A couple months ago, when Greg Hoyt, owner of Rustica Bakery, announced a quasi-merger with Rose Street Patisserie’s Bread Lab, run by internationally acclaimed peer John Kraus, it felt like a savvy move after a long, precarious summer for folks in food and drink.
Citing ovens on the brink, Hoyt said that shifting operations to the St. Paul facility would solve issues for both parties, whose production revenue had been decimated by COVID’s arrival. Rustica’s cafes, including a new outpost at Southdale Center, would continue serving customers, only now the Mississippi and not just a wobbly kitchen door would separate guests from the bakers crafting their calling-card items.
Before the flour had settled, though, employees affected by Hoyt’s decision began talking publicly—and loudly—about the nuts and bolts of it all. Buried in the bread melee were issues of loyalty and clear communication, which would resurface at establishments across town as the pandemic raged on.
Blake Marino, former baker for Rustica, tells City Pages that, though imperfect, those ovens were far from dead. Nonetheless, five hours into their shift on August 16, staff were “taken out back at 8 a.m. and were told we were all being let go immediately.… We were told we were welcome to apply for jobs [at the Bread Lab], but no one was offered positions.”
By Marino’s estimate, between the coronavirus’s arrival and that August “mass firing,” 25 to 30 jobs in wholesale, dishwashing, kitchen operations, and baking were eliminated. This figure doesn’t account for cafe workers who also quit in solidarity.
“The day we closed in March, [Hoyt] went to everyone and said that our jobs were safe when we could come back,” says Marino. Employees who remained sidelined beyond the initial shutdown received “zero communication” from ownership. Moreover, Marino says these folks “found out they lost their jobs in an Instagram post detailing the changes.”
As former production director Matt Regan told MspMag this month, “There was a wealth of knowledge at [Hoyt]’s fingertips—people who had studied in France, bakers who had owned their own business before working there. But [Hoyt] didn’t value or see worth in our input on how we could help make the business work.”
For Rustica’s terminated employees, years of expertise and artisanship had been downsized into: recipes. And now those recipes would be executed by hands that weren’t theirs, so consumers could enjoy cookies they’d help make covetable.
Though Rustica’s pandemic pivot and the resulting human cost is anything but a one-off case, it’s among the only examples where non-unionized employees continually spoke out about a business decision in detail, and its impact on them.
Related to this was a fundamental shift away from easily categorizing establishments as either “open” or “closed.” These profound changes in the game demand to be addressed—including this new frontier of layoffs in the food and drink sector.
The following, select examples are emblematic of an industry-wide duress that has been roiling in that space since the pandemic struck.
On the week of March 15, Young Joni was making moves to hunker down in the face of whatever the coronavirus might turn out to be. Their plan involved shutting down operations entirely by that Friday, but midway through a meeting, Gov. Tim Walz mooted their decision by issuing his first executive order, which shuttered dining rooms statewide for “two weeks.”
Like the rest of us, no one at the James Beard-winning restaurant knew how long this thing would last. So 81 of the establishment’s 90 employees were laid off that day, says Becky Lemon, the company’s HR director.
Since then, about 35 individuals were able to return to work, helping to facilitate the restaurant’s takeout program.
Staff members who were never brought back, like one who agreed to speak on the record with City Pages on the condition of anonymity, report they were living a “wait-and-see” existence until a July Zoom meeting delivered news that their jobs were gone for good.
In the preceding months, staff received messages via a scheduling app, running the gamut from general touching base to specific inquiries related to potentially reopening the dining room, pointedly asking for input on COVID safety policies and gauging interest in a new house-wide service fee model that would replace tipping.
According to the staff member, “We started off the Zoom meeting by talking about what we thought of the [service fee and COVID message] results, and what the restaurant’s future could be, and then they quickly pivoted to, ‘Well, you know, we thought it was going to be happier news that we're going to be reopening, but it doesn't seem like a safe time.’” The staffer recalls most attendees seeming on board with this.
“Then, I don't remember exactly how it got dropped, but it was along the lines of, ‘And basically, as of right now, none of you work for the company.’”
They found the abrupt shift in topics jarring, and they weren’t alone: City Pages received messages in mid-July from two other meeting attendees who also said that they’d been “fired” (their word choice) via that Zoom call.
Somewhere along the lines, communication seems to have broken down in an epic fashion, because according to the restaurant’s official books, these employees had already been terminated back in March.
“I think part of this meeting was, ‘You were laid off in March, we've kept a line of communication open with you, because we hope that we'll be able to hire you back, we hope that you want to come back and work for us,” says Lemon, who was not part of the Zoom call but was briefed on it afterward. “This is a weird time and we don't want to just lay you off and ghost you.”
The disemployed team member agrees about the weirdness of the situation. “I literally don't have an issue with being fired at all,” they say. “Why wouldn't that happen everywhere—we touch things with our hands. That doesn't make any sense in our current environment. It's just the, like, terrible communication.”
By Lemon’s estimate, Young Joni’s layoff ultimately affected 55-58 people between the months of May and September.
Hannah Gagliardi found herself in a similar situation. The career server and bartender would have been employed by Pizza Lucé’s Hopkins location for four years this August, but she had been furloughed since March 16, when the local chain closed shop a day ahead of the governor’s mandate.
As JJ Haywood, co-owner and CEO of Lucé, told City Pages, none of their nine dining rooms statewide have reopened since. “So at the end of March, we did have to furlough a good number of our employees just because we did not have work.”
Out of all Lucé’s restaurants, four were able to reopen their patios for the summer months. But the call was made to keep dining rooms shuttered for a couple reasons. “One: We wanted to ensure the safety of our staff, first and foremost, and then our guests. The second area is: We didn't know that it was going to be worth it,” explains Haywood.
On September 11, Haywood says, the company made terminations out of those furloughs for just under 100 staff members. An additional 35 to 40 employees brought back for patio season were also laid off, bringing the day’s losses to about 140 people. (For context: If pizza were treated like taconite, Lucé’s layoff would have earned a headline on its own.)
“We had a lot of years of service,” says Haywood. She tallied the loss from that layoff in a different way. “With that group, I think it was over 400 years of Pizza Lucé service.”
Gagliardi was among that culling. “I found out via email that I was let go from Lucé due to COVID-related reasons,” she says. “The suburban stores were not opening the inside of the restaurants, and we were closing the bar, so they didn't need servers or bartenders anymore.”
It wasn’t a total shock to her. In the months prior, “HR's emails just kept coming, talking to us about what was going on.” The last communication sent to staff included a heads-up: If they weren’t called back in that round, next stop was the end.
So did knowing change Gagliardi’s experience when that day finally came?
"I wasn't really so mad for myself as I was for other people that I care about that work there… like, sad-mad,” she says. “It's a really distraught feeling of giving a lot of my time and energy into a place and knowing that everybody that I worked with did the same, and cares so much about it, and no longer works there."
On an operational level, Haywood hopes this isn’t the end. “When we reopen, we'd love to have people come back. We wish we knew when that was…. It feels like it's a long time away. I hope not.”
Though Haywood doesn’t expect Lucé’s dining rooms to reopen in 2020, laid off staff were expressly welcomed to apply for jobs as delivery drivers, answering phones, or to fill a new position she called a “curby”—ferrying curbside pickup orders to guests’ cars. At press time, there were five open positions listed on the site.
What we’re continuing to encounter are perfectly valid feelings and experiences bumping up against harsh pragmatics, turbo-charged by America’s unique employer-employee dynamic… topped with a dollop of COVID.
Workers now find themselves in a position that’s exceptional only in the way that America’s pandemic experience has been exceptional(ly embarrassing).
“So can an employer just say one day 30 people are going to be fired? Absolutely,” says David Allen Larson, senior fellow at Mitchell Hamline’s Dispute Resolution Institute, whose areas of expertise include international and comparative labor law.
“Probably one of the least understood things in America is that we're an at-will country, which means … I'm rooting for the Bears, so if I found out you rooted for the Vikings, I can fire you,” continues Larson. “I could fire you if I didn't like my lunch, I can fire you for almost any reason, under this rule of at-will employment except a relative handful of reasons that are prohibited.” (That "relative handful" includes employment discrimination based upon things like race, disability, or religion.)
In other industrialized countries like England, France, Japan, and Italy, “they have Just Cause protection legislation, meaning that you can't fire someone unless there's a business reason,” explains Larson, who says that while just cause dismissal protection sounds better were we to, hypothetically, be able to take advantage of it (which, again, we can’t)… scroll up for a bouquet of COVID-adjacent “business reasons” for layoffs in recent months.
Bottom line? “Employees are just more vulnerable than they think they are,” he says.
Adding to the precarious current situation for many workers in food service, those who qualified for unemployment insurance right away in March have reached the final weeks of coverage for jobs that have disappeared for an indeterminate period of time. (See topics: dining rooms, vaccines, supply, demand, etc.) Without new legislation, those benefits will expire on December 31, 2020.
“With at-will employment, the justification is, ‘Well, it's fair, because employees can leave anytime. They can't be sued by the employer, and the employer can fire them at any time,’” says Larson. “But the problem is, that rule kind of disregards the very real and inherent imbalance in terms of market power. In most situations, the ability of the employee to find another job, it's difficult, and it's hard—particularly in times like this, where unemployment is high.”
In other sectors with local impact—manufacturing, airlines, media—we report layoffs as they happen. But there’s no real precedent for this type of job loss in the service industry. A certain amount of turnover had been de rigueur until the pandemic arrived. This time, though, we’re already historically off the charts.
Without learning to account for reality with clear eyes, we’ll stagnate.
As Lucé’s Gagliardi put it, "I haven't really let myself think about how devastating it might be to everybody else who had to go through the same thing. Because I can only imagine how people feel after a place you've worked for so long just kind of lets you run dry."
Addressing layoffs as they are, and the conditions that brought them about—tidy, messy, or likely forever somewhere in between—lends this industry a legitimacy and nuance its peers in labor take for granted. That’s a special kind of progress (dare we say relief?) we can give ourselves as we head into the brave new world of post-pandemic dining.
Update 5:30 p.m. 10/27/30: Owner Greg Hoyt clarified that 70 of Rustica's employees were furloughed with severance on March 18; those who returned to work and were laid off in August again received severance at that time, and were invited to apply for positions at the Bread Lab, but couldn't be guaranteed jobs, as the business isn't his. Hoyt says Bread Lab is currently hiring, though.