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6 Tampa Bay restaurant and bar workers share stories of the shutdown

We talked to local hospitality workers about navigating unemployment during the statewide restaurant and bar shutdown.

As part of the statewide response to the coronavirus pandemic, Florida’s restaurants and bars were ordered to shut down dine-in service in late March, prompting the layoffs of hundreds of thousands of restaurant and hospitality workers.

The National Restaurant Association estimates around 598,000 food service workers in the state have lost their jobs since then.

On May 4, restaurants in Florida were allowed to reopen with limited capacity, but many have taken a slow, staggered approach. Bars are not yet allowed to reopen. For a variety of reasons, lots of hospitality workers still haven’t gone back to work.

We spoke with six who lost their jobs in the shutdown about their experiences navigating unemployment during this unprecedented time. We talked to them over the course of two months. At the bottom of each item is an update about where they find themselves now.

Ke’Lana Brown, 30

Server and hostess at 7th and Grove, Ybor City

Ke'Lana Brown, outside 7th + Grove in Ybor City. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

What Ke’Lana Brown misses the most right now isn’t the paychecks. She misses the regular customers that over the past year have become close friends. She misses the chatter with her colleagues on slow nights, and the pace and energy on busy ones. She misses the undeniable pull of restaurant camaraderie.

“To me, once you cross over that threshold, you become family,” Brown said. “This is all family for me — not just everyone I work with, but everyone in the community.”

Brown’s last day of work was March 15, just a few days before the statewide restaurant shutdown. Her job at the buzzy Ybor spot 7th and Grove was two-fold: As a hostess, she earned $10 an hour and worked two to three weekly shifts. The other shifts, Brown was a waitress, and was paid the state’s hourly minimum of $5.54 an hour plus tips.

At the end of each week, she’d average between $500 and $600. It was enough to pay the bills, but not to save up. When the restaurant closed, Brown knew she would have to find other ways to make ends meet.

“I didn’t have savings, which sucks. I was still working to get myself established,” she said.

For nearly two months now, Brown hasn’t seen an unemployment check. She applied in late March. Whenever she checks the state-run unemployment website, it just tells her the application is still pending.

“I really don’t know what’s going on,” she said.

In the meantime, Brown has found side work as a “mobile stylist,” packing up a beauty kit and doing hair and lashes for friends and friends of friends. She babysits and cleans apartments. She organizes clutter and rearranges storage units. She is also a model, but that work has dried up, too.

“I’m the Jackie of all trades,” she joked.

Brown said she’s been able to keep a stable trickle of customers throughout the shutdown. It’s enough to keep the lights on, at least. People still want to look good for birthday parties and family photo shoots.

The money won’t be enough in the long run. In addition to the rent on the Tampa home she shares with her boyfriend and younger brother, there are other bills to pay and family members to take care of. In 2009, Brown’s mother had a stroke and is still recovering. Her father has health issues, too, and her brother has sickle cell anemia.

“I am the oldest and only girl and so I have a lot of responsibility,” Brown said.

Brown has heard that the restaurant may reopen soon, and when it does she’s hoping there will be a job waiting for her. But there are no guarantees and not a lot of answers. It’s unlikely everyone will get their jobs back in the short-term.

Not returning to work would “put a hole in my heart,” she said.

The waiting is the hardest part. Brown doesn’t know when and if she’ll see her colleagues again. She hopes it’s soon.

Brown recently returned to work at 7th and Grove when the restaurant reopened with limited capacity. Because business is still very slow, Brown said she has only been working around 12 hours a week. She never received any unemployment benefits.

Michael Wojtowicz, 42

Events manager and bartender at Fermented Reality Biergarten, Tampa

Michael Wojtowicz sits at Fermented Biergarten in Sparkman Wharf. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Michael Wojtowicz wonders whether he’ll ever see a crowd again.

As the events manager at Fermented Reality Biergarten, the large bar at Tampa’s outdoor food hall Sparkman Wharf, gatherings and parties were a central part of his job.

What happens now? What happens next? He’s been mulling over questions like that a lot lately.

He asks the same thing on the many Zoom conference calls he has every two weeks with a group of the bar’s owners and employees. But no one seems to have a solid answer.

“We’re in a huge holding pattern,” Wojtowicz said. “It’s such a large space, and that’s our biggest worry right now. Am I ever going to see a large crowd again? Are the (Tampa Bay) Lightning ever going to play in front of fans again? Are people even going to want to do that anymore?”

For those who have made a career of hosting large events, the social distancing guidelines that have accompanied the COVID-19 response project a grim future. Wojtowicz’s job at the Channelside attraction included organizing, planning and booking large events at the space, sometimes with hundreds of people.

Wojtowicz, whose last day at the bar was March 17, said the shutdown couldn’t have come at a worse time.

“It started ramping up during Tampa Bay Beer Week,” he recalled. “There was WrestleMania. There was the end of the Lightning season. And then you had spring break — all rolled into one.”

In the two months since the shutdown began, Wojtowicz, who also tended bar at the outdoor space, still hasn’t seen an unemployment check.

“Fifty-one days, three applications, 700-plus phone calls and a whole lot of nothing,” he said.

His stimulus check and tax return finally arrived, and between that and his family’s second income — his wife is a professor at the University of Tampa — Wojtowicz said he has been able to stay afloat.

In the meantime, he’s been spending a lot of time in the kitchen at his Seminole Heights home, tackling projects like homemade limoncello and bao. He catches up with buddies virtually and takes long walks along the river to think. His thoughts always come back to the bar business, and he wonders what the future holds.

“We’re absolutely scared,” he said. “Are people going to want to gather in large spaces? And how hard are we going to have to work to get those people back?”

On May 19, Sparkman Wharf reopened with limited opening hours and capacity. Wojtowicz went back to work at Fermented Reality Biergarten with limited hours while the business operates as a to-go bar. He never received any unemployment benefits.

Vickie Moran, 47

Bartender at Green Bench Brewing Co. and the Ale and the Witch, St. Petersburg

Vickie Moran at Green Bench Brewing Co. in St. Petersburg. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

What does it feel like when the industry you’ve worked in for 30 years disappears overnight?

Vickie Moran knows.

A hospitality-world lifer, she’s worked in restaurants and bars since she was a teenager, first as a cook and later as a bartender.

Before the shutdown, Moran, 47, tended bar at St. Petersburg’s Green Bench Brewing Co. and tap house/live music venue the Ale and the Witch, which she helped open nearly a decade ago.

But when the bars had to shut down in March, it was as if the lights had been switched off overnight.

“We weren’t really sure what was going to happen,” Moran recalled.

While restaurants at the time were allowed to stay open for to-go operations, the bars she worked at didn’t serve food, so there was no option to stay on and help out with takeout or delivery. There was simply no more work, and in an industry built on the very premise of social gathering, no immediate light at the end of the tunnel.

Navigating Florida’s flawed unemployment system led to another wrinkle. Though her bosses at Green Bench immediately laid off all their employees so they would be able to collect unemployment benefits, her other job kept employees on the payroll longer so they could give them additional weeks of vacation pay.

“It was very helpful, but it meant that it put me behind everyone else,” Moran said.

Once she was able to finally apply, in April, she was at the back of the line. And the application process itself was a nightmare, she said.

“The whole website was a disaster,” Moran said. “I could just never get through. It sort of got stuck and just kept on saying ‘pending, resolved, pending, resolved.’ I couldn’t get any answers and couldn’t get on the phone with anybody and figure out what to do.”

For a month and a half after she stopped working, Moran didn’t receive any checks. No stimulus money, no unemployment benefits. She felt lucky she had put a little bit of money aside, which helped her pay that first month of rent on the apartment she shares with her boyfriend, who also works as a bartender.

Finally, in the first week of May, the checks started to come through. Her $247 unemployment check now comes once a week. Together with the stimulus check, she was able to pay May rent. She worries about what will happen in June.

Still, Moran said she feels lucky. She knows colleagues who have had a much harder time. She’s heard stories of greedy landlords and friends with zero savings to fall back on, who are facing the possibility of losing their home.

Unemployment has brought things for which she is grateful: She’s trying out new recipes, reorganizing her pantry, killing time with board games and puzzles.

“It’s funny, as much as I want to go back to work, I have really enjoyed sort of rediscovering different things when you’re not just sitting in front of the TV,” she said. “Because you just can’t do that all the time.”

Moran misses the bar. She texts with customers and has Zoom happy hours with her colleagues, but yearns for the intimacy with strangers that bartending provides.

“You still get a little of that social outlet, but it’s just not the same,” she said. “It’s not the same as looking somebody in the eye and having that one-on-one interaction with them — that’s the thing that I miss the most.”

Moran recently went back to work with limited hours at Ale and the Witch to help out with to-go sales. The bar is otherwise still closed, and so is Green Bench Brewing Co.

Chad Noce, 30

Restaurant manager at the Don CeSar Hotel

Chad Noce at the Don Cesar Hotel in St. Pete Beach. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Chad Noce thought he’d work in fine dining for the rest of his life. Now he’s not sure if he’ll ever go back.

At the Don CeSar Hotel in St. Pete Beach, where Noce worked as a manager, the fallout was swift. Weeks before the shutdown, the hotel started seeing cancellations. Weddings, corporate events, large family vacations — the backbone of the luxury tourism and hotel industry — all called off.

Then, the local business disappeared.

“When we started operating to-go food only, I had the feeling that something was going to happen,” Noce said.

The Tuesday before Gov. Ron DeSantis ordered the statewide restaurant shutdown, Noce and his colleagues were laid off.

Noce didn’t hesitate: He drove to Publix the same day and turned in an application. A few days later, he was stocking shelves at the grocery store.

“After researching unemployment in Florida I didn’t want to take any chances,” Noce said. “Who knows how long that money would take to come?”

It wasn’t Noce’s first time working in the grocery business. Before moving to Florida from Pennsylvania, he worked in retail management as a grocery manager. But when a job opened up at St. Petersburg’s FarmTable Cucina, he fell hard for the fine dining world.

He helped run the lauded Italian restaurant in downtown St. Petersburg for several years before it shuttered in late 2019, the result of an abrupt ownership change.

Noce quickly found work at the Don CeSar, which was a familiar fit: a beautiful property with an elegant restaurant setting; an elevated menu with dishes like braised Wagyu pappardelle and lobster ravioli with Osetra caviar; guests with plenty of money to spend.

His current grocery store job pays about half of his previous salary, and it won’t be enough to pay the bills in the long run, Noce said. He’ll have to get a second job. Or, more likely, move into an upper management position at Publix. He’s already expressed an interest.

“I’ve been burned by hospitality twice in the last two years,” Noce said. “Between FarmTable switching ownership and the coronavirus, I might just hang the hat up. I don’t want to, but you have to focus on the future.”

Noce and his girlfriend have considered moving back to Pennsylvania, where they may be able to save money on rent. It could be a chance to return to the hospitality and restaurant world. But it feels like a shaky gamble. What will a post-COVID world look like for fine dining? Will families and companies still travel in groups? Will people still have money to spend on high-end experiences?

Noce worries the industry isn’t recession-proof, and that the customers with money to spend won’t return, at least for a little while.

“I just really hope that this whole thing doesn’t destroy restaurants and hospitality as a whole,” he said. “But it has the absolute potential to do that.”

Noce was recently promoted to a full-time position at Publix and is applying for a management position. He doesn’t plan on returning to restaurant work at the moment.

Matt Villeneuve, 43

Server at Bern’s Steak House

Matt Villeneuve outside of Bern's Steak House in Tampa. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Twenty years is a long time to work at the same restaurant.

You get used to the rhythm and flow of the dining room, the hush at the beginning of service, the chaos and buzz of a busy Saturday night, the calm as the rush finally begins to ebb and the quiet right before the lights are turned off.

After two decades doing the same thing every day and every night, certain things cement themselves as routine.

For Matt Villeneuve, it’s the personal relationships that help punctuate that routine.

“The people add the depth and all the color to that experience,” he said.

It’s the friendly banter with his colleagues inside the Rhone Room at Bern’s Steak House, where Villeneuve has worked as a captain for several years. It’s the daily check-ins with the restaurant’s sommelier. It’s the regular customers who always ask to be seated in his section.

“It’s hard,” he said. “Those relationships are what keep you going during the day. Work is the anchor that sets your rhythm for the week — you need that rhythm to keep your balance.”

Since losing his job on March 20, Villeneuve has had to readjust. He’s found that getting up a little earlier in the morning helps. (In the Before Times, he often wouldn’t leave the restaurant till midnight or later.) Doing yard work helps. Finding small projects around the house helps. Talking to his wife helps.

“You have to keep busy,” he said. “You have to remember to shower and shave.”

Sometimes he calls Bern’s, which pivoted to takeout when the shutdown began and just recently started offering limited dine-in service, just to talk to whoever happens to pick up the phone. He plays Xbox on his couch, joined virtually by one of the sommeliers at the restaurant. He’s gotten better at keeping in touch with people online and through social media.

Villeneuve started training at Bern’s two days after he graduated college. The restaurant world was the only place he really wanted to work, Bern’s in particular.

“I’ve never looked back,” he said.

Villeneuve began as a waiter-in-training at the restaurant in 2000, working his way through a 10-month program and landing “on the floor” as a server after about 15 months.

As a captain, Villeneuve helped train other servers in his dining section, and worked five days a week, about 30 to 35 hours. Before the shutdown, his paychecks were roughly $1,000 to $1,500 a week after taxes, depending on how good the tips were.

After the restaurant was forced to close, it took a little over a month until his unemployment payments started rolling in, and they’ve been “sporadic,” he said. His wife, Lucia, also lost her job as a server at Eddie V’s in Tampa, and while the couple were able to defer some car payments and other bills, Villeneuve said he expected to be back at work by now.

“It’s been pretty disappointing,” he said.

May 8 would have been Villeneuve’s 20-year anniversary at Bern’s.

In anticipation of the milestone, he made a reservation for his family at the Tampa restaurant. His mother’s birthday was the day before, and all she wanted was the off-the-menu special steak sandwich.

Of course, the dinner never happened. On May 8, the restaurant was still closed for dine-in operations. Instead, Villeneuve and his wife picked up a curbside meal the night before and hosted a feast for his parents in their backyard.

It might have been different than what he expected, but the evening was still special.

“It was great to smell the onion rings again.”

Bern’s Steak House reopened for limited dine-in business on May 12. Villeneuve was not part of the initial reopening team and is still waiting to get his old job back.

Jessica Williams, 28

Bartender at Sea Worthy Fish + Bar

Jessica Williams at Sea Worthy Fish + Bar in Tierra Verde. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Jessica Williams had just started her new job at Sea Worthy Fish + Bar in Tierra Verde when she found out she was out of a job. Again.

The 28-year-old bartender was just coming off unemployment. Her longtime gig at FarmTable Cucina in downtown St. Petersburg was cut short when that restaurant was forced to close at the end of 2019.

“I’d been working there for so long I didn’t really know what to do,” she said. “When you’ve been somewhere for so long, where do you go?”

When she got hired as part of the opening staff at Sea Worthy, a new restaurant from the owners of St. Petersburg’s Brick and Mortar, it felt like the beginning of something promising. Williams was joined by a few of her former FarmTable Cucina colleagues. She got along great with the staff and the owners. She quickly fell in love with her regulars.

“I felt like I had finally discovered my new work family after FarmTable closed,” she said. “And then disaster struck.”

In the past two months, Williams has been getting by on some unemployment money and food stamps. She feels lucky that she is able to live with her parents — landlords that won’t kick her out if she can’t pay her rent, which right now she can’t. There’s also the student debt she owes — roughly $70,000 — and other bills to pay. But those will have to wait.

“I had a little over a month for savings and that was it,” she said. “Most of us are living check to check. If anything else, it’s reinforced the importance of me being in control of my financial situation.”

In the meantime, Williams tries to stay busy. She reads bartending manuals and has been taking online mixology courses. She’s studying hospitality management and trying to prepare for what the world might look like when this is all over.

“I want to make sure I’m indispensable," she said. “Things might be changed forever. Even if people start going out again to eat and drink, there will always be this memory of this time, about how easily we were all displaced. It’s going to be a call to the government, and all these other agencies: How do we make this industry safe, and so this doesn’t happen again?”

The economic backlash caused by the coronavirus shutdowns has Williams thinking of alternative career choices, but in the end she said she can’t bear the thought of leaving the hospitality world behind.

“This situation has me second-guessing, like, ‘What if I did something else? Would I be in the same situation?’ But you do what you do because you love to do it. I couldn’t see myself doing anything else,” she said. “I live and breathe it. I bring it home with me. It’s my entire life.”

Sea Worthy Fish + Bar has reopened with limited outside dining. Williams has not been hired back and is looking for work.