JR Michael has spent most of his life in the restaurant business.

He spent his summers as a teenager peeling potatoes in the kitchen at his uncle’s deli. Later he helped open the Applebee’s on Clark Road, where he worked 100 hours a week for $8 an hour.

Through those positions and a variety of other jobs across Sarasota County, he worked his way up to a job in the kitchen at Element: Steak. Seafood. Pasta. That’s where he was working in March 2020, when, suddenly COVID-19 hit and he was let go.

Michael had been thinking about leaving the restaurant industry for several years, even before the Element opportunity presented itself.

But after two decades in the industry of working for employers he felt like he didn’t care, Michael said he found himself at the end of his rope. And he’s far from the only one.

Many restaurant workers, including several who were employed in the industry for years or even decades, have been asking themselves similar questions. The volatility of the industry, the health risks associated with COVID and worker burnout have led to a loss of 1.8 million hospitality jobs in the U.S. since February 2020.

Working in the service industry has never been easy. The hours are long, the customer interactions can be stressful and the wages are relatively low. But COVID introduced new problems, which pushed many people to reconsider their circumstances, Larry Barton, professor of crisis management and public safety at the University of Central Florida, said.

“You’re down and out for three months on unemployment, you may have to wear a mask in the searing heat of the kitchen, and then your boss tells you, ‘I can’t afford to keep the place open, I’m sorry,’ even though you’ve been there 12 years. The emotional roller coaster became so profound,” Barton said.

Restaurant owner ‘paddling really fast’ to stay afloat

Despite a major drop in leisure and hospitality employment across the country, it seems that a lot of new job seekers view it as a viable field.

Anthony Gagliano, vice president of business development for CareerSource Suncoast in Bradenton, said that the percentage of people who expressed interest in working in hospitality is up slightly compared to 2019. But at the same time, hospitality employment is down 8,200 jobs in Sarasota-Manatee compared to February of 2020.

For a lot of people, a job in the industry is their first entry into the workforce, Gagliano said. The pandemic might have been the push they needed to make the leap to something else – perhaps their eventual chosen field.

“A lot of people start in hospitality and move to other sectors. This has pushed people to say, ‘If it’s not my long-term career path, maybe now it isn’t something I’m committed to,’” he said.

That happened at Artisan Cheese Company, the specialty foods store at 550 Central Ave. in the Rosemary District. When the pandemic hit, one employee decided to stay home to care for sick family members, owner Louise Converse said. Another staff member joined after COVID initially struck, but later returned to a career in the equestrian field.

Three years ago during the height of season in March, Artisan Cheese Company had 12 employees. Now, it has four, and Converse herself works on the floor Monday through Saturday, behind the counter and in the kitchen, filling in when the store is short-staffed or when someone leaves for the day.

Not only is hiring difficult – job postings that would have yielded 50 applicants two years ago now only lead to a handful – but so is holding on to people. It’s happened several times already. New people come in, realize it’s hard work and then they leave.

“We tell people at the interview that it’s hard work. They come in and work for a couple of weeks and see that it’s hard work and they can go to one of the larger corporate kitchens and work less for more. It’s simple math,” Converse said.

She’s thrilled her shop made it through the pandemic, her customers have been amazing and the core staff she does have is tight-knit and dedicated, Converse said. But on a recent Wednesday, while working in the kitchen after a cook didn’t show, she was slammed. She’d already gone to a corner and cried once before picking herself back up again.

“I’m like a duck on the water, on the top of the water I look fine, and we’re all smiling, but underneath that water I’m paddling really fast. It’s the paddling people don’t see small businesses do,” she said.

Germain Lesur, 31, worked in hospitality starting at age 15. He worked in hotels and as a valet on Siesta Key, including for the upscale restaurant Summer House.

He collected unemployment for awhile after COVID hit, but it wasn’t nearly enough. He eventually decided to leave Sarasota and join his father’s real estate business, which is based out of Detroit.

Service industry faces cost of living issues

“There are so many reasons to leave the service industry after 15 years. You have to deal with people; if you’re not making tips you’re not making any money, or taking health insurance; you work super late and you’re working when everyone else is having fun,” Lesur said. “But not everybody has got the opportunity I have. You can’t just leave and pick up a real estate business.”

The cost of living was another factor. In Detroit, Lesur said, he can get a house for $50,000 and rent it for $1,200 a month. It’s a lot more affordable than Sarasota, where the median home price increased by 20.9% in 2021 to $405,000.

With rising home prices and a strong tourism industry, the economy in Sarasota is showing a lot of signs of strength. The area has been more or less “discovered” by wealthy new residents from out of state who can afford to buy multimillion-dollar waterfront homes.

Poised for growth: What’s in store for Manatee County’s economy?

But the flip side of that is the working class is getting shut out. Plus, new snowbirds, retirees and residents expect a high level of service, Barton said, and if they don’t get it, they aren’t shy about expressing that frustration.

“They want a great dining experience and feel entitled to it. If the restaurant can’t provide that, they will take their money elsewhere and will not return,” he said.

This has been a huge burden to bear for employees, Michael said. They’ve put up with a lot over the years, but many people have decided to turn elsewhere.

“The whole hospitality industry is built on norms of they want people to serve them for a night,” he said. “But people want something more than doing errands for rich people now.”