It’s been the story for many a starry-eyed creative type looking for a big break in the Big Apple — wait tables to pay the bills while auditioning, performing, singing, painting, dancing, writing, whatever it takes to make the dreams of success come true.
But there’s been a plot twist, thanks to the coronavirus putting food servers out of work in recent months as restaurants were forced to shut down their dine-in services. And much uncertainty remains over what restaurant dining will look like even as New York City reopens.
Questions of whether there will be enough business for establishments to stay open and even have waiter jobs to fill are causing concern about what that’s going to mean for the city’s creative class if the jobs that helped them be able to live there and add to the city’s artistic culture are no longer readily available.
“It really is a part of the artist’s life in New York, so I don’t know what that’s going to look like if it’s just suddenly not an option anymore,” said Travis McClung, 28, who has spent close to nine years waiting tables while doing theater, singing and more recently, trying to build his career in video editing and post-production.
“As a city we can’t afford to lose our creative edge. It’s been one of the key drivers of the city’s economic growth over the past decades."
The virus has been devastating for the city’s restaurant workers. According to the state Department of Labor, restaurants and other eateries employed just over 273,000 people in February, before the city shut down in mid-March due to the pandemic. In April, during the peak of virus cases, that number had fallen to under 78,000. As the city reopened in May, it rose slightly to close to 100,000, still vastly below where it had been.
And while outdoor dining has been allowed in recent weeks, with around 6,600 restaurants in the five boroughs applying for permits to feed people on sidewalks and streets, the return of indoor dining has been put off indefinitely over fears that confined quarters would make virus cases spike.
For McClung, who came to New York City in 2009 from a Dallas, Texas, suburb to study theater in college and started waiting tables here, a restaurant job has been a safety net, of sorts. Pre-pandemic, New York City’s vibrant restaurant scene was busy enough that he always felt he had a fallback.
“It was a sense of security, it let me stay in New York City, pay the rent here,” he said.
That’s what led to his last pre-virus waiter job, a position at a casual dining place on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
“I had a big gig editing and it canceled and I panicked and then my friend posted he was leaving that job,” McClung said. “I messaged him for a referral and then I got hired the next day.”
Rachel Berry, who moved to New York City in 2004, tried her hand at a few different jobs, such as dog walking and nannying, before moving to bartending and waiting tables in 2016.
The Laurel, Maryland, native even spent some time at a 9-to-5 gig in her early 20s, but found the structure too rigid to give her enough time to work on her creative pursuits, which have included photography, painting, performing and most recently, interior design work.
“There’s just something about the food service industry,” the 36-year-old said. “It affords me a life that I can get by in New York.”
She worries now about what will still be available in restaurants, as social distancing restrictions will require lower capacities in food and drink establishments for the foreseeable future, and whether she would have to work even more in other fields such as retail to make what she has been able to in food service.
“Am I going to have the same opportunities afforded to me financially, or, you know, am I going to be stuck in this, I need two to three jobs to get by,” Berry asked.
“We’re going to lose a decade of possible talent until people figure out how to stay.”
And that’s of course assuming people don’t leave, or hesitate to come to New York City now in the first place, said Jen Lyon, owner of MeanRed Productions, a company that puts on arts and music events.
That’s a concern to her, as someone who looks to work with up-and-comers, in a city where it was already expensive and difficult for artists to sustain themselves.
Lyon spent years bartending, and has an appreciation for food service jobs and what they offer creative types.
They’re “the best jobs to have when you needed to focus on your art, especially in New York,” she said.
But now, if those jobs largely disappear, “What happens in my world is suddenly I don’t have young artists to work with because they can’t afford New York,” she said. “You don’t have people creating art in New York anymore.”
The pandemic “has scattered a lot of the potential artists,” she said. “We’re going to lose a decade of possible talent until people figure out how to stay.”
Losing its creatives is also a “huge threat" to the city's fabric overall, said Eli Dvorkin, editorial and policy director at the Center for an Urban Organization, which advocates for policies that make New York City more equitable.
“That’s a huge problem for New York which has been so dependent on its role as a cultural capital of the world," he said.
“As a city we can’t afford to lose our creative edge. It’s been one of the key drivers of the city’s economic growth over the past decades," Dvorkin added. “It’s one of the reasons why I think New York maintains its status as a beacon for creative, innovative people from all over the world."