Lifers: How the people who serve you survived the last year

·15 min read
From left, Dante De La Rosa, Abby Zialcita, Enrique Rosas and Cynthia Longley.
From left, Dante De La Rosa (server at Las Brisas restaurant), Abby Zialcita (service operations manager for Tartine Silver Lake and Sycamore), Enrique Rosas (bartender at Tam O'Shanter) and Cynthia Longley (director of operations for the Lucques Group). (Photographs by Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Restaurants provide solace, sustenance, acceptance, joy and a much-needed escape for countless communities. The employees who greet you at the door, take your order and mix your cocktails are essential workers who create memories and make magic happen every day.

But in the last year, frequently changing guidelines and restrictions have upended the lives of millions of people who work in hospitality nationwide — people who are now experiencing under-employment, unemployment or job descriptions they never could have imagined. It's estimated that 372,000 jobs from food services and drinking places were lost in December 2020.

A year into the COVID-19 pandemic, we talked to four longtime hospitality workers.

Dante De La Rosa, 57, server at Las Brisas in Laguna Beach

Portrait of longtime server Dante De La Rosa at Las Brisas restaurant in Laguna Beach.
Portrait of longtime server Dante De La Rosa at Las Brisas restaurant in Laguna Beach. He refers to the restaurant as his second home. (Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

"I got into the hospitality business because I failed high school," Dante De La Rosa said. The longtime Las Brisas server was seated at a table in the dining room of his restaurant on a recent afternoon. His salt-and-pepper hair was slicked back and a lighting-bolt-shaped earring caught the sunlight in his left ear.

Growing up in Acapulco, De La Rosa wanted to be a famous singer (his windswept locks rivaled Farrah Fawcett's). But when he flunked out of school, his parents sent him to work at Carlos ’N Charlie’s, a friend’s restaurant in Acapulco de Juárez.

“I hated it,” he said. “My friends were all going to surf the beach and I had to go to work.”

De La Rosa was part of the maintenance crew and spent his days cleaning bathrooms. But he'd spent enough time in the restaurant to understand that some of the rituals were compelling. The disco music started at 5 p.m., and every night guests danced and drank into the early morning hours. He started to look at the restaurant world as a party he wanted to be a part of.

He flirted with fame when his band won a competition in the ’80s. But that career never took off, and De La Rosa ended up working as a server at Beto Safari, a tourist-heavy restaurant in Acapulco with a real lion cub at the door. He moved to the United States in 1988 and held a series of service jobs at restaurants owned by the group that runs the El Torito chain. In between shifts, he attended an adult high school.

“I graduated at the age of 29 with a 3.5 GPA in another language in another country,” he said. He continued to work in the hospitality industry.

In 1992, he landed a job as a bartender at Las Brisas in Laguna Beach. After eight months, in search of better tips and shifts, he became a server. Nearly 30 years later, De La Rosa still walks the dining room, excited to meet each new table of customers.

“I say, 'Welcome, my name is Dante.' I read my table. I suggest cocktails. I tell them about the Dante [a pomegranate margarita],” he said. He beams as he recounts his experiences waiting on Kobe Bryant, Magic Johnson, Jamie Foxx and Andre Agassi.

On March 16 of last year, restaurants in California closed their dining rooms at midnight, and De La Rosa was furloughed the following day. He woke up at 5:30 a.m., but instead of heading into the restaurant to prepare for service, he filed for unemployment. In the following weeks, he sat on the couch, watched Netflix and wondered when he might return to the restaurant he called his "second home." The unemployment checks were slow to arrive, his rent was due, and De La Rosa isn’t the type of person to sit still for too long. He soon got a job stocking shelves at a Stater Bros. market.

His glasses were constantly fogging up because of his mask, and it was hard to read the product numbers, but De La Rosa leaned into the job.

“I was making more money not working than working at Stater Bros., but it felt good to be productive again,” he said. “It was frustrating with people asking me where to find things, because I had no idea. But I told them we [would] find it together and made sure that, like in the restaurant, the customer always felt like I took care of them.”

In May, Las Brisas hired De La Rosa back as part of the takeout team. He manned the front desk, answered the phone, took orders and greeted guests at the door.

“Ninety percent of the customers were kind,” he said. But not all of them. “You go to the DMV and wait, you go to the airport and wait, but for some reason, you go to a restaurant and all of the sudden it’s, ‘That’s my table!’”

Nonetheless, when outdoor dining reopened at the end of May, De La Rosa served the first table.

“There was," he said, "this sense of relief and freedom."

De La Rosa was able to keep his job on the takeout team when dining was shut down again in November and didn't return to Stater Bros. At the end of January, he returned to waiting tables.

“I spent so many hours here, and I [got] to meet so many good friends,” he said. “It feels so good to be back.”

Abby Zialcita, 35, service operations manager for Tartine Silver Lake and Sycamore

Portrait of Abby Zialcita, Service Operations Manager for Tartine Silver Lake and Sycamore.
Portrait of Abby Zialcita, Service Operations Manager for Tartine Silver Lake and Sycamore. (Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Abby Zialcita was furloughed from her job as assistant general manager at All Day Baby in Silver Lake on her 34th birthday last March. She was in the middle of what she called “birthing the baby,” helping owners Lien Ta and Jonathan Whitener find a groove for their new restaurant.

In mid-February 2020, she noticed that business had started to slow. Rumors of a dangerous virus started to percolate among friends. Fewer people were walking into the restaurant.

The restaurant canceled dinner service on March 15 and closed the next day. On March 16, Zialcita woke up early to leave for a birthday trip to Joshua Tree with her mom and fiancé. Before she left town, she applied for unemployment.

“Everything felt really doomsday,” she recalled. “I needed to wallow a bit and just let myself feel that there was this loss. I didn’t have any answers. As an industry professional, everyone in our community was at a standstill.”

Zialcita was introduced to the hospitality industry while in college, when, like many students, she started bartending and serving to make extra money. But she said her official career in the restaurant world didn't start until she worked as an event producer for Chad and Chase Valencia of the now-closed Lasa restaurant in downtown L.A. She helped the brothers with their lauded pop-up, rebranded their lunch program and ran off-site catering, events and operations.

“Nothing was really permanent, and it was really exciting,” she said. “There were a lot of creative individuals, and that’s what was drawing me into the industry.”

She was an assistant general manager at République before joining the team at All Day Baby in January 2020.

While she was on furlough, Zialcita did not look for another job in hospitality. "No one was hiring," she said.

In need of a way to channel her energy and creativity, Zialcita launched a “weird web shop” with her fiancé, selling calendars she made with a friend and items she’d collected at various flea markets.

In July, she returned to All Day Baby after the restaurant received a round of funds from a PPP loan.

"It was around the time of George Floyd, and there was a shift in the world for everybody to ingest, and a lot of energy had shifted for me as well," she said. "It was hard for us to feel like people should care about restaurants when people's lives were at risk, and it was a hard time to work in the industry."

But after eight weeks, the funds were gone and Zialcita was furloughed a second time and back on unemployment.

“I just felt really defeated,’ she said. “I questioned if I should still be in this industry and asked myself if I could go through the emotions and the turmoil of feeling like you want to support an industry that you really believe in while no one is willing to stand behind the service workers.”

When Tartine, Elisabeth Prueitt and Chad Robertson’s bakery and restaurant, posted a listing for a manager, Zialcita applied. She started working at the Sycamore location of the restaurant in October and started managing both the Sycamore and Silver Lake restaurants in December.

Zialcita adapted as guidelines, health department codes, OSHA codes and coronavirus protocols changed. She spent hours on the phone with third-party platforms, trying to streamline menus, address glitches and refunds. And she navigated employee virus cases at both locations of the restaurant, working out exposure timelines and quarantine groups while pulling team members from other locations to work, sometimes without training, in 24 hours.

“I feel like I’m running a marathon,” she said. “I feel like my skillset has jumped tenfold, and that’s a plus, but now I think it’s really just trying to figure out where I land in this industry and how I want to grow in my career path. I don’t know if I want to continue in this industry if there is less connection with the guests ... because that is what the heart of this industry is all about.”

Cynthia Longley, 56, director of operations for the Lucques Group

Portrait of Cynthia Longley, Director of Operations for the Lucques Group.
Portrait of Cynthia Longley, Director of Operations for the Lucques Group. (Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Cynthia Longley scooped ice cream at Baskin-Robbins as a 16-year-old high school student. She poured shots for rowdy college kids at a San Diego bar called Snickers. She manned three blenders in each bar well at an Irish Mexican restaurant that served 30 flavors of margaritas. She survived a Mother’s Day at a busy Southern California diner where 13 women each ordered half a waffle and a cup of tea and asked for separate checks. And she worked alongside Caroline Styne and Suzanne Goin to open what are arguably some of the best restaurants in the state.

But nothing could have prepared her for the reality of working in a restaurant through the COVID-19 pandemic.

Longley wears many hats as director of operations for the Lucques Group, floating around to the different restaurants, including Tavern, A.O.C. and Lucques, before the latter closed last year. She spent her summers at the Hollywood Bowl, supervising service, running the door and assisting with merchandising at the marketplace, where the Lucques Group oversees the food and beverage program. Unlike many of her colleagues, Longley was not laid off when restaurants closed their dining rooms in March.

She was filling in as the manager at Tavern at that time, when she started to hear rumblings of a possible shutdown.

The Lucques Group laid off its part-time employees on March 14. Management shut the dining rooms the following day and laid off about 160 people at Tavern and A.O.C.

“It was really, really hard, especially since people had been with us since the day we opened,” Longley said. “It was heartbreaking.”

She came to grips with the reality of the situation quickly, gathering information on unemployment, safety guidelines and health protocols. She figured out how to get everyone their final paychecks and looked into canceling people’s health insurance. She stopped the trash service for both restaurants, then canceled the cleaning crew. She called the linen company to halt service. She ran reports for the PPP loan so that Styne could apply, then helped reconfigure the entire operation to prepare for takeout.

“It was an insane whirlwind, and everything was so urgent,” she said. “I was almost the only one who worked through most of it, and everything was changing constantly. It still feels that way.”

When A.O.C. opened for takeout on Mother's Day after receiving a PPP loan, Longley hired staff back, reinstated their health insurance and trained them on the ever-changing safety protocols. She spent hours trying to procure gloves and masks, with little success. She changed the voicemail message to say the restaurant was open for takeout. And she wondered if she had ordered enough takeout packaging.

A.O.C. opened for outdoor dining in late May 2020, then closed again in November. The restaurant reopened for patio dining in January. Behind a face shield and a mask, Longley once again welcomed customers back to the restaurant.

“It’s almost still weird, even with a great night, a decent amount of covers with our tables eight feet apart, it just doesn’t feel the same, approaching tables asking how things are and having them feel like they have to put their mask on because I’ve walked up,” she said. “You don’t have the same liveliness.”

Although most customers adhere to the safety protocols, Longley has had to deal with a few who've been slow to comply. She recalled a recent group who arrived without masks. A member of the party pulled up his turtleneck. She politely said they would need actual masks and offered to provide them. After the party was seated, the guests started to remove their masks while Longley was still at the table, and she had to explain that they needed to stay covered when not actively eating or drinking. But she attempted to make a connection with the group, just as she would with any party.

“When the food came, I made a joke and said, 'Now you can take off your masks,'” she said. “They started clapping and cheering.”

Enrique Rosas , 63, bartender at Tam O’Shanter in Atwater Village

Portrait of Enrique Rosas at Tam O'Shanter. Rosas has been a bartender at Tam O'Shanter for more than 40 years.
Portrait of Enrique Rosas at Tam O'Shanter. Rosas has been a bartender at Tam O'Shanter for more than 40 years. (Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

In 1979 , a man attempted to rob Tam O’Shanter. He held one hand under his coat while he demanded money. A cocktail waitress next to the bar pleaded with Enrique Rosas , the 22-year-old novice bartender, to give him the money. Rosas obliged and handed over the cash, but another employee noticed the robber didn’t actually have a gun, and Rosas went after him.

The tale of the bandit with one hand under his coat is one of Rosas' favorite stories to share. “I jumped over the bar and tackled him,” he said. “My bosses told me to never do that again, but I was 22, and I used to do a lot of sports.”

Rosas started at the restaurant as a busboy in the late 1970s and quickly learned to tend bar, reveling in the customers, the atmosphere and the regulars who came in to ask for him.

Over the years, he served Gladys Knight, Andy Garcia and Lee Majors. Rod Stewart was a regular. Louis Mustillo became a close friend.

In early 2020, the restaurant was busy, and Rosas was thinking about retiring. If he could just add to his savings for another six months, he’d have enough to be comfortable.

"Then the pandemic came around, and I thought, 'I’m going to have to work for at least another two to three years.' ”

Like the rest of the staff, Rosas was furloughed in mid-March. For four months, he wasn't behind the bar, the longest time he’d spent away since starting at the restaurant 43 years ago. He applied for unemployment, took his granddaughters to the park and walked the dogs. He thought about getting another job, but his sons convinced him it was safer at home. Some of his regulars called to ask how he was and to tell him they missed him.

But Rosas longed to be back at work. In May, he got the call to come back to make cocktails for to-go orders, but he said the old atmosphere and camaraderie just weren’t there.

“I was by myself at the bar — no one is allowed to come in — and I was only working three days,” he said. “At least it was something, and I got to get out of the house.” But it never felt like nearly enough work.

When the restaurant closed for outdoor dining in November, Rosas dreaded the idea of staying away again, even as case numbers were surging.

“Oh my God, not again,” he said. “I was so happy when they called me back and said we were opening the patio again in January.”

Rosas was vaccinated when L.A. County opened appointments for people working in food and agriculture. Now, he says, his biggest fear is that business won’t return to normal levels fast enough. But even after he retires, Rosas doesn’t plan to come out from behind the bar.

He wants to move to Punta Perula, about two hours south of Puerto Vallarta, to build a bar and maybe a small grocery store like the one his father owned while Rosas was growing up in Michoacán.

“I’ll go to my bar, set it up for the bartender, then go home or go for a walk,” he said. "I hope I get to see that happen.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.