Jamie Malone was practically living at work.
The nationally lauded chef and restaurateur would spend her mornings on paperwork and managerial tasks before heading into the Grand Cafe — her très Parisian bistro in south Minneapolis — to prep for dinner service. Often, she'd stay until the last ticket came in, and wouldn't get to bed before 2 a.m. Not a full night's sleep later, it would start all over again.
That was pre-pandemic life, and Malone didn't question it, even as the 80-hour workweeks took their toll.
"It was horrible, but you also love it," she said. "As cooks, we were trained, like, the harder it is, the better you're doing."
When Minnesota restaurants shut down in the spring of 2020, those grueling hours came to a sudden stop. Malone had something she hadn't had in years: time. She used it to examine her career — what she loved, and what wasn't working.
"It was this opportunity for restaurant people, and everyone, to pause and step back and take a second to gain some clarity on, 'Why am I doing what I'm doing?'" Malone said.
Meanwhile, her pandemic survival plan for the Grand Cafe was to assemble high-end, French-inspired meal kits that would give customers a fine dining experience at home. That idea turned out to be the beginning of a new career.
Since she closed the Grand Cafe in 2020, she has launched two meal kit businesses, Wkndr and Paris Dining Club. She's beefing up the catering side of her business and plans to host private events and intimate pop-up dinners when the urge to entertain guests kicks in. But the restaurant life? The James Beard-nominated chef has left that behind.
As the "Great Resignation" sweeps every industry, more Americans are leaving their jobs than ever before. And the hospitality sector, which is especially vulnerable to COVID's yo-yo surges, is leading the pack with more people quitting than in any other field. Almost a million workers left their jobs in accommodation and food services in November 2021 alone, according to most recent Bureau of Labor Statistics jobs report.
In Minnesota, food service jobs are down by 20,000 compared with pre-pandemic levels, said Liz Rammer, CEO of Hospitality Minnesota.
"I think what we've seen with the advent of the pandemic is a reassessment overall, as people reconsider their daily lives and have had to make adjustments for any number of reasons," Rammer said.
At the same time, hospitality hires are outpacing the number of people quitting. While some workers, including top-tier chefs and restaurateurs, are leaving their jobs, they're finding new, better ones in the same field — jobs that still meet their professional goals, albeit with a better work-life balance.
"People go into this industry because they have a passion for people and in the case of chefs, a passion for food," Rammer said.
The allure of a fast-paced kitchen and a boisterous dining room doesn't go away, pandemic or not.
"It's not that the industry is becoming smaller month after month," said Elise Gould, senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. "Some people are switching and trying to find a better match in that field."
Restaurants had high turnover rates, as many lower-wage industries do, long before COVID. "There's some churn that happens, because job security and job quality isn't as high," Gould said.
But for many workers, the pandemic exposed underlying problems in their industry, and jolted them into finding more creative ways to pursue their passions for hospitality.
"This was the catalyst to jump off a cliff. It's exciting and terrifying at the same time," said Marco Zappia, who was behind the bar program at Minneapolis restaurants Martina and Colita pre-pandemic. With cocktails barred from takeout, he used his time during the shutdown to launch his own cocktail business, 3Leche.
But what to do next isn't always obvious. "When you're a chef, [restaurants] are the only path that you're really told you can take or that you're aware of that's out there," Malone said.
Now, instead of practically living at work, Malone is literally living at work, in an apartment tucked into the rafters of a North Loop loft she is renting as an office, event space and home base for putting together meal kits with stuffed lobster and beef Wellington.
But she's not living to work.
Despite the round-the-clock proximity to her businesses, she has set boundaries she couldn't have dreamed of when she was the chef of a popular restaurant Food & Wine called a "Francophile fever dream."
"I never bring my laptop upstairs," she said. And she has a hard stop to her workday at 6 p.m. "Normally I would just work until I went to bed. What do I do now? Watch TV? Finally it occurred to me: There's enough time in the day to make plans."
For JD Fratzke, leaving work to make it home in time for dinner has been mind-blowing, he said.
Fratzke long helmed the kitchen at St. Paul's acclaimed restaurant Strip Club Meat & Fish. He was running a modern supper club in Cannon Falls, Minn., when COVID hit. That closed, and for a while, he was helping friends with their restaurants. But the need for steady income led him in a different direction. Fratzke took on the role of culinary director for a new healthy meal delivery service called Green Dish. Now, one of the Twin Cities' top chefs is behind a menu of gluten-free, dairy-free and soy-free meals prepared in the former cafeteria of a corporate campus in Plymouth. He gets dinner service set up, then goes home.
"It was a total [shock] to leave the kitchen when it's still light outside," he said.
It's a long way from 14-hour workdays, six days a week, for the past 25 years. But after the time off that the pandemic foisted on him, he knew he couldn't go back.
"I was staring a lot of personal issues in the face for the first time," Fratzke said.
To be considered successful in the restaurant world, working long hours in a high-stress environment is a "badge of honor," he said. "With the time that I had away, one of the issues I started to confront in myself was, 'Why did I allow that to happen? Why have we been doing this to ourselves for as long as we have?' "
It didn't take a pandemic to make Mike Ryan see what restaurant life was doing to him. Just "Hamilton."
The chef and restaurateur closed his Be'Wiched Deli in 2018, and was running the kitchen at Crave in downtown Minneapolis when the blockbuster musical came to town.
"It was like trying to take a sip out of a fire hose, it was just so busy," he said. "My time there was pretty short."
When he was offered a job in health care, he took it. Today, he's a culinary director for Ebenezer Senior Living, part of Fairview Health Services.
Being part of a team of chefs with the support of a large company turned out to be a salve after years of running his own restaurant and managing busy kitchens.
"There's so much more support that I've never had from a small business perspective, which ultimately leads to a higher quality of life," Ryan said. " If the sidewalk outside of Be'Wiched wasn't shoveled, I had to go out there with a shovel. Now I can call the maintenance department to do it."
That frees up Ryan to do what he really loves, which is feed people — and in ways he never imagined. Planning a menu for Veterans Day, or coming up with dishes that can spark stories from people's pasts at a memory care facility are some of his new creative challenges.
"That's what us hospitality guys do," he said. "Having the opportunity to still live my passions and not have to be under the gun with things like payroll and sales tax, it's so nice."
The pull of restaurants
But restaurants don't easily loosen their grip on the devoted hospitality workers who toiled there, spent their formative years there, made their culinary mark there or found a family there.
"It's like spots on a leopard. You can't wash them off," Ryan said.
"I miss being in service," said Malone. "I miss 5 o'clock when the room gets set up and all the candles are on and the music starts and it's like a magic trick every single day. All of a sudden everything is perfect and beautiful."
For Fratzke, it's the instant gratification that he misses most. "The excitement of it, the constant adrenaline of it, the ability to accomplish something every three minutes when you put a plate up in the window and slap a ticket down next to it. And the ability to look out at a bar or in a dining room and see how happy people are, tasting food that you've prepared — those were really satisfying things," he said.
"There are too many of us who take it for granted that we have to abuse ourselves and sacrifice self-care" to achieve that gratification, he added. He wants to see that change.
"Hospitality is the art of helping people celebrate their lives," Fratzke said. "And you can't do that well if you're not celebrating your own."