DETROIT — With a protracted pandemic leaving dining rooms at half capacity, the constant threat of another shutdown looming and restaurant coffers sitting near empty, longtime service professionals are leaving the hospitality industry in droves for greener pastures elsewhere.
At the beginning of March, Jaimie Seitz and Nichole Homfeld both worked as floor managers at Leila, a downtown Lebanese hot spot that had been riding high as the newly crowned the Detroit Free Press Restaurant of the Year.
And though it took years of toil and sacrifice — missed holidays, family birthdays and the like — for both of them to work their way up to those coveted front-of-house restaurant jobs, today neither one works in the industry they’d spent the better part of their lives in.
“I didn’t have any intention of leaving,” Seitz said. “If COVID didn’t happen, I wouldn’t have left that job. I really loved working for them.”
At 28, Seitz had spent exactly half her life working in restaurants, keeping an 80-hour-a-week schedule during the most demanding times. Suddenly at home amid the state-mandated shutdown, she finally found the time to do the soul-searching her schedule had never allowed.
“Once COVID happened, I got a little introspective and thought about doing what I wanted to do,” she said. “And I wanted to be my own boss. … COVID actually was a weird excuse to push on and do something different.”
For Homfeld, who had partnered into another business four years ago while still juggling the physical demands of restaurant life, the new safety precautions made it logistically impossible to continue to do both.
“If COVID wouldn’t have happened, I would’ve stayed at Leila,” Homfeld, 26, said. “I promised myself two years there, actually. … But with COVID, the safety protocols that are needed at my business and also to be working full time somewhere else is just too much. My business has to come first, so it was just time to finally make the decision that took me four years to make. It’s a hard industry to leave.”
Whether they’re now selling car insurance, like local kitchen veteran Chuck Morgan, or driving for Lyft while building their real estate business, as longtime area bartender Chuck Gellasch has done, hospitality employees are dropping decades-long careers in the industry and translating the skills they’ve honed behind the stick or the stove to sectors less affected by the ongoing pandemic.
“This isn’t an easy life,” said Leila proprietor Samy Eid, speaking about the realities of the restaurant business. Nearly half of Eid’s former managers at Leila have left the industry since the beginning of the pandemic.
“I think this time off may be kind of a vignette into what life could be outside the restaurant industry, and it’s made them see that it’s a hard life more clearly. And maybe their ability and wants and desire for the service industry wanes because of it. People are afraid to come back to work, too.”
Gary Chard runs Hired Knives, a Detroit-based restaurant staffing website that matches food-service businesses with qualified employees. Chard said usage is down 50% among applicants, many of whom Chard posits are hospitality careerists.
“It’s a sad state,” Chard said. “From our data, I’m seeing less people coming on looking for jobs in the food and beverage industry. The numbers are not dramatically different from a job-posting perspective, but the number of applicants is dramatically down.” Chard said he hasn’t seen a spike in applicants as many predicted would come after the enhanced unemployment benefits offered through the federal CARES Act expired in late July.
“Retail employees and food workers are putting themselves at risk, so if there’s ever a time to make a career switch, it’s now,” Chard said. “But it’s not only the risk — it’s the sustainability of the industry. These restaurants operating at 50%, their margins are already thin operating at 100%. So it’s just not sustainable unless you are a bigger operator and have some money in the bank. That’s a huge challenge.”
Of all industries, metro Detroit’s leisure and hospitality sector has by far taken the hardest hit from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, shedding more than 84,000 jobs — a 40% decline — between June 2019 and June 2020, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The unemployment rate for hotels and restaurants across the state was just 5.9% in February, but stood at 26.6% in June, down more than 10 points from its April high but still significantly higher than the 11% national unemployment rate.
With so many jobs gone — and even more dire projections for independent restaurants, 85% of which could disappear across the country if the pandemic continues sans additional government intervention — workers are citing personal reasons for leaving amid the backdrop of enhanced unemployment benefits and generalized fear.
KaTrell Thomas has been a two-decade-long presence on Detroit’s cocktail scene and a mentor to numerous younger bartenders at places like the Sugar House, Wright & Co. and the Skip.
For him, the decision to leave the industry came after a period of intense family turmoil. In February, his father died suddenly. Soon afterward, Thomas found out his mother had been hiding a heroin habit for years.
“When I look at alcohol now or have a drink, I think of my mom doing drugs,” Thomas, 39, said. “So the moment I found out when she was an addict, I stopped drinking. I still love hospitality and taking care of people, but if I have to choose something, it’s going to be not to bartend.”
Not long after his father died, Thomas was hit by a drunken driver who almost flipped his car. He took it as a sign that maybe the universe didn’t want him doing the thing he’d been doing for a living since he was 19.
“It just felt like it was time to give it a rest,” he said. “I was looking forward to not bartending any more of my life after COVID.”
Still, Thomas recently returned to slinging frozen cocktails at the Skip downtown, but says he’s only there temporarily.
“I’m literally just doing it until they find staff,” he said. “I’ve been knowing these guys for five, 10 years, so I don’t want to leave them holding the bag. But as soon as they find the staff, I’m gone.”
Thomas began driving for a ride-sharing service on the side last year and has been enjoying translating the guest experience to the car.
“I’m taking care of people in another way,” he said. “I’m driving my pineapple around instead of pouring it. It’s still hospitality.”
And, like the others, he points to the few months of downtime away from the industry as a time to reflect on a new direction.
“Everything I was afraid of doing, I wrote it down during COVID, and now I think I can try it,” he said.
He’s toying with the idea of opening his own limo service. Or maybe getting a pilot’s license. One of his recent fares told him he had a nice voice and offered to set him up with an interview for some voice-over work.
The future is always uncertain, but one thing remains sure for Thomas: He’s done with sacrificing the needs of his family for the demands of the nightlife scene.
“When people see you doing something really well, they expect you to do it forever no matter who you are,” he said. “But if you do something well for a long time and start passing it to other people, that’s how it lives on. Hospitality lives on forever.”
Perhaps ironically, the pandemic actually provided a rare glimpse of stability amid the chaos for Alejandro Garza, who spent the last 14 years of his career as a manager at Pronto! in Royal Oak.
“You have a crazy schedule and it always changes and you give up part of your family life and personal life to work in this industry,” Garza said. “I’m burned out. And especially during the middle of coronavirus … seeing how many places closed and going through that experience of not knowing if we were going to stay open — it was just super stressful.”
During the springtime peak of the pandemic, Pronto! switched to carryout-only and Garza began keeping banker’s hours for the first time in his adult life. The stability of the 9-to-5 proved to be a draw for the 33-year-old who had spent the majority of his career working in gay bars.
He said comfort and fear are what kept him from exploring his options sooner.
“Being gay, that’s a huge comfort there, having worked at so many gay bars,” he said. “I didn’t know how it would be like at any other place.”
On Monday, Garza begins work in his new role as locations manager for the prepared food delivery service Clean Plates in Ferndale, which he said has seen an uptick in business as people choose to eat at home more often.
“I felt safer going in that direction,” he said.
Homfeld, one of the former Leila floor managers, said that was a concern she has heard from friends who’ve left, too.
“Going back to the industry with COVID is kind of scary,” she said. “I have a lot of friends who were maybe looking for an out, and a lot of it is being nervous around people and risking their health and their family’s health.”
For her, the decision to leave the industry is a temporary one. She grew up in a family of restaurateurs who once ran a Lebanese restaurant in Clinton Township, among others. One day, she hopes to join their ranks as a restaurant owner, whatever the industry looks like then.
But for now, she says, she needs to focus on BeautiLofts, the business she partnered on with her cousin four years ago. The company rents studio space to beauty industry professionals, and Homfeld says it’s a business that can benefit from everything she’s learned in hospitality.
“In a restaurant, there’s 10,000 things happening at once, and you have to prioritize what’s the most important,” she said. “That can translate anywhere.”
Her former colleague, Seitz, who is taking her real estate license exam Friday, echoed that sentiment.
“I always tell people if you can work in the service industry, you literally can do any job,” Seitz said. “You’re trained in customer service, money management, multitasking, inventory, all these things.
“You can do anything. You just have to be creative.”
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