A wooden spoon gliding over cast iron. Barely tall enough to see over the stove, Lamar Cornett watched his mother, a cook, make his favorite dish of scrambled eggs.
That first cooking lesson launched a lifelong journey in food. Cornett has spent over 20 years in Kentucky restaurants, doing every job short of being the owner. The work is grueling and tense but rewarding and rowdy, and so fast-paced that the pandemic shutdown was like lightning on a cloudy day.
"It was almost like there was this unplanned, unorganized general strike," Cornett said.
In those rare quiet moments, millions of restaurant workers like Cornett found themselves thinking about the realities of their work. Breaks barely long enough to use the restroom or smoke a cigarette. Meals inhaled on the go. Hostile bosses, crazy schedules and paltry, stagnant pay.
To top it off: rude customers, whose abuses restaurant staff are often obligated to tolerate. And lately, testy diners have only gotten more impatient as they emerge from the pandemic shutdowns.
Cornett, off work for a few weeks, realized he received enough money through unemployment benefits to start saving — for the first time. He wondered if the work he loves would ever entail a job that came with health insurance or paid leave.
"I was working what I decided was going to be my last kitchen job," Cornett said.
As he pondered a new career path, an exodus began rattling his industry. Workers have been leaving jobs in restaurants, bars and hotels at the highest rate in decades. Each month so far this year, around 5% of this massive workforce have called it quits. In May alone, that was 706,000 people.
And now "help wanted" signs are everywhere, with a staggering 1.2 million jobs unfilled in the industry, right when customers are crushing through the doors, ready to eat, drink and finally socialize.
"They're just yelling the entire time"
Low wages are the most common reason people cite for leaving food service work. But in one recent survey, more than half of hospitality workers who've quit said no amount of pay would get them to return.
That's because for many, leaving food service had a lot to do also with its high-stress culture: exhausting work, unreliable hours, no benefits and so many rude customers.
"I never want to do something like this again," said Marcus Brotherns, who spent two years serving coffee and doughnuts at a drive-through in Rhode Island. During the busiest hours, customers would storm inside to complain about the wrong amount of creamer or sugar.
"They're just yelling the entire time," he said. Brotherns got a new job delivering beverages to restaurants, work that's tough but quieter and better-paying with more stable hours. "I am done with fast food."
Now, as many eateries are short-handed and hurriedly train new staff, negative reviews and complaints are on the rise from impatient, oblivious diners. One restaurant in Massachusetts even closed for a "Day of Kindness" after angry customers drove servers to tears.
Average pay finally topped $15 in May
Facing a new surge of visitors, food establishments are hiring like crazy but still, many have had to operate with skeleton crews and even reduce their hours.
"We used to be known as a late-night restaurant. ... We can't do that anymore. I don't have the staff and people are exhausted," said Laurie Torres, whose Ohio restaurant now closes earlier and stays closed on Mondays. She said she's been paying her staff bonuses and offered $17 an hour for a dishwasher job, and even then three workers stood her up.
In fact, for the first time on record, average hourly pay for nonmanagers at restaurants and bars topped $15 in May.
Major chains have been trumpeting higher wages: Chipotle, Olive Garden, White Castle, even McDonald's, which is now promising entry-level pay between $11 and $17 an hour. Employers are paying people just to show up for interviews, adding signing bonuses and recruiting ever-younger workers on TikTok.
"Every manager acted like they were urgently hiring, it was kind of weird. Like, their big focus was: When can you start?" said Sterling Baumgardner, who at 17 is a minor in Ohio. He recently quit his job at Dunkin' Donuts and got immediately hired at a sandwich chain making about $12.50 an hour, $3 more than before.
If you can't pay well, "then you can't afford to be in business"
Food service jobs have been "plagued with low wages for an extraordinary long period of time," said Jeannette Wicks-Lim, labor economist at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Pay was eking up before the pandemic but then fell again, and so now, she said, workers are just barely making up lost ground. Wages might be jumping fast, but not very high.
Cornett, the lifelong restaurant worker from Kentucky, has watched the wage issue get tense on his local food service Facebook group. Any job posting below $15 an hour would get jeers and demands for higher pay. Then the employers would get defensive, saying they couldn't afford big raises.
"The immediate response every time was: 'Then you can't afford to be in business, bro,' " Cornett said.
He was planning to hang up his apron and began looking at jobs at warehouses and factories when he got an offer he couldn't turn down — from someone who could afford to be in business while paying him better. He's now a chef at a new brewery in Louisville.
"This is the first time I've ever been on a salary," Cornett said. "This is the first time I've been able to depend on getting a specific amount of money every pay period."
That amount is $30,000 a year — which isn't a lot, he admits. But it's "life-changing" compared with his long career earning $22,000 or $23,000 a year.
It's also the first time he's had only one boss, whom he likes. And the first time — finally — that he's had a job that offers health insurance.
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Something has to change. That's a line you will hear a lot from workers at American restaurants and bars for whom the pandemic became a turning point. Hundreds of thousands of them left their pre-pandemic jobs in pursuit of better pay and benefits, and many left food service altogether. NPR's Alina Selyukh reports.
ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: A wooden spoon gliding over cast iron. Lamar Cornett was barely tall enough to see over the stove watching his mother, a cook, make his favorite dish - scrambled eggs, a classic beginning of a lifelong journey in food.
LAMAR CORNETT: One of my favorite things in the entire world, one of the few things that makes me feel genuinely, like, great is making food for my friends and, like, seeing them eat it, enjoy it.
SELYUKH: Cornett has worked in restaurants in Kentucky over 20 years. Short of owning one, he's done it all - server, dishwasher, pre cook, line cook, kitchen manager. The work is grueling and tense, but rewarding and rowdy and so fast-paced that the pandemic shutdown was like lightning on a cloudy day.
CORNETT: It was almost like there was this unplanned, unorganized general strike.
SELYUKH: Out on unemployment for a few weeks, Cornett made enough money through benefits to start saving for the first time. And he had a moment to ponder the realities of his work.
CORNETT: I genuinely can't remember a single break that I've ever taken that lasted longer than the time it takes to use the bathroom or smoke a cigarette. I've never sat down to eat a meal. I've never had health insurance. I was working what I decided was going to be my last kitchen job.
SELYUKH: In fact, workers are leaving jobs in restaurants, bars and hotels at a highest rate in decades. Each month so far this year, around 5% of this massive workforce have called it quits. That's left over a million jobs unfilled in the industry right when customers are crushing through the doors ready to eat, drink and finally socialize.
LAURIE TORRES: We used to be known as a late-night restaurant, so we'd be open from 11:30 in the morning to 11:30 at night. We can't do that anymore. I can't - I don't have the staff, and people are exhausted.
SELYUKH: Laurie Torres owns Mallorca Restaurant in Cleveland, which she's now closing on Mondays and shut down for the Fourth of July for the first time in 25 years. She says she's been paying her staff bonuses and even offered $17 an hour for a dishwasher job. And still, three people stood her up. In one recent survey, more than half of hospitality workers have quit, said no amount of pay would get them to return. That's because, for many, leaving food service also had a lot to do with its culture - aggressive bosses, no benefits, constantly changing schedules and so many rude customers.
MARCUS BROTHERNS: It's like they're just yelling the entire time.
SELYUKH: Marcus Brotherns spent two years at Dunkin' Donuts in Rhode Island. In busiest hours, he's seen drive-through customers storm inside to complain about the wrong amount of creamer or sugar. Brotherns left the spring for a job delivering beverages to restaurants - work that's tough but quieter and better paying.
BROTHERNS: Oh, I am done with fast-food. Like, I never want to do something like this again.
SELYUKH: Trying to overcome this attitude and racing to staff back up, companies are trying things like recruiting on TikTok or paying people just to show up for interviews. Major chains have also been trumpeting higher wages. Chipotle is raising its minimum to average $15 an hour. McDonald's is also a promising entry-level pay between $11 and $17 dollars an hour. In fact, for the first time on record, average hourly pay for non-managers at restaurants and bars topped $15 in May. Jeannette Wicks-Lim is a labor economist at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
JEANNETTE WICKS-LIM: This is an industry that's been plagued with low wages for an extraordinary long period of time.
SELYUKH: Pay barely began to rise before the pandemic, then fell again. So she says now workers are just making up lost ground. Wages might be jumping fast, but not that far. Lamar Cornett, the lifelong restaurant worker from Kentucky, has watched the wage issue get tense on his local food service Facebook group. Any job posting below $15 an hour gets jeers and demands for higher wages. Then the employers get defensive.
CORNETT: They would always be like, oh, well, we can't afford to pay people that much. The immediate response every time was - then you can't afford to be in business, bro.
SELYUKH: Cornett was planning to hang up his apron and looking at jobs at warehouses and factories. When he got an offer he couldn't turn down from someone who could afford to be in business and pay him better, he's now a chef at a new brewery.
CORNETT: Currently, I'm making the most money I've ever made. And I make $30,000 dollars a year, which isn't a lot. But when you've spent your whole life making twenty $22,000, $23,000 a year, you know, that's some life-changing [expletive].
SELYUKH: And it's actually the first time he's ever had a salary, steady money he can count on week to week, the first time he's had only one boss - whom he likes - and finally, health insurance.
Alina Selyukh, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.