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An occasional series from WGLT looking at how central Illinoisans search for (and sometimes even find) the elusive work-life balance.

I ordered pancakes – not a pandemic. Fort Jesse Cafe makes the best of a tough situation

 Abby Strader Bosenberg and Nick Birky have been pushing through the pandemic.
Abby Strader Bosenberg and Nick Birky have been pushing through the pandemic.
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It's not easy running a restaurant. The industry has always operated on razor-thin profit margins and demands a lot of its workers. The shifts are long, the pay is unpredictable, and the customer is always right.

But as it has for so many things, COVID-19 has led the restaurant industry to re-examine the way it does business.

Nick Birky and Abby Strader Bosenberg own Fort Jesse Café in Normal. Operating throughout the pandemic has been grueling, they said, largely because of tensions around mask mandates.

“Everyone is so right or left,” said Birky, of the politicization surrounding masks. “We’re just trying to enforce the mandate set by the state.” But not all customers agree with the mandate, and some have felt entitled to take out their frustrations on restaurant staff, he said.

In addition to teenage hosts being an inappropriate repository for political anger, Birky said it’s frustrating having to debate the need for masks in the first place. Some staff have children, or work with the elderly, or have underlying medical conditions. What they don’t have is the option of staying home.

“We don’t get to work remotely. We put ourselves on the line every day,” he said.

It’s not just the masks, Bosenberg said. The pandemic has created disruptions that extend far beyond debate over COVID protocols.

“There’s staff shortages, there’s food shortages, there’s to-go supply shortages. There is something every day,” she said. Confronting constant crises on almost every level of operation has restaurant owners “losing it little bit,” Bosenberg said. And she can’t blame people in the industry for being completely exhausted.

Leaving the industry

Part of the reason for staff shortages is workers are leaving restaurants in droves. Birky said that while Fort Jesse Café has retained most of its staff, he knows a number of people who have transitioned into other careers. Many have gone to companies like Rivian, he said, to seek jobs with less stress and more stability.

Bosenberg said the pandemic has highlighted a need for the restaurant industry to make life more livable for workers.

“For a long time, restaurant jobs were viewed as just a stepping-stone,” she said — a way for employees to work their way through college or buy time before deciding on a career. Employment models were built around the assumption that workers would stay for a relatively short time before moving on.

But for many people, restaurants are the career. And for those who love and excel in the work, restaurants need to provide the stability and incentives to stay, Bosenberg said. Doing so would mean ensuring employees are making enough money to accomplish life goals like starting a family.

But providing that kind of stability presents somewhat of a catch-22 for restaurants, according to Bosenberg. “To do all of those things — you know, we sell food — we’d have to raise those prices. But we also can’t price ourselves out of the market.”

“It’s the puzzle,” she said.

Fort Jesse Café has been open for six years, and both Bosenberg and Birky said the restaurant is like a family. They love their jobs, but that doesn’t mean the pandemic and its myriad complications haven’t given them pause.

“I love people so very, very much,” said Birky. “And I love food so very, very much. But that doesn’t mean I don’t wake up once or twice a week like, you know, I’m probably good at other stuff, too.”

Birky said he’ll stick with it, though. The restaurant industry, for better or worse, is the right fit for him. He just has a little advice for customers.

“A little kindness goes a long way,” he said.

Sarah Nardi is a WGLT reporter. She previously worked for the Chicago Reader covering Arts & Culture.
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