This story mentions threats of physical violence and sexual assault.
At St. Beatrix, the Northeast Portland bakery known for its ranch croissants and flower-adorned cakes, a can of bear mace sits behind the front counter. St. Beatrix owner Jess Smith bought it after a customer threatened to rape one of her employees, one of several incidents in the last eight months that have left her and her staff feeling vulnerable and frustrated. “It’s been super challenging,” she says. “Having to tell customers ‘no,’ they’re not used to that, and they react.”
In the last four months, multiple customers have tried to spit on St. Beatrix employees, threatening them and screaming at them. In response, Smith has continued to up security measures, installing cameras and building a walk-up window with a security barrier for the front counter. “Every incident we’ve encountered, we’ve had to armor ourselves with one more thing,” Smith says. “I’ve experienced sexual harassment, abuse, but to have it almost every day, it feels all the more impactful. It’s all the time.”
Smith is one of several Portland food businesses dealing with an increase in aggressive customer behavior in the months following the COVID-19 vaccine release, particularly since the state lifted its COVID-19 safety framework at the end of June. In the eyes of restaurant workers — many of whom would not speak on-record out of fear of professional retaliation — the frequency of these sorts of incidents is far higher than it was in 2020, as more customers feel entitled to return to traditional service and are upset by continued COVID-19 safety precautions set by individual businesses. As a result, morale among Portland food service workers has dropped substantially, compounded by the undercurrent of fatigue and constant fear inherent to working in food service through the pandemic.
When the state lifted the majority of its COVID-19 safety mandates for businesses, St. Beatrix baker Brit Abuya began to feel unsettled and anxious. Abuya has worked at St. Beatrix for around a year, often taking orders at the front counter; they had coworkers who had yet to get vaccinated because they were immunocompromised, and workers with young children who could get sick. “That’s always in the back of my mind as I’m interacting with customers,” they say. “I don’t think people understand that there are people we work with who are still very much at-risk of getting COVID.” The bakery kept its mask policy in place, offering masks for those who need them. One day, while Abuya was working the front counter, a customer came up to the business without a mask. When they offered him a mask, Abuya says he began to scream, saying he wouldn’t come back to the bakery. But he did, minutes later — and tried to slam his way through the barrier into the cafe. “It definitely shook me for the rest of the day,” they say. “It’s pretty disheartening to be getting that type of pushback from people when we’re just trying to work on setting our boundaries.”
Andy Pfandler, a cook at Handsome Pizza on Killingsworth, has also been thinking quite a bit about boundaries recently — specifically, the ways they have shifted, as food service workers feel an urgent need to protect themselves from customers who could, inadvertently or not, harm them. “Some portion of the customers want things to go back to normal,” he says. “But we have a different perspective. We want things to be different.”
In the last three months, customer pushback related to the restaurant’s masking policies, which became state-mandated once again in August, had steadily increased, but generally, the hostility related to masking policies hadn’t gone much farther than a frustrated customer choosing to leave the restaurant. But when Pfandler saw a customer throw a mask his co-worker offered, he felt the need to intervene. “I stopped doing what I was doing, walked around the counter, and said, ‘You need to leave,’” he says. According to Pfandler, the customer tried to instigate a fight with him, yelling and refusing to leave the restaurant. Eventually, Pfandler says the customer’s companions pulled him out of the space. “My restaurant is my family,” he says, voice cracking. “It’s where I feel safe and seen, and generally we’re happy to have people come in and feel that — I think it’s part of why our restaurant is great. But when people bring their shitty attitudes in, they’re coming into my family, they’re threatening me.”
Fear of customer retribution and weariness of the risk of continued restaurant work could eventually erode the love that fueled many cooks and servers. While the serious events — the violent altercations, the threats, the screaming — are obviously harmful, the constant dismissiveness and entitlement of customers has slowly eroded the morale of many restaurant workers. It’s enough that restaurants have started addressing it on their public social media accounts; in July, Alberta Italian restaurant Gumba decided to close for one night to give employees a break after a particularly exhausting service. “After the shit our staff had to take from customers on Monday while running short handed, it’s absolutely not worth it,” the post reads. “Those that need to hear this know who they are, but be better to other people.” The ongoing frustration with customer entitlement and mask policing has pushed some restaurant workers out of the industry altogether. “People are just not as friendly to people who are serving them,” Abuya says. “I just want people to really try to navigate the world with a little more kindness and compassion for human beings.”
Smith is not necessarily optimistic about the months ahead; for her, it seems like the restaurant industry will be grappling with COVID — and Portlanders’ frustrations with it — for not just months, but years. To survive those next few years, Smith is hoping for a shift in perspective. “I think we all have to reconsider how we respect the people who make our food,” she says. “Hopefully there will be some shifts in mentality.”