A bartender on how the service industry will change

The service industry, as we know it, is changing before our very eyes. Fine dining restaurants have become quick-service takeout joints, bars are acting as bodegas and bartenders have become online spirits instructors. It’s wild how quickly a business model can change in moments of crisis. We’d like to believe that once we get past COVID-19 (Big Rona), everything will be back how it was, but I’m here to tell you: it won’t. The entire structure of the hospitality industry is going through a forced remodel, and if you aren’t careful, you’ll be discarded with the scraps.

As the length of the COVID-19 pandemic forecast increases and we move towards quarantine day #: it no longer matters, it’s becoming extremely apparent that a lot of places we know, love, and work at aren’t going to make it through this. The ones that do make it will have financials that look like Apollo Creed in “Rocky IV.” Expect most surviving restaurants/bars to run on a skeleton staff for the remainder of the year, at minimum, to try and recoup some of the losses of the business. This means that everyone out of work is not guaranteed to get hired back right when we get the all-clear. I hate to say it, but it’s the inconvenient truth. Yeah, there will be an initial surge of patrons just wanting to get out of the house and do anything. However, over 17 million people have filed for unemployment as I’m writing this, not counting the people whose wages have been cut dramatically, or those who’ve been furloughed. People aren’t going to have money to blindly spend on Wagyu hot dogs or oak stave-smoked Manhattans — at least, not at first.

I’m not here to take a piss in your Negroni; I honestly think the industry will be stronger for this… eventually. We’re starving right now, but that isn’t always bad. In times of famine, the first thing you do is burn the “fat.” I think that in the years following this, you’ll see some of the most-focused restaurants and bars we have seen in years. You’ll see people letting go of bullshit gimmicks, overpriced mediocrity and wack products. Instead, you’ll find getting us back to what we genuinely need, excellent hospitality. My curiosity (and hope) is at an all-time high waiting to see the fire menus, concepts and service regimes that come out of this.

So, where do you line up within all this? I don’t personally know each of you, so I can’t speak on that, but I’m willing to bet there will be a lot less “why in the hell did we hire this guy?” in restaurants. Sounds great, but tread lightly — you could be that guy and not even realize it. You should be doing everything in your power, regardless of who you are, to ensure you fit into the soon-to-be reality of the remodeled service industry. I’m not telling you not to drink; I’m having one as I am writing this. However, the last thing you want to come out of this quarantine with is a fresh drinking problem. Below are some things you can do to prep for the new reality, in turn luring you away from the pitfalls of mindless drinking.

Sharpen Your Skills
We as hospitality professionals are always bitching about how we never have time for self-development. Well, now you have nothing but time, fam. Have a passion for wine? Study its regions and varieties. Is craft beer your personality? Well, learn about all the different styles of beer and their origins. A mixologist? You’re probably going to have a drink anyway, so might as well R&D a new menu. Are you looking to move to management? Read a book on how to lead effectively.

Stay Active
Now I’m not saying you need to start preparing for the damn Ironman, but the service industry is one that requires a lot of movement and lifting of random shit. Make a plan to start a “normal life” fitness regime. A practical and easy goal to start with is choosing to walk an hour a day and stretch. The beauty of too much free time and the 21st century is YouTube. Countless free yoga sessions are streaming at any given point. Take the opportunity to do this for your physical well-being, so that when the day comes to go back to double shifts until 2 a.m., you aren’t getting your ass handed to you in a sauté pan.

Stay in Contact
Our industry is a relationship-based business; we tend to hire/keep people with whom we formed a connection. Don’t wait for your employer to reach out to you. Strike first, see how they are doing, how the business is doing. Do it regularly. This simple gesture shows you give a shit about them and the company they own. You’ll have a better chance of keeping your job just by completing this simple task on a semi-regular cadence. At the off chance they do screw you, at least they’ll have to look at you when they do it.

Keep a Routine
Look, I know it’s easy to spend your entire day diving into the depths of Netflix, watching grown adults argue over who has the nicest tiger prison. Believe me, it always sounds like a good time. Nevertheless, keeping a somewhat consistent routine during a time of crisis will help keep your sanity. Holding yourself accountable for a routine at home is no different than holding yourself accountable for counting down the drawers every night. Set a daily loose, but thought-out schedule. Allow yourself time to dick around and do FaceTime happy hour with homies, but outside of that, what would you usually be doing at work? What can mirror it at home? Write it out and make your routine plan — it could even be a simple daily to-do list. I promise this will help keep you busy and productive. You might not smoke “Ozark” trivia, but you’ll be able to work your first shift back without having a mental break.

Most Important: Take Care of Your Mental Health
Contrary to popular belief, people work better when they’re happy. I don’t know any of you on a personal level, but odds are that right now happiness isn’t your dominant state of mind. I wouldn’t be shocked if you were feeling a bit anxious and slightly in pain from a night of stress drinking fueled by a lack of stability. That’s acceptable, but you still need to stand up in the morning, look in the mirror and find a way to make yourself have a positive moment or two during each day of the dreaded hell we’re living in. For me, it’s writing down how I feel so I can get it out in the open and assess it. I also take walks to help myself physically, sure, but it also clears and focuses my mind. For you, it may be gardening or writing music. I don’t know, but finding moments of joy each day is pertinent if you want to make it to the other side intact and ready to work.

I know this may seem like a lot, and ,quite frankly, it is. Remember, you aren’t alone. There are millions of people going through this with you. Just because you can’t physically see people doesn’t mean you shouldn’t check-in (no, sending shots on Instagram or seeing which of your friends can’t do 10 pushups isn’t checking in). Call your coworkers and homies, and see how they are doing. Offer assistance: Listening is free and very valuable in times like this. Also, hold the ones you care about accountable; you don’t want to lose anyone due to an avoidable tragedy. In an industry where we are focused solely on taking care of strangers, this is now the time to take care of each other.

Now, I know for a fact most of you aren’t going to listen to what I’m saying. Service industry humans are among the most stubborn individuals on the planet (serving us well most of the time). You’ll rely on government assistance and donations from liquor brands while sitting on your hands expecting everything to be business as usual once this is over. However, I’m just as confident that a small portion of you will heed my advice. When you do, I hope you use this time to take care of yourself for the betterment of you and our industry. I want to see all industry lifers and non-lifers alike succeed. Take steps now and begin putting yourself in a position to lead, so when this does happen again (and it will), you’ll be in a position to help others on the opposite side of the coin.

Stay safe, social distance, and please open and read articles before you share them. •

Dante Wheat is a Louisville bartender, writer and founder of rawpineapples.com