too comfortable.”

Owner & Operator, in the industry for 33 years

Only one of their several restaurants is currently open for takeout and outdoor dining.

“I’m not down with indoor dining. If I brought my family to a restaurant and we sat down to eat, and then someone at a table six feet away from us started choking on a chicken wing - and coughing, coughing, coughing, I would freak the f**k out and say, ‘What the hell am I doing here? I could’ve eaten outside where it’s a little bit safer.’ I’m not trying to pack a bunch of people inside at my restaurant, and put my employees, myself, or my family at risk. I don’t think it’s smart. My number one concern is being reopened - we’re not making any money right now - and losing my entire income, and my livelihood. But I don’t want people inside.”

“We try to make sure everybody gets tested as often as they can, which isn’t always the easiest thing to do for people. We make sure that if you’re not feeling well, you don’t come in. If someone in your house isn’t feeling well, don’t come in. We want to keep everybody safe. Plus, the business would get shut down for two weeks if somebody got sick. So everybody has to make sure they’re not out risking it. But what do my employees do when they go home at night? I don’t know.”

Server, in the industry for 10 years

Furloughed in March, brought back after the restaurant received the PPP loan, furloughed again, and is now leaving the industry entirely.

“I think outdoor is a good idea, but indoor dining I just don’t get. It seems like it would heighten the rates of transmission. I also get the amount of pressure right now is crazy, and business is such a priority. But indoor feels reckless.

“I was brought back to my restaurant and furloughed several times because of the PPP loan. Everyone felt like they had to spend the money fast because you had to use it in a certain amount of time for it to be forgiven. It was chaotic and confusing. And for several months being a server felt obsolete. Being in the restaurant industry now feels 10 times more insecure than it already was - it’s becoming less and less of a stable industry. It doesn’t feel like there’s a future in it. I’m getting into a totally new line of work right now. I’ve worked in food service in various capacities for ten years, so switching is weird and scary. But I’m relieved to be out of the industry.”

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