The Restaurant Host Is Suddenly at the Front of the Covid Wars

Forget the powerful maître d’ of old. Today’s hosts are mostly young, inexperienced women who have to enforce health rules and deal with the sometimes violent response.

Caroline Young says that since the pandemic began she has experienced so much harassment from customers that she recently quit her job as a host at Café Poêtes in Houston.Credit…Annie Mulligan for The New York Times

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By Priya Krishna

Caroline Young was thrilled to be hired two years ago as a host at Café Poêtes in Houston. She was pursuing an undergraduate degree in hospitality, so she thought the experience in fine dining would be invaluable. She wanted to be the first person to greet arriving diners.

Initially, she said, most guests seemed glad to see her. Since the pandemic, not so much.

“I have been screamed at. I have had fingers in my face. I have been called names. I have had something thrown at me,” she said. One customer hurled a water glass at her feet and stormed out after she repeatedly asked him to put on a mask. “I have never been yelled at like that before in my life, until I was asking people to simply put a piece of cloth over their face that I was wearing eight to 10 hours a day.”

Once upon a time, the host, or maître d’ in formal dining rooms, held a position of some prestige and power, as the public face of the restaurant and the arbiter of who got the most coveted tables. Today, the job is often entry-level, and saddled with the difficult tasks of asking customers to don masks, maintain social distancing or present proof of vaccination. Hosts have to judge whether diners have complied, and to deal with any blowback.

The job’s new perch at the front lines of the culture wars has made headlines in recent weeks: Hostesses were physically attacked and injured after trying to enforce Covid guidelines — in August at a Chili’s in Baton Rouge, La., and this month at the Carmine’s on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. The three Black women charged in that incident later said the host had used a racial slur.

Women make up 81.9 percent of all hosts in American restaurants (and 81.2 percent of all hosts are white), according to a 2020 report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Most are young, just starting out in the business and not making much money. The bureau reported in 2020 that the average annual wage for hosts was $24,800.

“These places are putting 20-something women up to bat against all these people,” said Ms. Young, who is 24 and recently quit out of frustration. “It is emotionally and physically exhausting to show up to a job every day where you know you are about to be drained.”

In interviews, several hosts from around the country said the job has grown significantly harder and more dangerous during the pandemic, as they’ve been charged with interpreting and enforcing health rules, often without training or support. Many customers, they said, have become enraged about the longer waits and slower service resulting from the staff shortages throughout the industry.

“Guests are much less patient,” said Brooke Walters, 24, a host at a high-end restaurant in Lexington, Ky., who identifies as agender. They asked that the business not be named because they feared for their job. “I do often times cry after most of my shifts.”

“I thought it was the job you got cute for and just walked guests to seats,” they added. “I was naive and wrong.”

Maria Antonioni, 26, a host at a Fort Lauderdale, Fla., location of the Houston’s chain, said that last week, a guest accused her of lying and yelled at her for 15 minutes after she told him there was an hour’s wait for a table.

Gracie Hambourger is tired of guests’ recurring demands that she take her mask off because they can’t hear her. “As a 21-year-old coming into the industry, I had heard stories,” said Ms. Hambourger, a host at Postino, a wine bar in Denver. “But nothing like this.”

At the Japanese restaurant Uchiba, in Dallas, guests are required to wear masks even though there is not a city or state mask mandate. Honor Burns, 23, said that as a host, this puts her in a difficult position — she knows the mask requirement makes her safer, but it has also led to an increase in angry customers.

Meena Rezaei, who works at Mister Jiu’s in San Francisco, lamented that hosts must bear the brunt of customer dissatisfaction with health protocols, even though they tend to be some of the youngest and least experienced people on staff. “You have to fake your way through it, and smile your way onto the next customer,” said Ms. Rezaei, 27.

Staffing shortages have forced many hosts to take on even more tasks.

“I am flipping our tables, clearing plates, I am taking calls that should be for the managers,” said Lily Bobrick, 19, a host at Boca, an Italian and French restaurant in Cincinnati.

Host responsibilities have become even more onerous in cities like New York, where proof of vaccination is required for indoor dining.

Michelle Chan, 22, a host at a Manhattan location of the Grey Dog cafe chain, said she doesn’t know how to tell whether a vaccination card is valid or phony, or what cards from foreign countries look like. “We kind of just let things slide,” she said, “because we don’t know what else to do.”

“Our manager bought us this air horn to keep at the hostess stand in case somebody does get disruptive or too violent,” she said, though no one has had to use it yet.

Given the precariousness of the job, Michelle Ricciardi, who worked until last month at the seafood restaurant Sea Wolf in Bushwick, Brooklyn, was surprised that her manager wasn’t more protective.

“There was somebody I reprimanded for not wearing a mask, and then my manager went and bought them a round of drinks,” said Ms. Ricciardi, 27. “It is unfortunate that so many girls and young women get that job and are just left up there to fend for themselves.”

Not every host has come under fire. At the Japanese restaurant Rule of Thirds in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, Jessalyn Gore, 25, said guests have been pleasant and even grateful to have their vaccination cards checked, especially with the Delta variant spreading. But she wonders if that amiability may wither in the winter, as diners wait in the cold to have their cards inspected.

Ms. Young, who quit her hosting job in Houston, isn’t eager to find out. She recently started as a reservationist at the Hotel Granduca.

“I get to talk to people on the phone,” she said. “No face to face. Really, it is amazing.”

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