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Scott Elmquist

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Of Pie and Fear

A Proper Pie worker talks about what closings mean for restaurant workers and what you can do to help.

Posted By on Wed, Mar 18, 2020 at 2:48 PM

It happened so quickly. On Sunday, March 15, a woman picking up our last slice of coconut cream pie told me that she was delivering it to a friend in chemo treatment. “She said cancer can’t keep her from her cream pies!”

Another customer tipped $20 on a $24 order. He told us how much it meant to him and his family that Proper Pie Co. was still open.

But on Monday, March 16, I got a call that myself, along with all of my co-workers, were being laid off for the foreseeable future. The language was intentional: A layoff versus suspension, or pausing the business, made us eligible for unemployment.

From the outside, the restaurant industry can seem like an alternate world. A bunch of mostly 20-somethings existing in a space where a 2 a.m. bedtime is reasonable, smoking is the norm and savings are an anomaly. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been asked by family and friends when I’m planning to get a real job. But from my perspective, hospitality is one of the most real jobs I can get.

Patients freshly released from Virginia Commonwealth University Medical Center would swing by, ID bracelets still on, to snag their first taste of freedom. We have pie-babies who have been raised coming into the shop since before they could walk, and regulars who barely need to speak before we are wrapping up their go-to.

Food brings people together, but in the wake of COVID-19 this has bewilderingly become a dangerous activity.

It started out as a typical work joke. We in hospitality are nothing if not hardy, and everyone needs food! There was no way this could touch us. The Big Bird meme of “we ride at dawn” went through various group chats as people chuckled. Our regulars, many of them health care workers, kept coming.

A few days later we introduced more strict sanitation practices. Wiping down all contact surfaces regularly, requesting customers swipe their own cards for payment and setting up a phone sanitation station by the clock-in computer. No more eating in the soup closet. No more phones but in our designated lockers. No more handshaking.

It was novel and I was still unbothered, but whispers began. One of our managers, a father who has worked at the shop virtually since the beginning, was concerned.

“I just hope that this doesn’t impact our business, but at this point it seems like that’s an inevitability,” he said. His daughter’s school had recently shut down, and he and his wife were already feeling the pressure of day care.

Saturday, March 14, National Pi Day, saw customers lined up around the block, spaced 3 feet apart. Friendly faces, big tips and lots of smiles, but something was hanging over us. More cancellations rolled in and our normally bright and joke-cracking crew was dim.

“I just signed that lease on my new apartment, but I may have to let that go. …”

“My mom is immuno-compromised and since I work around so many people it’s unsafe for her to be around me. She’s quarantined and I don’t know when I’m going to be able to see her again.”

“I don’t have any savings.”

You know how this ends. Out of love for our community and care for employees, Proper Pie has closed, along with many other restaurants and bars across Richmond. Within days, hundreds of people are suddenly unemployed, many living paycheck-to-paycheck and supporting families. Most of the people I know have filed for unemployment.

So where are your favorite servers, bartenders and chefs now? Honestly, not in a great place. We need your help.

Most of us are extroverts who have suddenly gone from interacting with hundreds of people a day to maybe two. I know several industry people who had been struggling with self-harm and suicidal thoughts and had been using work as a very effective escape. They are quarantined and left to fight their demons alone, and I’m worried.

I’ve seen calls to purchase restaurant gift cards, but as far as I know that money bypasses the busers, dishwashers, servers, hosts and others who make that restaurant hum.

Instead, consider takeout if you are comfortable with it. You’d better believe restaurants are taking extreme sanitation and distancing measures, and takeout employs staff that desperately needs income right now. Tip generously. For a comprehensive list of the restaurants offering takeout, check out this roundup from CBS-6: wtvr.com/news/local-news/these-richmond-restaurant-breweries-bakeries-and-coffee-shops-are-offering-curbside-pickup.

Follow your favorite restaurants on social media. Events are changing by the hour and that’s the best place to learn what would mean the most to them and how we can all help. For instance, on Friday, March 20, local nonprofit the Holli Fund is holding a virtual happy hour to raise money for out-of-work servers: instagram.com/p/B936osOFjhG.

Support Richmond Restaurants United – at richmondrestaurantsunited.com – is a group of local restaurant owners pushing our government for a stimulus package to help restaurant owners and employees, including an ongoing social distancing wage. If we can bail out car manufacturers and Wall Street, surely we can help our widespread hospitality industry.

Lastly, please reach out to friends or friends of friends who work in the hospitality or food industry. Maybe FaceTime while cooking dinner, or share some good gossip. We live to connect with others over food, and when you take that away the hit isn’t just financial.

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