One of our writers finds enlightenment behind the scenes, working with a family of restaurant staffers who have survived the struggles of the past two years
By Jim Miller
Photos by Butch Comegys
You think you know, but you don’t.
Sure, you’ve followed the news, seen the stories online and on TV, and last weekend you waited, like, a really long time to get seated at your favorite restaurant.
So, yeah, you may think you know the whole story about what the hospitality industry has been dealing with for the past two years.
I’m here to say you probably don’t.
And that’s okay. I used to think I knew it all, too. The difference is I’ve worked at Out & About for 27 years — you know, Out & About, where we’ve devoted countless pages to restaurants, taverns and pubs. So, believe me, my sin is much worse than yours.
And even that might be okay.
Because now I have a much better idea about what people like you and I thought we knew about this industry — but didn’t.
Perhaps this story will help illuminate the matter. It’s not your typical restaurant story. It contains a heroic rescue attempt, a near-death experience, and a confession from someone who didn’t pay his taxes in 2020. And that’s just in the first 10 paragraphs.
In fact, what follows might be the most important piece I’ve ever written for this magazine. Why? Keep reading.
THE COOK WHO ALMOST DROWNED
“I remember thinking, ‘Oh my God, I hope this is not the way I really die. This sounds horrible: I don’t want to die outside of a restaurant on a Tuesday.’”
Those are the words of Jake Brown. And as funny as those lines might sound now, the story he tells isn’t really humorous. In fact, it was nearly a tragedy.
On Aug. 4, 2020, Hurricane Isaias dropped massive amounts of rain on the East Coast, causing flooding everywhere, including parts of the parking lot in Hockessin’s Lantana Square. There, around 11:30 a.m., an elderly man accidently drove his car off the asphalt and into a deep ditch swollen with rushing waters. The automobile began to sink with the driver trapped inside.
Just a few dozen yards away at Two Stones Pub, a regional manager and cook ran out of the restaurant, waded into the growing rapids, and tried to save the man.
The cook was Brown. And in that heroic rescue attempt, he was sucked underwater, pulled through a culvert that runs more than 250 feet underneath the shopping center, and dumped into a fast-flowing stream in the woods behind the complex.
Three other Good Samaritans, like Jake, tried to save the driver and took the same wild, life-threatening water ride he did.
The good news is that the Hockessin Fire Department arrived shortly afterward and saved everyone, including the driver. But it could have been much worse: Two years earlier to the month, two young men in their 20s got caught in the same culvert during another hurricane-related flood. They did not survive.
“Okay, okay,” you say. “You’ve got my attention. But what exactly does this all have to do with the state of the restaurant industry?”
Patience, dear reader. This isn’t a fast-food delivery. This is a sit-down meal. Truth requires context. So, allow me to get back to it . . .
The only reason I know this story is because I hadn’t paid my 2020 taxes. It’s also the reason I met Jake Brown.
Indeed, as great as it would be to pretend that I’d gone to work at Two Stones Pub last December out of some noble calling from the Higher Order of Gonzo Investigative Journalism, the fact of the matter is, I was in a fix. Uncle Sam had recently sent a Christmas card letting me know how much he missed me and, much more important, my back taxes from 2020.
In short, I needed some extra cash. Fast.
After a few phone calls and emails, I got hired at Two Stones Pub, which had been running “Now Hiring” ads in this very magazine toward the end of last year.
I was scheduled to start my first week of training right after Christmas at the Newark location, then complete my training at the Two Stones in Hockessin, where I would be working as an assistant manager for roughly three months — enough time to get the IRS off my back.
And little did I know, enough time to find some enlightenment.
TRIAL BY FIRE
When I first arrive at the Hockessin Two Stones, I am greeted by its cheerful general manager, Alyssa Oliver. I soon find out she loves her job.
Alyssa started out with Two Stones as a server six years ago and has since worked her way up to general manager. I later discover that her first day as general manager was during the reopening in June 2020. In other words, she’d never been a GM before COVID.
“It’s been a weird, fast-learning type of thing,” she says about the experience.
Alyssa’s fast learning meant dealing with previously known problems that were happening much more often — like supplies being out of stock — all while tackling new challenges such as keeping up with and enforcing ever-changing health regulations.
“It was insane,” she says. “We still somehow made it through, one way or another.”
She recalls a day when eight servers called out because all had gotten sick. They figured out the solution to that surprise, as they did a lot of things during that time.
“I remember a period of time when we didn’t have any assistant managers, and [the owners] came in and were working right alongside me, running the shift,” Alyssa says.
That support from the top also helped her deal with “people not following the rules, not wearing their masks, and touching all the chairs.”
Then there was the guest who yelled at their then-16-year-old hostess.
“It pissed me off,” Alyssa admits. “People are so upset about not being able to go to restaurants, and when they can, they treat someone like that just because there’s a wait? Or because we can’t fit your [party of 25] that you walked in with?”
Later that week, while sweeping the entry floormat, I meet the 16-year-old hostess who got berated. Her name is Emily Bonavita. She is now 18 and about to graduate from Odyssey Charter High School.
Emily recalls the incident well. It was her first day on the job.
“I felt very relieved that my trainer, who I’d never met before, stood up for me,” she says. “No one outside of my family has ever had to do that in front of me. It just made me feel very welcome — like I’d been part of the Two Stones family for years.”
THE YOUNG ONES & THE REGULARS
As the days go by, I find that, when it comes to doing the job, Emily is confident and capable. As are many of the young staff members. This comes as a surprise to me. Why? Maybe because yahoos like you and me have been fed the myth that the younger generation is lazy and entitled, and we have been stupid enough to believe it.
Instead, through the long hours, the young employees at Two Stones Hockessin prove themselves to be hard-working, efficient, and driven. Many of them are working here while also attending school, or while holding down a second job, or both.
I’m inspired by their resilience. Many of these kids didn’t have a proper prom, or haven’t had a real college experience yet, or don’t know the difference between Animal House and Animal Farm. Yet they smile and venture on.
Many of them also want to learn about the business. Hosts want to become servers, servers want to become bartenders, cooks want to become chefs. Some of that learning will come from training, some from experience, and some from the industry veterans on the job.
With more than 20 years in the hospitality industry, Roxanne Robinson is one of those mentors, particularly for anyone looking to work behind the bar. Most of her customers call her “Roxy,” and she finds the pub’s regular clients to be the best part of the job.
“I look forward to my Monday shifts with all the regulars,” she says. “I like going in and talking to them, knowing what’s going on. Set regulars on set days make it more comfortable.”
She adds that, post-COVID, she’s found people tipping more generously. That said, she also admits that even the regulars don’t know how hard the job can be.
“I don’t think anybody understands it unless they’ve been in the industry, have been a part of the changes, and can see how we’re trying to make guests happy,” Roxy says. “[They’re] not understanding that their frustrations have been our frustrations too, with the restrictions and all.”
Shaena Orr, the assistant general manager, agrees, and takes the sentiment beyond the context of the pandemic.
“The biggest misconception has to be that people who work in [this] industry are uneducated, and anyone can do it,” she says. “This industry is demanding, not only physically, but mentally. I will say it takes a special type of crazy person to love this industry, and I’m definitely one of them.”
In the second week of January, the post-holidays surge of Omicron brings back the mask mandate. Inevitably, some guests take out their frustrations on the staff. Which is kind of like yelling at your car radio because you have to wear a seatbelt. So much shrugging takes place during this time, shoulders begin to ache.
Weeks later, when the mask mandate is lifted, it’s like a collective breath of fresh air. I fully understand the necessity of the mandates. But I can’t imagine how anyone went through almost a year of this.
WHERE THE MAGIC HAPPENS
Unseen to even the most faithful regulars, the kitchen is a place all its own. Physically, it’s adjacent to both the bar and the dining room, but figuratively speaking, it’s a world apart. During a dinner rush, the pace can match that of an airport terminal the day before Thanksgiving. The chef shouts directions to his cooks like a quarterback calling audibles on a touchdown drive, all while the expeditor — or “expo” as they say in the biz — matches the printed orders to the plated food items ready to go.
Alyssa and Shaena play the expo role so well it makes my head spin. Servers zip in and out with multiple plates, and whoever is on expo dishes out the orders with almost telepathic precision.
Meanwhile, the guests on “the other side” chat among themselves, casually taking bites of their fish tacos and swigs of their IPAs, having little or no idea of the controlled chaos taking place in the back.
The kitchen offers equal amounts of deliciousness and danger. Burgers sizzle on a blazing iron grill; the wings in the fryer bubble and spatter; the piping-hot short ribs are removed from the oven. Without proper training, there are many places where you could be at the wrong place at the wrong time. Then again, if you are in the kitchen standing still, there’s a good chance you’re in the way.
Even when it’s not time for dinner, lunch or brunch, the kitchen is busy. Neither time nor resources are wasted. Cooks are constantly prepping for the next meals: chopping, dicing, slicing, stirring, stewing, mincing or marinating.
Picture Ryan Reynolds playing the role of a salty 18th century sea captain, and you have a napkin sketch of Hockessin’s executive chef, Will Coleman. He is as quick with witty banter as he is with a curt command. When things get fast and furious, he’s at the wheel, his crew in lockstep at his side.
“It’s constantly evolving,” Will says of the business, “especially in the way that we are dealing with labor shortages, increased cost of food, supply chain issues, etc. You have to be able to think quickly and change direction on your feet to adapt to an ever-changing landscape.
“It’s not easy and sometimes it’s not fun. But there is gratification, there is satisfaction. There’s a sense of accomplishment when you get something done that, from the outside looking in, looks insurmountable, too challenging, too hard.”
THE OTHER SIDE
In the weeks that come, Alyssa transfers to the GM position at the Two Stones in Jennersville, Pa., in order to be closer to her family. So Shaena takes the role of GM in Hockessin, where she is grateful for a staff that has “gone to hell and back so far” with her. Meanwhile, Roxy, in between her Two Stones bar shifts, takes a GM role as well at the newly opened Townsend Tavern. Emily Bonavita is learning the ropes as a server, which she loves. And Jake Brown has been promoted to sous chef.
And me? After 12 weeks of working as assistant manager — each totaling 70-plus hours when combined with my other job — I’m worn down and done. My debts are paid, and I have gained intimate knowledge and immense respect for what workers in the restaurant industry have been through the past two years — and still endure every day.
But there’s something else.
For almost everyone, the last two years have been a long and grueling test. Today, I see that collective experience layered upon Jake’s rescue attempt on that awful August day: all of us there in the storm, victims of a vicious rage of nature beyond our control. Then swept away through a dark tunnel, emerging some two years later.
Alive, but changed.
“I definitely do have a new newfound appreciation for life,” Jake says about his brush with death. “I really do. I don’t think I feel sadness the same way. I realized no matter how bad it is, I most certainly want to live. This life is beautiful, and it’s worth living. It really is, no matter how bad it is.”
No matter how bad.
While putting our pandemic experience in perspective, I hope we ask ourselves what kind of world we truly want to live in moving forward. For eons, pubs, taverns, and restaurants have been the places where people like us have sought to escape the pressures and mundanities of our lives — all the bad stuff. These venues are places of comfort, places we dreamed about going to again while holed up in our houses like frightened rabbits during those first uncertain months of COVID.
Let’s not forget that time. Let’s not forget the value of those places in our lives.
Because now we have a choice. We can choose to be the “fun regulars” at the pub, bringing comfort to those who bring comfort to us. We can tip better. We can choose to see that “this life is beautiful, and it’s worth living” — and worth being a little more patient the next time we’re waiting for, say, that plate of delicious, steaming, cheese-covered nachos.
We made it to the other side.
It’s up to us to make it the better side.