December 29, 2020
Reporting & Photography Steve Mellon
As a server at the high-end Downtown steakhouse Morton’s, Richard Gegick was paid just $2.83 an hour, yet he took home good money because of the healthy tips on meals sometimes costing a few hundred bucks. So he stayed.
Mr. Gegick started at Morton’s in 2007. He had just graduated with an English degree from the University of Pittsburgh, and he continued to serve steaks after earning a master’s degree from Chatham University.
“I was making more money than all of my contemporaries at the time,” said Mr. Gegick, 36.
But there was a rub — what he calls the “power imbalance” of working mainly for tips. He felt that imbalance more keenly during the pandemic, calling it “a really harrowing experience.” This was especially true when customers refused to wear masks or follow other restrictions put in place to slow the growth of COVID-19.
“I can’t be 6 feet away from you while I’m waiting on you.”
“I will say the management team did the best job they could at enforcing that stuff,” he said. “But at the same time, conversations come up between a waiter and their guests at the table, where people just don’t feel like following the rules. And you have to judge whether you want to make a big deal out of it or not. You are in the unfortunate situation of possibly risking your health to secure a tip.
“Most of our guests were pretty good about it. But after a couple of times a day when you have to remind people about the rules, or when they react poorly, or they want to give a running commentary on those rules, it gets a little exhausting.”
Customers sometimes challenged Mr. Gegick, asking, “You’re not really afraid of this, are you?” Or, “Don’t you think these rules are kind of stupid?”
“And you just have to shrug your shoulders and go, ‘I don’t know.’” he said.
The tipping point occurred on a busy night just before Halloween. At one point Mr. Gegick was serving five tables at once. The kitchen got backed up, increasing the time customers had to wait for their food.
“A couple pulled me aside and asked me, ‘Is our food coming up soon?’ I looked at them and I said, ‘I sure hope so.’ And then I walked away because I stopped caring.
“I don’t think it was tone deaf of them. People come in, they pay money, they expect service. The problem is that I stopped thinking that my service was important in the scheme of a pandemic. And so I was unable psychologically to wrap my head around the importance of work.”
Shortly afterward, he gave his boss two weeks’ notice.
“I’m doing freelance marketing content right now,” he said.
A writer, Mr. Gegick had his first poetry manuscript published in 2019. The poetry is mostly focused on his experiences in the restaurant industry.
Some restrictions Gov. Tom Wolf has imposed upon restaurants further expose the power imbalance because they’re “really meant solely to protect the customers and not the workers,” Mr. Gegick said.
“I feel like that’s been an under-reported aspect of all this. Six feet between tables is great if you’re going to sit down and eat dinner. But I can’t be 6 feet away from you while I’m waiting on you. If I’m waiting on 20 people at the same time, whether they’re at the same table or at different tables, and they’re not wearing masks, well, then my risks are still there. There’s no risk reduction.”
And that risk falls onto workers who have little or no income protection if they become ill.
“One of the biggest stressors is the idea that if, in dealing with the public, I got sick, or I tested positive for COVID-19, I’ll be at least two weeks without pay.”
He would like to see a change in the way government decides which mitigation efforts to impose.
“I think restaurant workers and restaurant-worker advocacy groups should have a seat at the table when the government is forming these regulations. I think we can have a more sustainable approach to virus mitigation if federal, state and local governments included workers in these discussions,” he said.
One day in East Liberty several years ago, Caleb Cornell walked beneath a weathered neon sign that read “Kelly’s Bar and Lounge” and entered a dimly lit place with an ancient back bar. No televisions. No blaring music. A person could have a conversation here. It was, he said, “kind of surly.” He loved it.
Mr. Cornell had worked as a line cook, a busser, and a server before finding his niche as a bartender. He longed to work at Kelly’s and lobbied for a job. He was hired in 2013.
Six years later he made a casual comment to the owner. If you ever want to sell this place, I’d be interested. Within months he once again stood behind Kelly’s original Formica bar top, only now he had a new sense of mission as the joint’s owner.
That was in October 2019, and for nearly five months, business was great. Then came the pandemic and restrictions limiting restaurants to takeout-only dining. Mr. Cornell closed Kelly’s — he couldn’t make money on food sales alone.
“It was a level of dread that I’ve never experienced in my life.”
“It was a level of dread that I've never experienced in my life — just thinking about what my career had finally culminated into, and that it could so quickly be taken away,” he said. “The idea of losing everything so rapidly — it was emotionally devastating. I tried keeping myself positive. I'm very lucky to have the staff that I do. Very hard-working, dedicated and loyal people. So I just tried to cloak my own concern and fear, even to myself.
“I was so accustomed to working all the time and always having an itinerary, something to do. After a few weeks of just being at home and watching TV, watching these numbers just continue to rise and rise and rise … it was frightening, it still is frightening. Just the uncertainty of it all.”
Mr. Cornell, 38, kept in touch with his staff and “did everything I could to make sure that everyone's unemployment benefits came through because a couple of people were having a lot of trouble getting them initially,” he said. “I tried to reassure everybody that we weren't in danger of closing permanently.“
In May, Kelly’s offered mixed drinks for takeout after Pennsylvania relaxed some of its alcohol restrictions. Weeks later, the state allowed eating and drinking establishments to reopen — with restrictions. Gov. Tom Wolf ordered another restaurant shutdown a few weeks ago. This one, part of an effort to contain a recent COVID surge, is scheduled to lift Jan. 4.
Mr. Cornell finds hope in recent news reports about vaccines. Perhaps life will begin a return to normalcy by late spring or early summer, he said.
“Even with the doom and gloom scenarios, with places closing left and right, I have no choice but to stay as positive as I can and try to be optimistic that this will pass at some point. We're all willing to buckle down and do what needs to be done if the end result is what we need.
“We’re just trying to stay busy enough to carry on. This bar has been here since 1947. Even though we're just a simple small bar, this place is iconic, especially for the East Liberty neighborhood. That's one of the reasons why I'm so determined to stick this out at whatever personal loss I may incur.
“The loss of Kelly's to this neighborhood would be really devastating. We have customers that come in and say they met their spouses here 35 years ago. This is where they had their first date. This place has survived everything, every economic development or hardship that the city or neighborhood has gone through over the generations. This bar has always been maintained. I'm not gonna let anything take that away.”
Tables sat empty the night of March 15 at Spoon, the acclaimed East Liberty restaurant. The state’s ban on dine-in service would take effect the next day, and few people ventured out for one last fine-dining experience before the shutdown. Most of the staff had been sent home early. Meghan Washington, lead bartender, began the ritual of closing for the night.
“I was resetting tables in the dining room and the manager said, ‘Stop that and sit down, nobody will be here,” recalled Ms. Washington. “I said, ‘I don’t know what else to do right now, so I’m going to finish the job.’”
So began a stressful and often devastating time for Ms. Washington and the city’s restaurant industry. Spoon announced in July that it was closing for good, making it one of several restaurants shuttered since the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis. And Ms. Washington? She’s found work, but it hasn’t been easy in a battered economy. She’s had five jobs this year.
“All my friends are in the service industry,” she said. “We’re all going through the same uncertainty and fear. I haven’t had a full-time schedule since the week before the pandemic. Thank God I have a therapist.”
“We’re all going through the same uncertainty and fear.”
Restaurant workers have always occupied a precarious position in the economy, she said. Pay can be good but erratic. She often had no job-based health care and few protections.
“Because of the physical nature of the job, if you get sick, then your job is done,” she said. “You get cancer or you break a bone, you’re done.”
COVID-19 multiplied the normal stress “to the umpteenth degree. The teetering precipice we all stand on is even more precarious.”
Ms. Washington, 41, started in the industry at age 22. She loved the work: “It was so much fun. I was never bored. I could still go to school. I went to school until I was 28 and never left the service industry.”
Now she works mostly at high-end restaurants, where she takes special pride in mixing drinks. “I went to art school,” she said, “and bartending is a creative outlet. I get into the way a drink looks as well as how it tastes. When you finish making a drink and have it garnished, you get this sense that you're absolutely happy with what you’ve produced. I get that sense of accomplishment several times a night.”
Before the pandemic, she could make up to $500 in tips on a given shift, but that amount was never guaranteed. On other nights she may garner only $100 in tips, and some weeks she may work only three days. Her take-home pay must cover rent, groceries, clothing and other necessary items like work shoes, which can cost as much as several hundred dollars. For years she had no dental coverage.
“I was 33 by the time I was able to get insurance through an employer,” she said. “When I first went back to the dentist, I had to return every month or so because I hadn’t been in so long and needed so much work.”
Still, Ms. Washington feels she’s better off than many -- a realization borne of experience. Years ago she worked at family restaurants, where people spend less money on dinners than at places like Spoon, meaning smaller tips per table.
“I think about what it’s like for a single mother at IHOP or Eat ‘n Park, making $2.80 an hour and the tips are $5 per table,” she said. “It’s the same work but you’re getting paid less.”
Ms. Washington said that lately she’s become more outspoken about the government’s handling of the pandemic’s economic fallout, and the experiences of those struggling to survive. She was angered to see Paycheck Protection Loans go to those she felt didn’t need the money.
“I was incensed when I saw that some major corporations got PPP loans. I actually tweeted, ‘Kanye West got a $3 million PPP loan to make ugly shoes and my boss lost his business?’
“I’ve become more militant in my political stance in the way people are treated,” she added. “This pandemic has brought a lot of society’s ills to the foreground. There are so many people who get pushed aside and ignored. It doesn't matter, we’re just trash.
“ People who clean houses, wrap your packages, or pull stuff off a shelf -- it doesn't matter if we have families or friends. But we do. We have the same lives as anyone else on this planet. Just because we're not millionaires doesn't mean our lives are expendable.”
One day last spring Heather Kubas received a text from a customer she’d gotten to know while working as a bartender at Smallman Galley in the Strip. While battling a difficult illness, the customer became a regular visitor to the restaurant’s bar, and had once remarked to her, “You’re always so welcoming.” She wanted to know how Ms. Kubas was doing.
Not so well, it turned out. The restaurant business, which employed Ms. Kubas and most of her friends, was getting hammered in the age of COVID-19. She was out of work.
“It was a crazy moment,” she said. “People weren’t getting unemployment and we didn’t know what was going to happen, whether we’d even be able to pay rent. It was really stressful.”
The woman offered to help Ms. Kubas by taking care of her car payment for one month.
“I was humbled and grateful,” said Ms. Kubas, 37. “She came through at a very critical time.”
“Just be gracious, just be patient.”
Other customers reached out, too — some offered financial assistance in the form of “tips,” and others simply asked, “How are you?”
It was a sweet manifestation of the closeness and sense of community that binds Ms. Kubas to the business. Inspired by her grandmother “Bubka,” who worked as a banquet server, Ms. Kubas entered the restaurant industry at age 15.
“As a kid, I remember thinking in my head I wanted to be a server,” she said. “I was very shy and anxious as a teenager. Being in the restaurant industry pulled me out of my shell. It forced me to talk to people, to connect with people. At first, it was terrifying. I just kept doing it until I wasn't scared anymore.
“It also gave me a large community of friends. I wouldn’t trade that for anything. The majority of my friendship base is from the restaurant business. It was my first direct exposure to the queer community. I identify as queer. It was an exposure to so many different lifestyles. It normalized that for me. It helped.”
But a lot has changed since mid-March. First came restrictions aimed at slowing the spread of COVID-19. Then, as the weather warmed and summer neared, Gov. Tom Wolf eased those restrictions. Returning customers were “extremely gracious,” Ms. Kubas said.
“They were just coming out after being locked down, and people were thanking us all the time for just being out. Then you watched it, as the infection numbers started to rise, that just rapidly fell off. The people that were coming out were the people that didn’t necessarily care. It was extremely hard. We get into this because of hospitality, to be warm and helpful. I've had some of the hardest days of my entire career during the pandemic, fighting people over mask wearing. It was a daily affair.”
Managers at two restaurants where she most recently worked — The Abbey in Lawrenceville and the Speckled Egg, Downtown — “were fantastic, and they would handle these guests, but it was demoralizing.
“To push down all of your anger and fear and anxiety just to get through your shift … one good thing about masks is that people can’t see your face. Having to shove all that down and just be as nice as you can be, that was hard.
“When I got laid off, I honestly was relieved. I was having headaches and stomachaches before my shift. I hope that none of us have to go through that again. When this is all said and done and we’re on the other side of this, we’ll get people that are super gracious again. It will get better, I do have faith in that. I want people to understand, just be gracious, just be patient.”
Early June brought warm weather and a sense of relief to Pittsburgh-area restaurant owners like Fernando Espejel. Gov. Tom Wolf said Pennsylvania had “flattened the curve,” allowing Allegheny and a host of other counties to enter the less restrictive “green phase.”
Once again, Mr. Espejel could open the doors of his small restaurant, Brassero Grill in Braddock, and allow customers to sit down and dine on his quesadillas, tacos, burritos and other Mexican fare. He was thrilled.
“We missed our customers and having people in here,” Mr. Espejel said. “We were so excited.”
Soon, though, he was forced to make a decision that “broke our hearts.”
From the start, too many maskless people entered his restaurant, he said. “And they were being mean. They felt entitled because they were paying to get service, and they felt they could do whatever they wanted. But it's our duty to tell them, ‘Hey, man, you can’t walk in without a mask.”
“They see that we’re actually wearing masks and so they know that they’re safe.”
Told they had to abide by rules, some of those defiant customers responded with anger — “They’d say, ‘Eff you, I don’t have to.’”
After a few weeks, Mr. Espejel had had enough. Even before a surge in cases forced another ban on dine-in service in early July, he placed a table just inside Brassero Grill’s entrance, blocking access to the dining area and limited Brassero Grill to take-out only orders.
It’s been that way since. Still, he’s survived. Mr. Espejel says he has a loyal base of customers who “know that we don't play around with this (virus), that we don't serve anyone not wearing a mask,” he said. “They see that we're actually wearing masks and so they know that they're safe.”
Mr. Espejel opened Brassero Grill three years ago, following a family tradition started by his grandfather, who pedaled a tricycle to Mexico City construction sites to provide food to workers. That mobile food business eventually grew into a brick-and-mortar restaurant, where Mr. Espejel’s mother worked as a chef.
Two decades ago, Mr. Espejel moved from Mexico City to Pittsburgh and found work in construction. The money was good, but he grew tired of the job and yearned to be his own boss, so 10 years ago he started a food truck operation that serviced special events.
The idea for his current brick-and-mortar restaurant came while talking with folks at Brew Gentlemen, a Braddock brewery, who told him a location was available less than a block away on Braddock Avenue. The rent was cheap, and Mr. Espejel figured fans of his food truck business would follow him to Braddock and form a base of customers, giving him a good start.
Since then, his base has grown to include a number of neighbors in the old steel town. “We have a lot of people just living up the street or a few blocks away or five minutes away that have become regulars,” he said.
Those loyal customers have helped him weather the pandemic. He’s also received a loan and his landlord has worked with him on the rent. He’s had to cut back on expenses, but he’s retained his staff.
“This is a small operation,” he said. “There are five of us here. We all rotate. We usually work three people a day. I don't think we could afford the salary for five people every day, honestly.”
One of his goals is to open Brassero Grills in other Pittsburgh locations — perhaps Oakland or Shadyside. Such ambitions have to wait, however, until after the pandemic. There’s simply too much uncertainty now. News of other restaurant closures in Pittsburgh and throughout the nation is “kind of scary,” he said. “I’m like, ‘Oh, my God.’ I feel blessed that we're not in that situation.”
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