LOCAL PERSPECTIVES: An Inside look at the hospitality and food service industry in 2022
August 29 - September 4, 2022
By Becca Bona
Third place. The phrase was coined by sociologist Ray Oldenburg to signify the physical place that occurs between first place (home) and second place (work), especially through the lens of community-building.
Third places come in all shapes and sizes — from churches and cafes to parks and libraries. The most important element, however, is the human one. A third place is described as a space for building connections, relationships, and sharing ideas — and that can’t happen in a vacuum.
That bar where everybody knows your name … it’s a third place. In fact, the hospitality and food service industries provide many third places — from the rustic produce stand along the side of the highway to the newly opened local restaurant.
In March of 2020, third places changed. And while COVID-19 is slipping out of the news cycle, it continues to affect supply chains, labor markets, travel, and at the most basic level — how people interact with each other.
Locally, those working in the hospitality and food service industry continue to make a living for themselves, but the landscape they work in is entirely different and changes every day.
Behind the Bar at the Pantry Crest
Mal Calaway is a bartender currently employed at the Pantry Crest in Little Rock. She began working there a year before the pandemic hit and brings over a decade of experience to the table.
Calaway enjoys making cocktails for customers who happen to sit at the bar. But as someone who has been in the industry for so long — it’s not really about the drinks.
It’s about human connection. It’s about building that third place.
“I like to think that my biggest skill is the fact that I can have a conversation with anyone about anything. And so, losing that for such a long time was hard,” she remembers. “It was so quiet. It was like the loudest silence I’ve ever heard.”
In the early days of the pandemic and even now she feels extremely supported by the management and owners at the Pantry. She and her fellow employees were offered a choice — to stay and work or to have their jobs back should they decide to step away for health or any other reasons. She remembers hearing a lot of opinions about industry workers during that tumultuous time.
“That was, for me, the first glimpse into seeing two sides of how people view [industry workers] and how in one breath — we’re very much a necessity to people and, in the same breath, they said this is what you do for a living — you can’t complain – you should have gone to college.”
Calaway knows many people who work in kitchens, as servers, or as bartenders who have degrees. They choose not to use them, she says, largely due to a calling.
“I think people find joy in the hospitality industry, because a lot of people are naturally nurturers,” she says. And while some people love it, Calaway is quick to point out that some people don’t have many other options. “This industry is also great because it can give opportunities to people who don’t have opportunities, and everybody has to pay bills.”
Calaway decided to stick it out, because ultimately, she loves what she does. But it’s been a rollercoaster navigating the day-to-day. For a while — there was no bar. Even when curbside sales rolled out followed by the cautious creep of reopening — things were different. There were less chairs, less mingling, less laughter.
Restaurants and bars were on alert to hold safety at the forefront. Gone were the days of flickering votives, communal salt and pepper shakers, and even traditional silverware.
“I think a lot of restaurants are very accommodating. And when we were put in a position where we couldn’t be that way — it sucked for everybody. It felt like there was a larger lack of understanding as to why,” she remembers. Calaway watched people leave the industry and traces it back to respect. “People didn’t want to work anymore because they weren’t treated with respect, kindness or compassion,” she notes.
The pandemic also opened a window into the deeper question of why people enjoy going out for food or drink in the first place. “I think COVID showed people why they like coming to their favorite restaurants. And, yeah, the food’s good. But that’s fifty percent of the experience that you’re getting. The other fifty percent is us — the servers, the bartenders, the chefs.”
Calaway notes that her experience is not everyone’s experience. Every restaurant, bar, or coffee shop — every third place — has approached the pandemic differently.
“Some places you feel good about because you know they’re trying to be clean and safe. And then there are some places that act like COVID never happened.”
However, as she continues to try to make a safe space at the bar — a third place for those looking for it — she has some thoughts to share.
“I think if there was one thing that I would just want people to know and understand who do not work in the food industry, is that we’re still figuring it out,” she says. “This is literally a day-by-day situation. And we’re going to make sure that we do everything we can to make everything wonderful, beautiful, delicious, and consistent as possible.”
In the Kitchen at El Sur
Luis Vásquez, Chef and Owner of El Sur Street Food Co., has been in business for three-and-a-half years. From food truck to a recently opened brick-and-mortar on Little Rock’s South Main Street, Vásquez has seen it all.
He remembers the uncertainty and heaviness in the beginning. COVID-19 changed El Sur’s entire operation. “As a food truck we used to go to offices, apartment complexes and private events,” he says. “COVID ended all that, so we had to operate more as a pickup restaurant staying in the same locations, asking customers to social distance and wear masks.”
In that way the food truck was a boon, as he was able to strategically move his operation around, noting what worked and what didn’t, pivoting every day to stay afloat.
He notes that innovative thinking is paramount to keeping third places thriving these days, especially when it comes to continued vigilance regarding safety. “We follow CDC guidelines, and it has worked for us; it made our costumers comfortable being in our business,” he says.
From the inside looking outward, Vásquez connects it back, like Calaway, to respect. And, like Calaway, Vásquez notes that many elements which used to be relatively consistent — such as food prices — are now all over the map.
“[The industry] is different than three years ago, from supply chains to food prices […] just be nice and treat the people serving you how you would like to be treated.”
Near the garden at Me & McGee Market
Logan Duvall, partner at Me & McGee Market, has seen the effects of COVID-19 up-close. Me & McGee began as a side-business in the fall of 2011, when Duvall’s maternal grandmother and step-grandfather began selling pecans along Highway 70.
The following year produce was added at the recommendation of Duvall’s mother Neva, due to the large number of travelers stopping and inquiring about the produce from the garden visible from the highway.
Thus, they built a produce stand and never looked back.
Today, Me & McGee is more than a third place — it’s an educational hub for those who want to know more about the Natural State, its produce, and how the two can intersect via holistic living and health.
Duvall notes that COVID was “massively impactful.” Not only was he tasked with trying to help keep business functioning as usual in 2020, but he was also handling other hardships — as his oldest child was undergoing chemotherapy for stage four cancer.
“I can’t stress enough how much the contrary information, fear and hostile environment affected everything. I believe we lived through one of the most hurtful times in history for mental health. The isolation and fear-induced stress to a level that will reverberate for many years,” he says.
He also believes that the pandemic brought about a shift in perspective within the industry, especially when it comes to customers.
He explains — “There is an adage that the customer is always right. I believe this is one of the market’s most damaging ideas ever implemented. The customer is not always right, and I believe this idea has led to the degradation of retail.”
Reviving the Third Place
Calaway, Vásquez, and Duvall all agree — there’s a need for more understanding and kindness — more of the Golden Rule — in today’s hospitality and service industry.
It’s more than spending money to have someone else prepare food or make a drink. It’s more than picking up fresh produce.
It’s about reimagining that third place, in a time when society needs it most.
Calaway says it best — “I think that that’s one thing that we can probably all agree on that we learned from COVID is that we need genuine human connection and interaction.”
1. The former food truck — El Sur Street Food Co. — recently opened a brick-and-mortar location in SOMA. Owner and Chef Luis Vásquez continues to weather the pandemic via patience and innovative thinking. Photo by Becca Bona
2. At the beginning of the pandemic, bar seating and communal tables seemed a thing of the past. The Pantry Crest’s bar (pictured above) has slowly become a haven to Little Rockers once again. Photo by Becca Bona
3. Working as a bartender is about more than preparing drinks. For Calaway — it’s about providing a safe space for human connection and interaction. Photo by Becca Bona.