Panoringan: Honoring Labor Day with Stories From Frontline Service Workers

JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Victoria Gonzalez, an administrative assistant (and now host, server and food preparer) for The RANCH is one of the many restaurant laborers working the frontlines in restaurants.

Anne Marie Panoringan

Voice of OC’s food columnist — reporting on industry news, current events and trends. Panoringan’s prior work includes writing about food for 8 years at the OC Weekly in which she interviewed more than 330 chefs, restauranteurs and industry professionals for her weekly On the Line column. She has been recognized by the Orange County Press Club and she also is a recurring guest on AM 830’s SoCal Restaurant Show.

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Before year-round schools and early start dates, Labor Day marked the unofficial end of summer and start of the school year. A holiday celebrated by both Canada and the United States, it pays tribute to all who work. It seemed fitting to celebrate Orange County’s workforce by dedicating today’s column to individuals in the restaurant industry who work long hours serving others, especially during weekends and holidays.

When I write about restaurants, the chefs tend to receive most of the attention. For Labor Day, I wanted to hear from the servers, line cooks, reservationists, etc. These are the staff who keep restaurants running – both in public and behind the scenes. Since entering the coronavirus era, this industry is currently suffering from a shortage of labor, lack of dining space, and not enough respect from customers. This is my way of honoring their steadfast work ethic.

While I wasn’t able to include all the responses received, one submission came from a manager who asked to remain anonymous. Worrying about contracting the illness through work was his biggest fear, resulting in sleepless nights. After learning his wife contracted COVID-19, his daughter got it soon after. He was then hit with it, and they self-quarantined. Fortunately, they all managed to recover, and he learned that they didn’t receive it from a co-worker, nor anybody they knew outside of work.

 

Victoria Gonzalez

Administrative Assistant, and now Host / Food Prep / Server
The RANCH Restaurant & Saloon, Anaheim

Gonzalez was an administrative assistant for The RANCH prior to the COVID-19 outbreak. Since March, she has been asked to step-in to work frontline jobs as their restaurant adjusts in the current conditions.

“Six months later, and I’ve traded in my suit for sneakers! I went from working in a corporate office to reliving my youth as a host, food prep, expeditor and server. I am thankful every day to still have a job and, ironically, I’m around more people these days than I was working in the office prior to COVID. I’ve gotten to know the chefs and kitchen crew more, and I’ve learned more about how the restaurant industry works.

“I’ve had the time to think about my life prior to COVID and what changes I’ve made going forward. Whether you believe this virus is a hoax or you feel you have to live in a bubble until this goes away, your life does change. Seeing how others around you react in adversity is eye-opening. From seeing those that wear just masks, to seeing others wearing hazmat type suits. I never thought that of the 9.5 years that I’ve been here that I’d be doing this, but the silver lining is the people I’ve met along the journey. I take each day as a blessing and will continue to come to work each day and do my part until this passes.”

Danny DeMarco

General Manager
The Butchery, Costa Mesa

The Butchery started curbside pick-up of meats as a way to accommodate customers who could no longer come inside to purchase their goods.

“The beginning was insane. We didn’t know what to expect, but we knew we had to be here for our customers and our community. We had a lot of new customers coming in who weren’t able to find what they needed at their regular grocery store, so initially it was a little chaotic. Then during the meat shortage, we were lucky because many of the smaller ranches we work with were still able to supply us, and we were able to fill in the gaps to make sure our customers could get what they needed. It was also great to serve as a vendor for these small ranches throughout the West whose high-end restaurant business had vanished, and support them through this.”

Sam Saad

Operator and Franchisee
Farmer Boys, Fullerton (S. Placentia Ave.)

Finishing construction and opening a new restaurant is a scary proposition in normal times. This became extra stressful for Saad after the March restrictions were in place and his doors had not yet opened.

“Once the shutdown began in March, all construction was halted, and I was stuck not knowing when we would be able to complete the buildout of the restaurant. Once we were finally able to complete construction and get our employees trained, we didn’t know how the opening would go since we were limited to drive-thru and to-go. However, the Fullerton community has been more supportive than we could have imagined, which has made the delays and struggles worth it. We are so grateful for their support through all of this.”

Hilary Rosenberg

Server
Scarlet Kitchen & Lounge, Rancho Mission Viejo

Rosenberg is among those servers who has been able to continue to work, albeit, while also juggling a more complicated home environment.

“The past few months have not been easy, but as a lifelong worker in the restaurant business, service is still my goal. Needless to say, as a single mom, I’ve had to make some serious lifestyle changes regarding COVID, work, and home. Just the same, providing my customers at Scarlet with a simple break from the daily madness (and perhaps a few smiles) is hugely satisfying to me in the hopes of them returning to a place that provides comfort, and a server that makes them always feel special and appreciated.

“It’s been a tough balancing act, though. The increased demands on my time away from home, and my kids trying to adjust to a new, home-based classroom setting have not been easy. I’ve had to do a lot of juggling to continue to take care of my kids and home. As far as masks are concerned, while they may be an inconvenience and distraction to some, it’s important for me to protect my customers and my household at the end of my working day.

“Through it all, I have a loyal clientele that I so appreciate. Has it been easy? Absolutely not. But it has been tremendously satisfying to be able to see happy customers who just need a break and a great dining experience, which is why I do my best to make all of my customers feel special, look forward to returning, and shutting out the outside world, if only for a brief time. This is a service industry, and now more than ever I feel responsible to make my customers feel as though they’ve come ‘home’ for a delicious meal and conversation.”

 

In Related News

In recent weeks, a duo of local craft breweries have been on my radar and I’ve been wanting to learn more about their current situations.

Riip Beer Company along PCH in Huntington Beach found their stride during the pandemic, thanks to teaming up with neighbors within their plaza.

Bearded Tang Brewing off Beach Boulevard in Stanton was earning their sea legs, thanks to a major beer release during the first week of operation.

Coincidentally, they also worked together this past week; more on that below.

Bearded Tang Brewing

Not only is Bearded Tang the first brewery in Stanton, it’s also the first in Orange County to be based inside of a food hall.

JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Brandon Smith of Bearded Tang Brewing

Per owner Brandon Smith, he’d always been eyeing Stanton as a market for a brewery. After meeting Dan Almquist (developer of Rodeo 39 Public Market) he knew for sure. He discovered that they both have a passion for pushing the limits on what’s considered normal. “It’s a tremendous challenge, coordinating industrial-sized utilities inside a retail environment with a live performance stage behind our bar, all while balancing logistics and efficiency with a major center.”

To kick off their first week of operation on Thursday, Sept. 3, Bearded Tang conducted an aggressive beer release. Forecasting sales of approximately 200 “crowlers” (growlers in the form of a 64-ounce cans), actual pre-sales surpassed 500, putting them in a filling frenzy when I arrived to witness the drive-thru distribution that wrapped around Rodeo 39’s parking lot.

JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

“Crowlers” were distributed by Bearded Tang Brewing during drive-thru distribution which wrapped around Rodeo 39’s parking lot.

The brewery’s quartet of offerings included (Cali)bration, a blonde ale. At 5.4% alcohol by volume, their very first beer created is crushable with a mild hoppiness. Peach Blvd (5% ABV) is a fruited wheat ale whose name is a play on their physical address. The tartness of biting into just-picked fruit best describes its flavor. Calm, Cool, Collected utilizes a blend of Citra, El Dorado, and Motueka hops, creating a pleasantly hoppy aroma in this 6% ABV hazy IPA. Lastly, Tank’d (7% ABV) also combines a trio of hops, but in a West Coast IPA style. Referencing their tang fish theme, Smith called it a “mash up of a fish tank and when you accidentally have the second IPA on a mostly empty stomach.”

Despite a small staff and reasonable rent, the pressures of opening manifested in other ways, namely, COVID-related construction delays: “We had vendors close shop in the middle of contracted work, and equipment from overseas is still missing.” Smith remarks. They also had the team from Riip Beer Company come through when equipment wasn’t performing. “If it wasn’t for Riip and their friendship, we would not have been successful. Their passion for community and always impeccable product elevates the Orange County beer scene.”

Riip Beer Company

Established in 2014, the “Millenial Milkmen” of Huntington Beach were brothers-in-law who initially sold bottles and growlers out of their refurbished 1931 Helms Bakery Coach before settling on the corner of Pacific Coast Highway and Warner, considered Sunset Beach by locals.

Head Brewer Ian McCall worked out a solution when breweries without an on-site kitchen were given strict guidelines on serving a meal alongside beer transactions; they created partnerships with eateries within their plaza (Stoney’s Pizza, Secret Spot, and Super Mex later on) to draft limited menus at affordable prices. “In the wake of this pandemic, it quickly became clear that all businesses, especially small businesses, needed to work together if we want to make it to the other side.” McCall elaborated.

Previously operating under a bar service model, Riip pivoted to a full-service operation once customers were no longer allowed to walk up to the bar to place orders. Existing and expanded tented patios have tables physically distanced. Staff who are beertenders by trade are now hosts, order takers, food runners, and bussers – all while masked. McCall remarked, “There is a mountain of miscellaneous guidelines, standard operating procedures, and compliance documents that are being handled behind the scenes.” Employee temperature checks, micromanaged handwashing, and the sanitation of furniture and high-touch surfaces are a few of the practices the brewery added to remain compliant.

Although the vast majority of customers respect and adhere to regulations without complaint, McCall believes many consumers take for granted the overhead required to provide solid customer service during the pandemic. “Our margins are tighter than they’ve ever been. Cost of goods is up, freight is up and labor costs are doubled or tripled due to needing to bring on more staff to operate as a restaurant, not a brewery tasting room.” While Riip is doing their best to stay afloat, many local businesses have not been as fortunate.

Finally

Playground is Downsizing Operations Until 2021 Closure

On Thursday, August 27, 2020, Playground DTSA recorded a 35+ minute video on Instagram. Interpretations of the video varied across social media, so here’s the Cliff’s Notes version.

The primary takeaway customers will want to know is that 1.9 and Dough Exchange models remain in operation. Signature Playground dishes may find their way to 1.9 menus; some are on Dough Exchange’s menu. “1.9” is the equivalent concept to their 2.0 prix fixe space, but since indoor dining is currently not an option, their special patio dinners are coined under this term. Dough Exchange is their previous bakery next door that shuttered in 2015, then reopened in June.

The Playground-specific menu closed at the end of August; their final day of ordering was August 29. According to Quinn, “Reserves are down 80%, which comes out to roughly $1k a day, $5k a week spent to keep Playground and all related operations running at their current state.”

They had originally forecasted September 20 as the final day of food under the Playground moniker. The date that is confirmed, however, is December 31, 2021 for all Playground operations (including 1.9 and Dough Exchange) to close, approximately 16 months from now. It also lines up with the final day of their lease, and over a month after their 10-year anniversary.

Playground is avoiding any crowdfunding such as GoFundMe. “Do not feel like this is not something that we want.” says Quinn, “My personal plan is to move to Montreal and start a concept that is a lot closer to 2.0. I found that this experience, that the experience of producing a dish and handing it off to a line cook to do, is not a particularly enjoyable experience to me.” À Dieu vit, Playground.

Anne Marie Panoringan is the food columnist for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. She can be reached at ampanoringan@voiceofoc.org.