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What restaurant workers want you to know about dining out right now

One of the most important things diners can do is to remember that everyone is trying to adapt to the "new normal."
Illustration of table with bills, a mask and a sand watch
Labor shortages are impacting the operations of restaurants, sometimes leaving them short-staffed.TODAY Illustration / Getty Images

As vaccination rates increase and coronavirus cases fall, many in the United States are moving towards a new normal, including diners and restaurant workers. Outdoor dining is still an option in many areas, and some are enjoying indoor dining for the first time in over a year.

Restaurant workers spoke to TODAY to share the things they hope customers keep in mind in the coming months.

Keep mask etiquette in mind

While mask rules are in flux all over the country, Darron Cardosa, a server who also runs a popular blog called the Bitchy Waiter, said that customers should consider wearing their masks as they enter the restaurant to show some consideration for the workers there.

"It's just a sign of respect," Cardosa said. "We all know it's a little silly, you're taking your mask off once you sit down and it's not like the virus is no longer transferable once you're sitting, but just walking into the restaurant with your mask on shows that you're aware of the (pandemic) going on."

Krista Lepore, a restaurant worker who lost her job at the start of the pandemic, said that servers would likely appreciate people putting their masks on whenever a member of the restaurant staff approaches their table, noting that food service workers are at a higher risk of exposure for the virus.

"Whenever a server, a runner, anyone, approaches my table (while dining out), I hold my mask back up to my face, out of courtesy but also as a protection, and I think that really should be the etiquette in restaurants," Lepore said, noting that in her area less than half of the population is fully vaccinated.

"Obviously you have to have your mask off to eat and drink, but when someone's approaching your table, put your mask back on: It's an extra protection for everybody but it also goes to show respect for the people waiting on you, that you value their safety and you value them taking care of you so you can get out of lockdown and have a nice meal," Lepore continued.

When you aren't wearing your mask, make sure that it's not in a place where workers will have to touch or move it.

"I can't tell you how many times I've watched people just take their mask off and then lay it on the table," Cardosa said. "Then it's in the way when I need to put food down and I don't want to touch someone else's mask ... When you take your mask off, kindly put it in your pocket or in your bag, don't just lay it on the table and expect a server to have to move it, and certainly don't leave it on the table when you go."

Be patient with workers

Cardosa and Lepore both said that one thing that diners should keep in mind right now is that labor shortages are impacting the operations of restaurants, sometimes leaving them short-staffed. However, both said that customers should be empathetic towards the servers in the restaurant and people who haven't returned to the industry yet.

If you are at a restaurant that appears to be running slowly or otherwise struggling, exercise some compassion toward the employees who are there.

"I think it's important that people understand that for people who work in restaurants, it is a career. It's not a backup plan. It's a real job, and it's an extraordinarily difficult job. And people are not sitting at home being lazy people, but they're disenchanted by how they were treated (at the start of the pandemic)," said Lepore, who noted that many employees were laid off with no warning or benefits and had little support during the pandemic. "COVID is not over. ... What if (the virus) spikes again and all those people are tossed aside again? That's why people don't want to go back. They're afraid that that's what going to happen to them again."

Be flexible

Manish Mallick, operator of the Indian restaurant ROOH Chicago, said that one of the most important things diners can do right now is to remember that everyone is still trying to "adapt to the new normal."

"I would request all our patrons continue to be sensitive about the issues we've been facing," Mallick said. "Now's the time to continue to exercise caution for the safety of themselves, their loved ones and the employees of the restaurant. ... Be a little bit relaxed, but try to be safe."

Cardosa said that some restaurants might be operating on a limited menu, or use digital versions of their menu with a QR code.

"Customers should know that they can't just go into a restaurant and expect the menu that they had 14 months ago is going to be exactly the same way today," he said.

Avoid "camping out" at tables

Cardosa said that since many restaurants are still dealing with capacity limits, they may have limits on how long a party can sit at a table. Even if the restaurant doesn't have a formal time limit policy in place, customers should be cognizant of how their time at the table can limit a restaurants' ability to operate.

"Because of limited capacity, the turnover isn't as high and restaurants aren't making as much money and servers aren't making as much money, so it would be really terrific if customers could recognize that and once they're done eating, move on, because lingering at a table for 20 or 30 minutes after you're done is not helping the restaurant industry at all," Cardosa said. "... Once you've paid your check, servers and restaurant owners alike would be incredibly grateful if you could give up your table for someone else who's waiting to come in."

Cardosa also said that customers should remember that a table being open doesn't necessarily mean people can sit there.

"I want customers to recognize that just because there are empty tables it doesn't mean that it's for you," he said, pointing to capacity limits and social distancing policies. "It's inconvenient, but we're all learning to adapt and deal with the changes that COVID presented, and that's just one of them."

Remember to tip

Leaving a gratuity on a restaurant bill has a long history in the United States, but restaurant workers asked that customers be as generous as possible during the pandemic.

"Restaurant workers, unlike any other industry, depend on the tips," said Mallick. "... For our employees, it's all depending on tips. That's their livelihood. I would say please be generous. They might not always live up to your standards, but just remember that they are human beings and they are trying as hard as possible. Don't overlook that fact."

Cardosa said that in an era where more people are ordering to-go or delivery, it's appreciated to tip on those orders.

"No server is expecting 20% for takeout, but 10% would be nice; even a few dollars would be terrific," he said, pointing out that servers in some restaurants may be taxed on the sale of a to-go or delivery order, which means they may pay money on it even if they aren't tipped. "Just 10% when you order takeout would be so appreciated."