There are people behind those masks

Service industry often bears brunt of frustrated customers.
Photo by Teri Genovese

If you’ve dined out during the COVID-19 pandemic, you’ve probably noticed many changes. Masked restaurant staff, adjusted seating capacities and limited menus are just a few of the differences over the last two years as restaurants work tirelessly to overcome unforeseen obstacles and stay in business.

And just like those businesses, countless people have had to adapt as things continue to change. Anna Barncord is one of those people. An Indiana transplant who moved to Grand Rapids in July 2019, Barncord has been working in the hospitality industry for much of her life.

She is one of those often “nameless and faceless” people in the service industry who are struggling just to survive while bearing the brunt of frustrated customers who expect everything to be the same as it was two years ago.

This is her story.

“I started serving way, way, way back in the day at a Steak ’n Shake, which was super fun. Then, I started bartending at a TGI Fridays. I moved on from there to a little local brewpub in Indiana, and went from there to an upscale, casual dining experience in Chicago, which was really fun — right on Michigan Avenue — where I bartended and served. Then I moved here, and I bartended at the AC Hotel for two-and-a-half years.

With COVID, there was a very long period of time where I just wasn’t able to work, which was scary. A couple of my friends who lived in Chicago and worked at that same restaurant that I used to work at, when everything shut down, they never heard from the restaurant ever again. They just never reopened. They never gave them a return-back date or reached out about their health insurance or benefits or anything. So, they just had to move on when things started reopening, which is really terrible.

The hotel was very good about communication, but we did open and close several times, and the whole process of dealing with unemployment was very new and very stressful. It was definitely the most stressful part of all of this, just not knowing whether or not I can pay my rent that month.

At first when everything was still pretty crazy, most guests were very compliant with wearing masks. They understood, especially because many of them travel and that was really risky. When things started to open up more, we kept our mask mandate at the hotel a lot longer than some other places did, and people were not thrilled about that. People traveling from states that are a lot more open were very vocal about how they hated it and that they thought it was really terrible being in Michigan because it felt so restrictive.

I was talking at one point to this couple on one end of the bar about how our governor has been handling everything and how we’ve been closed down and how I personally was OK with it, and this other couple across the bar, they were like, ‘We’ll take our bill,’ and they paid, they tipped and they left. The next day, I got talked to by my manager because they left a review for the hotel saying, ‘We really don’t like the girl bartender spreading all of her political beliefs at the bar; we don’t like the way that their governor has been handling everything.’ I’m still a person with a personality and opinions, and if someone wants to talk to me about those opinions, I’m perfectly happy to talk to them. If you’re not involved in my conversation, then kindly stay out of it.

This other time, it was really early on during COVID, and there were hardly ever people at the bar. I had these girls that came in right before close, and we still had the mask mandate for guests for when they were up and moving around, and I remember I was shutting things down and I had my mask on. They were just sitting at the bar, and they both got up to go to the bathroom, and they were having fun, and they didn’t put their masks on, and one of them was like, ‘Wait, wait, we need our masks,’ and then the other one looked around, and she was like, ‘But there’s no one in here.’ I just stood there, and I was looking at them and I was thinking, ‘I’m right here.’ Clearly, they didn’t think of me as a person at the bar, even though I was literally serving them drinks. I just was so dumbfounded by that. I remember telling that to one of my friends and just thinking, ‘There’s no one in here,’ OK, I’m no one. Got it. Right.

There’s always been this weird thing, sometimes, with men and female bartenders, but since COVID, I’ve had at least two or three men at my bar who have seen my ID photo on my lanyard and they’re like, ‘Oh, you look so great without the mask, will you pull it down so I can see your face?’ I had one guy who was like, ‘Pull it down and give me a smile; I want to see your smile,’ and I am at a loss for words. Usually I say, ‘Well, I can’t for safety’s sake,’ trying hard to just make it as straightforward as possible without sounding completely offended or grossed out.

Besides that, hearing people and understanding people — I’ve gotten really good at nonverbal communication, which is unfortunate, but it’s been harder with masks. So much of our profession is being that smiley, chipper person and getting your tips from that, and it’s hard when your face is covered. It also has been kind of refreshing because I don’t always have to be smiley and chipper. That stigma with service industry people is so standard, I think, and it’s been kind of nice not having to worry about it, not always having to have a smile plastered on my face and still being compensated.

It’s a very physically demanding job, and masks don’t make it any easier. Any bartending or serving job that you go into, they ask you if you’re physically capable of doing this job because there’s a lot to it. There would be nights when we’ve been busier and busier — and we’re still wearing masks — that I need to go in the back and switch mine because it’s covered in sweat. I can’t breathe because it’s soaked. It’s just been really tough physically.

It’s a challenge that I never expected to have, of course, and it’s especially weird when your bar is full of patrons that are unmasked, and they’re running around and they’re drunk and they have no sense of space, and you’re still wearing your mask for safety’s sake, but it feels like safety’s out the window when there’s that many other people that are unmasked. It’s an interesting time. Even with vaccines, I have my booster, I’m doing my best to keep people safe, and then when your restaurant or your bar says all your patrons don’t need to wear masks and we’re not going to check for vaccines, it just kind of feels like, ‘OK, well, what are you doing to keep me safe? I’m wearing the mask to keep them safe, but what about me?’

Being in the hospitality industry is tough because we were hurting for money because people weren’t traveling, so the hotel wasn’t doing great. It’s kind of hard to be in that position because you’re stuck between a rock and a hard place. Do you let people walk around without a mask, maybe endangering the lives of others? Or do you lose out on that little bit of revenue that you might be taking in? I felt like I couldn’t say anything; I didn’t want to get in trouble for making a guest angry, and that’s why it’s so hard because I just felt like I was stuck again between a rock and a hard place.

I think one really nice thing that COVID did was give people a little bit more appreciation for going out to eat because there was that huge chunk of time when we were all at home and no one was going out and no one was doing anything. Then finally, when restrictions lifted, it was like a burst of people, and it was like people wanted to go out all the time.

Even with some of the awful people that have come through, there’s been just as many, if not more, people who are sympathetic to the situation and who have tipped over the typical 20% and have been more generous because they understand that we were an industry that was hit really hard with this. It’s been nice in that sense.

As far as masks go, I think it’s something that’s going to stick around for a lot of places, at least for a little while longer. I just think it gives patrons and guests a little more peace of mind knowing that their chef wasn’t breathing all over their food.

I just hope that we can see how much more valued service industry people are and maybe start changing wages so that they’re not just living off of tips — taking into account the amount of time and effort that they’re putting into this job and their own safety and maybe being able to compensate them more for that because we were almost like an essential business for a while and we’re putting ourselves out there.”

When asked about what customers could do to help create a more positive dining experience for everyone, Barncord had this to say:

“No.1 on the list without any doubt is to be patient. There are so many things happening behind the scenes that customers never see, and many of these things have been affected by COVID. Your table may take longer to prepare because we have to take extra precautions to sanitize it. Your food may take longer to cook because we are super short-staffed because employees are sick. We may not have a lot of the products that you like because shipping and transportation has been so difficult. Each of these little things adds up and guests don’t understand how much these little things bother them until they start to happen. Trust me, as staff, we hate it just as much, if not more, than the customers. We want to be operating at full speed, but we have to ensure the safety of the guests. A little patience and understanding can go a long way.

No. 2 is to tip your servers and bartenders 20%. We all know that service industry workers live off of tips, and for many months over the last couple years, most of us were out of the job. It wasn’t easy. And now with restrictions keeping us to certain capacities, we aren’t able to build up the big numbers we saw pre-COVID. Many of us are making much less money than we were before this pandemic. I understand if you have a bad experience or things take too long or something is messed up with your food. Like I said earlier, as staff, we don’t want these things to happen either! It directly affects our paychecks. You may not agree with the system, but it’s not going to change anytime soon, so for now, please tip your staff, and they will be eternally grateful and excited to see you come back again.

COVID took out a lot of small businesses. The next thing I would ask customers to consider is trying out local spots rather than chain restaurants. Grand Rapids has so much to offer in the realm of food and beverage — unique spots that give the city its flavor. Help out a local business by stopping by for a drink or ordering dinner to go. Help the people of this city thrive by patronizing their businesses. The chains will survive, but many of these family-owned spots might not. Consider where you go the next time you head out to dinner.”

This story can be found in the March/April 2022 issue of Grand Rapids Magazine. To get more stories like this delivered to your mailbox, subscribe here

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Ever since Pasha Shipp could talk, she's been dreaming up colorful stories. Fantasy creatures, mysterious kingdoms, enchanted forests, you name it. As she reached adulthood, she decided to take the magic out of her head and put it down on paper. Pasha has been writing for Grand Rapids Magazine since November 2015, and has loved every minute of it. She has a master's degree in Communication and a bachelor's degree in Film Studies from Grand Valley State University and Western Michigan University respectively. When she isn't daydreaming and writing stories for the magazine, she's exploring the many hidden treasures of Grand Rapids with her fiancé.