The feelings that come to mind when one thinks about COVID often involve negativity, frustration and loss. But for some individuals, the past 18 months resulted in a change for the better – a silver lining, if you will. 

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.

Restaurant closures and workers forced to change careers have resulted in a mass exodus in the hospitality industry. According to economist Joe Song while on the “Marketplace” radio show, “food services and drinking places were down 41,500 workers” since COVID lockdowns began.” 

Change happens at different speeds for everyone. Some people are quick to adapt, while others need additional time due to factors that are in or outside of their control. The decision to walk away from a career can be a tough one, but that initial step involves trusting one’s instincts. 

Making the Transition

For Sherwood Souzankari, former bar director of Angelina’s Pizzeria in Irvine, leaving occurred early on during the pandemic. He spent 12 years in the service industry in various dining room and kitchen capacities and he felt his time in the industry was coming to a close; the shutdowns made it definitive. 

While employed, Souzankari was commuting 36 miles each way, working between 60-75 hours with one day off each week. It was taking a physical toll on his well-being. “Once I had parted ways with them, it almost seemed as if there was a giant weight off my shoulders. I slept well for the first time in about a year.” he said.

Sherwood Souzankari worked in kitchens and bars for 12 years before he transitioned to becoming a contractor and his own boss. Credit: Photo courtesy of Sherwood Souzankari

Since leaving Angelina’s, Souzankari joined his father’s business. He is co-owner of American Art Contractor, a general contracting business out of Long Beach which provides construction services such as building patios, roofing, new homes, etc.

Santa Ana resident Julia Porter’s timing involved coming to terms with emotional stress due to guilt. As someone who grew up in restaurants (her grandparents and her father owned eateries), it felt as though she was abandoning her hospitality family. “I had invested so much of myself into my career in the industry that I felt very unhinged spending six months doing nothing.” 

Porter has worked in fast food, corporate restaurants and fine dining. Her last industry job was as general manager of Mesa restaurant in Costa Mesa for a decade. With an uncertain future during the initial pandemic shutdown, she pursued a change leading to job security, opportunity for growth, a better schedule to spend time with her children, plus being able to apply the skills acquired from years of experience. 

She is now the director of operations for The Image Center, a collection of medical spas plus a plastic surgery center specializing in chemical peels, cosmetic injectables, body contouring and other procedures. It has been a year since Porter left Mesa and she says she is at peace with her decision. “I felt an itch to grow. The state of the industry at that time was so uncertain and the bills were looming.”

Transitioning out of food service was much more recent for Benjamin Wallenbeck. He spent 15 years working in dining rooms and on the cooking line, including in a position as chef de cuisine at Ways & Means when it first opened in Orange, and recently as a barista in San Diego.

He left his job in San Diego in August of this year, and is working toward an advanced healthcare degree. He is now a clerk in the acute rehabilitation unit (ARU) at a hospital in Texas. The textbook definition of a nursing unit clerk involves administrative duties, but Wallenbeck says it includes a great deal of patient interaction to nurture them back to self-sufficiency. “I give care to bodies who have hijacked the souls. They are still in there, in glimpses maybe, but they are still there.”

His journey from food service to healthcare has been philosophical and involved taking a look within himself. “I wanted to see our own brokenness and I wanted to see our own beauty. To confront my own racist beliefs, understand my privilege and subsequently understand my power to make change for good where possible.” Wallenbeck’s inclination to serve and make connections with individuals made the shift to healthcare a natural one, removing himself from California in the process.

Their Pasts Inform Their Futures

The long-term goals for all of the former service industry workers began with setting an intention and taking steps to move in the direction of their goals. None of them have a desire to return to food service, but they all aspire to grow in their new chosen career paths.

Porter realized she had grown comfortable in her restaurant profession. She prepared herself for advancement and landed in a fortunate situation. “I’ve seen so many people dismantled from the paths they thought were set for themselves. There are so many factors to consider when changing industries and many times you cannot move laterally,” Porter said. 

In addition to advancing within her current industry, Porter is interested in independent work where she ultimately becomes her own boss. She also considers growing her family. “I think many of us, through our varied experiences over the last two years, have found a commonality that we realized how precious our time truly is.” 

And her deep connection with customer service transfers easily to her new career path. “There is nothing that brings me joy in my professional life more than creating memorable experiences for others.” 

Cooking wasn’t Wallenbeck’s first profession. He transitioned into the culinary field thinking the lifestyle would mask an existing drinking problem. “I think about that often. About the journey I went on personally over that time. I am forever grateful despite my grievances.” he says. Starting anew in a different place with another career is just one segment of a continuing life path for Wallenbeck. 

Wallenbeck’s future continues to involve serving others. Once he earns his advanced healthcare degree, he plans to work with residents in rural communities. Looking back on the restaurant industry, he wants to see change. “I hope we have a better working environment. I hope we increase pay, protection and benefits. I hope we change food culture for the better,” he says.

Walking away from an unstable lifestyle after more than a decade was the best thing Sherwood Souzankari did during COVID. “Although a lot of people had very negative experiences with this pandemic, I’d almost say this was an extremely positive shift for me,” he says. 

No longer dealing with people trying to steal tips or complaining because they want something for free is a change for Souzankari. “It almost seems as if the majority of restaurants I’ve worked for will condition their workers to give up their entire livelihoods to make any money, between picking up shifts, covering for people, and distribution of ‘good shifts’; it’s dog eat dog,” he says. 

While Souzankari runs the contracting business with his father, he continues to have bigger dreams. “I see myself running a larger construction firm, with a home base set up not too far from where I live, with the ability to build and develop any sized project.” 

If he were to return to the hospitality industry, he would be his own boss, he says.

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

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