Responsibility at Atlanta restaurant falls on young shoulders

Christian Martinez, an employee of Forza Storico, otuside of the restaurant. He recently tested negative for COVID-19. CONTRIBUTED BY HENRI HOLLIS

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Christian Martinez, an employee of Forza Storico, otuside of the restaurant. He recently tested negative for COVID-19. CONTRIBUTED BY HENRI HOLLIS

‘We really have to be careful for the safety of everybody,’ says 25-year-old server

When the COVID-19 pandemic upended life in the U.S. in mid-March, the majority of restaurant and food-service workers in Georgia — nearly half a million people — found themselves without a job.

As restaurants reopened for takeout service, the new model began with skeletal teams. The typical lineup at indie restaurants saw the owner or owners working side by side with a cook or two, and a few front-of-house employees whose former functions were modified for the times. Instead of servers, hosts and people to bus tables, what was needed were call center operators and folks to handle order fulfillment and curbside pickup checkpoints.

With more restaurants now reopening their dining rooms, additional staff has been rehired, but they need COVID-19 migration training to keep themselves, co-workers and restaurant guests as safe as possible.

People like Christian Martinez can show them how it’s done.

Martinez is one of the few front-of-house workers in Atlanta to have labored nearly the entirety of the pandemic. He was hired as a server at Forza Storico last fall, soon after the Italian restaurant debuted. When it shut down in mid-March, he was furloughed. That lasted one week. He received a call from the restaurant's owners, Pietro Gianni, Michael Patrick and Stephen Peterson, and was told they had partnered with the Atlanta Hawks and State Farm on the Frontline Heroes initiative to feed workers for Emory Healthcare. "I was supposed to get staff together and run it," Martinez said.

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The courtyard at Westside Provisions District, where JCT Kitchen and Forza Storico both seat customers, has been arranged with socially distanced tables. CONTRIBUTED BY HENRI HOLLIS

The courtyard at Westside Provisions District, where JCT Kitchen and Forza Storico both seat customers, has been arranged with socially distanced tables. CONTRIBUTED BY HENRI HOLLIS

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The courtyard at Westside Provisions District, where JCT Kitchen and Forza Storico both seat customers, has been arranged with socially distanced tables. CONTRIBUTED BY HENRI HOLLIS

For two months, while countless other restaurant workers sat at home, Martinez clocked upward of 60 hours a week.

“I had to get used to wearing gloves and masks,” he said. “I’ve been doing it for weeks now.”

Because Forza Storico also added a revenue stream by operating a market, he learned to interact with the general public — and manage crowd control — from a 6-foot distance. When Forza Storico reopened May 20 for on-premises dining, the 39 state-mandated guidelines weren't a puzzlement to him.

Martinez, 25, has worked in the restaurant industry for nine years. Prior to moving to Atlanta, he worked at restaurants in Washington state. He’s been both a server and a bartender, and his on-the-job pandemic training has made him a highly valuable employee. Co-owner Gianni said that Martinez will be promoted to assistant manager soon.

Technically, Martinez is a server, but the position is a bit of a hybrid job at the moment. “I am doing all the hiring and training, a lot of admin stuff,” he said. “When we are open for service, I am on the floor and serving, and managing the floor as well.”

Some industry workers are not ready to return to the workplace yet, including some of Martinez’s colleagues. “A lot of people I have asked to come back are not comfortable,” he said. “A lot of people said, ‘Not until it blows over.’ Others said they only want a shift once a week because they are scared.”

Martinez, however, said he is “pretty comfortable” with the situation. “It’s because I am constantly thinking about what I am touching and being sanitary,” he said.

The new normal for this front-of-house worker, and so many others in the industry, encompasses everything from assignments to adjusting their personal style of hospitality to how they interact with their restaurant “family.”

When Gov. Brian Kemp issued restaurant reopening guidelines in late April, restaurateur Dave Green of the Select in Sandy Springs studied them and came to the quick conclusion that the pandemic would see the rise of a new type of server. As part of his COVID-19 playbook, Green implemented a division among waitstaff, separating servers into front waiters and back waiters. "Some people, all they do is clear. Others, all they do is bring the food. The two don't switch back and forth," Green said.

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Christian Martinez, a server at Forza Storico, has taken on additional responsibilities during the pandemic. CONTRIBUTED BY HENRI HOLLIS

Christian Martinez, a server at Forza Storico, has taken on additional responsibilities during the pandemic. CONTRIBUTED BY HENRI HOLLIS

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Christian Martinez, a server at Forza Storico, has taken on additional responsibilities during the pandemic. CONTRIBUTED BY HENRI HOLLIS

Forza Storico implemented similar protocols for its dining room. “People who touch dirty things never touch clean food and drink going to the table and vice versa,” Martinez said.

Besides server tasks being acutely delineated, the public health crisis has changed how Martinez interacts with guests. “When I used to be a bartender, I used to make money by getting close and talking quietly. I can’t do any of that now,” he said.

Wearing a mask and adhering to social distancing require that he “be loud and step back instead of coming in close and being affectionate. It’s definitely changed my style of hospitality,” he said.

And it’s changed how he interacts with peers; closing time isn’t what it used to be. “Before, we’d sit together, smoke cigarettes or have a glass of wine. Now we’re like, ‘We’re done. Everyone go.’ We finish a shift and everyone gets up and goes.”

The pandemic has changed his job, but Martinez noted that restaurants were subject to numerous safety measures prior to the pandemic. “Having to put these precautions in place — all the stuff, minus the mask, was part of the restaurant industry. Now, it is all the time, 100%. Psychologically, it’s not a big transition for me.”

Martinez is only 25, yet he feels a deep sense of responsibility, especially when guests put their guard down and don’t adhere to social distancing or other pandemic safety measures.

“Since opening for dine-in, everything seems to go back to normal for the guests, so it’s on our side to be super sanitary, washing hands, putting gloves on before busing tables,” he said. “More responsibility is on the restaurant workers. It was kind of evenly distributed before dine-in (resumed),” he said. “It is kind of frustrating, but we really have to be careful for the safety of everybody in Atlanta.”

The day we spoke, he said he hadn't personally known anyone in the industry to have caught the COVID-19 virus. Less than 24 hours later, a Forza Storico employee was found to have tested positive for COVID-19 and the restaurant voluntarily shut down to be cleaned. All employees were tested, including Martinez.

He texted me his results: negative.

When Forza Storico reopens, Martinez plans to show up as usual. “Honestly, I’m excited to work and have the opportunity to be involved and have my input,” he said in a text. “Regardless of my age, I’d much rather be working and helping people than bored at home.”

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