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 2019late last year, 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.