The Mill Tavern in Westfield and Noble Coffee & Tea Company in Noblesville begin restricted curbside carryout service amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The coronavirus has temporarily closed around 12,000 Indiana eating and drinking places, leaving 311,400 employees, 10 percent of the state’s workforce, without their jobs.
Those cooks, bartenders, servers, dishwashers and others contribute to the nearly $13 billion in sales restaurants pump into the state’s annual economy, according to the National Restaurant Association. More than that, they are the people who remember our favorite drinks, calm our kids with extra fries, make our city cool and clean up the kitchen so we don’t have to.
When will they return to work? Who knows. Will their restaurants survive? Some yes, probably others no. These are the personal stories of five people’s jobs have been taken by the coronavirus pandemic.
‘I would come to work for free’
Hundreds of people see Amie Hastings every day. Lines extend out the door at Soupremacy, the Monument Circle lunch counter where the shift leader runs the panini press while also monitoring salad and soup stations and eavesdropping as customers place orders.
It’s mental multi-tasking to the nth degree in the short span of a lunch hour.
“I really just watch the line, make sure the orders are correct, everybody’s getting exactly what they’re ordering,” Hastings said. “Because we move so fast, sometimes people can’t keep up with that.”
Hastings landed her first restaurant job at 16. Over the next 15 years, she worked everything from Taco Bell to fine dining. She’s among the 15.6 million restaurant workers across America who are part of our everyday lives, people so consistent at filling one of our most basic needs that we take them for granted.
Food-service work may seem trivial compared to that of the bankers, lawyers, computer techs, executives, architects and legislators who line up at lunch counters like Soupremacy. For Hastings, her job is critical. It means she can see her son.
Seven-year-old Giancarlo Gomez lives at Riley Hospital for Children. He’s been on the heart transplant list since January 2018. When his blood pressure spiked in fall 2019, doctors admitted Gomez for constant monitoring, Hastings said.
With Soupremacy two miles from the hospital, Hasting can visit her son every day, and managers accommodate her family time. More importantly, Hastings leans on co-workers when she needs to talk about her son. Losing them is more upsetting than losing income.
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“I told Danielle I would come work for free if that even makes sense,” Hastings said, her voice cracking as she mentioned Soupremacy manager Danielle Cooney.
“It’s just always really good when you step into a restaurant. It’s just a break away from life and what you’re going through.”
Ramen, sushi and tenacity
A restaurant moving into the former Milano Inn normally would have been big news. Milano was in business for 82 years. Ramen and sushi on the menu would have been huge. But no one waited to get inside when Nini Ye and Denson Yang opened Mori Sushi, 231 S. College Ave., on March 16. That was the day Indiana’s governor shuttered dine-in service to help control the spread of the coronavirus.
The couple opened Mori Sushi anyway. Stunning uni and fish had arrived Monday morning, before Holcomb’s order. Chef Yang’s pork broth was ready to ladle over ramen and udon noodles. Yang and Ye gave away uni to anyone who picked up an order.
“It was too beautiful,” Ye said. “We didn’t want to have to throw it away.”
The couple planned to launch Mori Sushi in 2019. Construction delays changed the schedule; coronavirus altered the business plan. Ye went from being just the manager to a jill of all trades, including kitchen helper, order taker and food runner. At the immaculate sushi bar, under a photo collage of his visit to meet sushi master Jiro Ono, owner of Michelin three-star restaurant Sukiyabashi Jiro in Tokyo, Yang tries to transfer his artistic seafood presentations to takeout containers.
With day care centers closed, Yang’s mom moved from Mori Sushi’s relief cook to babysitter for Ye and Yang’s toddler. Sometimes, she brings the baby to the restaurant so the family can eat together in the empty dining room.
“We must try to stay positive,” Ye said.
This was supposed to be a dream job
When Indiana chefs requested backup at the World Food Championships, Erica Oakley happily chopped onions, peeled potatoes, anything. When the Girl Scouts asked her to compete in cook-offs to boost cookie sales, Oakley swept the contests with restaurant-worthy dishes like Thin Mint lamb meatballs over Savannah Smiles spaghetti.
Talk to any chef who has worked with Oakley, and they’ll say she’s a conscientious optimist who deserves gold.
Oakley got it in December when Kilroy’s made an offer, out of the blue, that she couldn’t resist. She scored a level of financial security few chefs experience. Her young career hit a pinnacle. She was on her way.
As executive chef of the mad-busy Broad Ripple and downtown Indianapolis Kilroy’s locations, Oakley sees elbow-to-elbow Saturday nights downtown that generate up to $55,000 in sales.
“We’re 17 to 25 tickets deep usually at all times,” she said.
Mid-fenzy, Oakley beams. Collected and motivating, she’s a perpetual one-woman pep rally, the coach everyone wants to be around.
Now, Oakley oversees kitchen staff layoffs.
“Every time I walk back into the kitchen, they’re looking at me like, ‘Oh God. She’s going to send me home. Don’t look at her, she’s going to send me home,’ ” Oakley said. “I hate it.”
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Oakley schedules short shifts, but the few hours available each week are nowhere near what her workers need. Oakley is also scared for her own future, just days ago so bright. Takeout and delivery orders have been a fraction of what Kilroy’s usually rings up.
Oakley wonders, “Can we last two weeks?”
The best and worst job in America
Bartender, brewer, server, cook. K.C. Campbell has filled just about every role in restaurants. As a Mayfair Taproom line cook, Campbell is the familiar face customers are happy to see. They know he’s going to get the burger right every time.
With the future of restaurants uncertain, Campbell wonders if his devotion to the business has become a disadvantage.
“My resume looks like 10 years’ worth of kitchen work,” he said. “It’s kind of hard to tell any job outside the industry that I can do different things.”
Not that Campbell wants to.
“I love what I do,” he said. “I love that my work involves making people happy. And I like to work a whole lot.”
That may be hard to understand. Cooking requires hours of standing, a high chance of injury, low pay and roller-coaster stress in a single shift. When everyone else is out on the weekends, chefs work. Long days end late and leave cooks so wired that sleep is elusive.
In 2019, “chef” ranked No. 13 in the list of 25 worst jobs in America.
The thing is, cooking goes to your creative core. It connects you with people. Cooks are family to each other, Campbell said.
Even if kitchen workers want out, their salaries provide little extra to pay for college. With the coronavirus pandemic, cooks lost their jobs suddenly and unexpectedly. They don’t know how long they’ll be unemployed or what long-term impacts face the industry.
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Campbell is single. He has savings to cover expenses for a month. His March bills are paid, and his landlord is understanding, but Campbell has a son to think about and relatives who may need help. He’d love to return to his job and and nail a Circle City Soups role he’s been targeting, but he’s job hunting outside the restaurant industry just in case.
“It’s really confusing trying to figure out what to actually do,” he said. “And what to worry about.”
No guaranteed youth
Benjamin Bowen dreams of burning up the NBA hardwoods as he hustles across the floor at Grindstone on the Monon in Westfield.
“Chad, one of my trainers for our preseason workouts back at the university? He’d be happy to see me running around like a madman on a Friday night,” Bowen said, laughing.
Bowen’s a shooting guard.
“I like the corners,” the 2018 Aurora University graduate said. “My hand itches to hold a ball.”
Post-college, he’s played for semi-pro teams, including Muncie-based Indiana Dream. Polished and well-spoken, one can imagine the polished Bowen in the Bulls’ executive offices. For now, he’s putting his business degree aside to play ball.
“If that doesn’t end up being what I do, that’s OK,” he said of the game. “I just don’t want to have any regrets when I get older.”
Bowen has been a server for two years. It’s lucrative work with a flexible schedule that allows him time to play basketball while paying down his $25,000 student loan and covering his part of expenses at the home he shares with his parents. Losing his job could lead to trading his basketball dreams for a confining 9-to-5 when Bowen would rather be milking his youth for as many basketball years as his body allows.
“I don’t want to be giving Sallie Mae the money I have in my reserve,” he said.
Waiting tables is no game in the park. On a busy night, Bowen turns five tables two to three times a night. He jumps from a champagne girls’ night out to regulars who want to talk about their grandkids while the kitchen wonders when Bowen will pick up steaks drying under a heat lamp. On the way to get them, Bowen might be hailed for more honey mustard, another beer or help cleaning up plates that hit the ground.
And when things go wrong, servers take the brunt of customers’ anger.
Nonetheless, Bowen knows he has it good, but he also remembers his mother navigating the Great Recession. The coronavirus pandemic’s economic impacts remind him that life is unpredictable, that the pursuit of twentysomething dreams may be recommended but are never guaranteed.
“I don’t freak out too easily,” Bowen said. “I am good at putting out an outward, confident expression to people, so if you just went and talked to me you wouldn’t think that anything might be wrong.
“But when I wake up, I remember, ‘Oh yeah. You’re not going to work today.’ How long can this go on?”
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Follow IndyStar food writer Liz Biro on Twitter: @lizbiro, Instagram: @lizbiro, and on Facebook. Call her at 317-444-6264.
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