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Omaha Magazine

The United States of Food Service: A Focus on Those Who Serve You

May 29, 2020 02:56PM ● By Tara Spencer
Lisa's Radial Cafe, with lit OPEN? sign

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Each issue, the staff members and writers at Omaha Magazine dig deeper.

We bring you stories about the people of our city, with the hope that you get to know them and appreciate what they do for our community. 

This issue was especially tough, as June is when we put out our food issue. With COVID-19 closing businesses, the food and beverage industry was one of the first and hardest hit financially. Profit margins for restaurants are low to begin with (typically single digits). During good economic times, owning and running a restaurant is a labor of love, and in economic hardship, it can be heartbreaking.

Reduced bar and restaurant business means food and beverage distributors lose business, which means brewers, distillers, and farmers are out that business. If a place uses linens, mats, or rugs, the cleaning companies take a hit. And so on. 

What does that mean for people employed at all those businesses? They are out jobs. They can’t buy food or pay rent, much less go to a doctor. It goes without saying that they can’t afford to buy anything beyond their basic needs, much less shop for luxury items such as books or home goods. 

This pandemic and subsequent quarantine affects us all, regardless of whether we are fortunate enough to work from home or not. 

The original plan for this feature developed last year, when associate publisher and photographer Bill Sitzmann and I admired a photo spread featuring sommeliers and well-known wine industry up-and-comers. We thought, wouldn’t it be cool to focus on those who aren’t always highlighted?

This epidemic threw a wrench in that.

Most restaurants were either operating with a skeleton crew or just not open. But with the help of our community, we managed to find a group we believe represents several different industry perspectives. 

In this feature, we included workers in the food and beverage service industry you might not normally hear from and some whose names you likely know. Many have been in the business for decades, others for a few months. All were affected.

We reached out on social media, and the response was incredible. Nominations rolled in, and we tried to include those who were enthusiastically seconded. 

A few we reached out to were not able to participate. I would like to mention Henim Stimson of Korean Grill and Michelle Von Tersch of Geno’s Bar & Grill in particular—your customers love you. 

We also spoke with people in the industry and asked who they thought deserved recognition. One nominee was Rick Long, who works for Raven Security when he is not busy being a CNA. Long got sick right before we shot this spread, exhibiting symptoms of the coronavirus. Fortunately, it was not. 

The announcement that restaurants could reopen at 50% capacity also changed things. During the photo shoot, I asked the participants if they knew what their plan was going forward. 

Decisions were split. Some owners said they planned on testing it out. Others were against it, saying they considered it too dangerous at this time. The overwhelming consensus from the workers was that if they were called on to go back, they would, despite the fact that many were worried not only for their own safety but for their family’s. 

Full disclosure, I have worked in the service industry for over 23 years. I am grateful I have my job at the magazine, but at the time of this epidemic, I was still working Friday and Saturday night shifts at Jackson St. Tavern. When my boss asked if I would like to return to work, I said no for two reasons. One, I have this job. I’m not hurting for money in the same way many of my friends and coworkers are. Two, I wouldn’t feel safe. Just writing that makes me feel selfish and privileged, as I have the luxury of making that choice when so many others don’t. 

The business owners had a near impossible decision to make. One I do not envy. Do they risk trying to ride things out and hope their business survives, or do they bring their employees back to work and risk someone getting the virus? 

So much of the service industry life is a gamble—every night, they are betting on whether we’ll be able to make rent or pay our gas bill. But money isn’t all they gamble with. They also risk their health.  

Most don’t have insurance, and if they do, the deductible is likely something they can’t afford. Especially if getting sick means missing even a day of work, as there is rarely paid time off. 

Many people say things like, why don’t you just get another job? (Some of you just did so, I guarantee it.)

For many who choose this work, it’s about the flexibility. For others, it’s about the money. For most, it’s because we truly love it. We may joke about walking out or finally yelling at that one customer who constantly says inappropriate things, but the truth is we’d miss it. We’d miss our favorite customers, like the guy who remembers everyone’s birthday and brings them a present when he comes in. We’d miss our co-workers, who may drive us crazy sometimes, but who we know will always understand when a bad tip hits us especially hard.   

Some of the greatest people I have ever known I met through either working with or serving them. It’s an incredibly welcoming community, and I, like so many others, can’t wait until we can return to work without worrying if that decision will end up hurting us all. 

Below are the links to each person featured in this piece. 

Each participant was emailed four initial questions to answer and at least three other questions we wanted them to answer. As Omaha restaurants began to re-open the week before our photo shoot, we asked several of the participants follow-up questions. 

This article first appeared in the June 2020 issue of Omaha Magazine. Click here to subscribe to the print edition.