If you’ve dined out recently, you might have noticed some changes. Beyond the obvious new additions like vaccination cards and masks, there’s an overall change in culture at many restaurants, a brand new vibe. Some of this is rooted in the movements around social justice and equity, while others come from what some refer to as the Great Resignation — a time when workers started to question labor conditions at places where they worked, and owners sought to retain staff pushed to the breaking point by the pandemic. As a result, many of the trappings and formality of fine dining have been replaced with a much more personal approach.

Here’s an example: At my first and only meal at Oakland’s Daytrip, beverage director Jenny Eagleton plopped down in the empty space in our booth to suggest a wine pairing. It was as if we were old friends, and it nearly prompted me to ask how her day had been. We have never met, but it added to the dinner party vibe the restaurant is going for.

And here are some more: chef/owner Mica Talmor of Oakland’s Pomella signs her weekly newsletters “Love, Mica (though the “love” is actually a red heart). At Oakland’s Mägo, the chef who cooked your appetizer is likely to be the one running it out to you, so that if you have questions about it, you can ask her directly, rather than have to go through the server. Gone are the days when the diner only knew the chef/owner’s name; in some places, the names of the entire team are printed on the evening’s menu. Of course, all of this is by design.

Meanwhile, many restaurants are improving things behind the scenes, too. Two years after the #metoo movement moved from Hollywood to nearly every industry, a multitude of chefs, celebrity and otherwise, faced claims that they engaged in a pattern of abuse, in some cases over decades. A massive worker shortage means that employees are less likely to accept harassment than they were in past years, and the increased scrutiny on matters of bias and exploitation means that employees that have been mistreated are more likely to speak out.

That means that long-needed changes to the industry, like fair wages and health insurance for workers, are slowly being adopted by many restaurants, as employees can afford to be more selective about where they choose to work. And during a pandemic, when balancing earning a living and staying healthy is on everyone’s mind more than usual, restaurants that want to keep employees are prioritizing their safety over almost everything else, with one saying, “If someone isn’t comfortable with something, we don’t do it.”

Here is a report from three Oakland restaurants, all of which opened during the pandemic or less than a year before it: Daytrip, Mägo and Pomella. Taken together, they give a clear picture of how our local restaurant culture is changing for the better.

Health care and open communication

Balkarn Singh is a line cook at Daytrip. Courtesy: Balkarn Singh

Daytrip
4316 Telegraph Ave. (near 43rd Street), Oakland

Not too long ago, at the new, popular Temescal restaurant, Daytrip, owners Stella Dennig and Finn Stern held a staff meeting where they opened up their books for the entire staff to see. Not only did all the employees learn what each person was earning, but they could see how much the restaurant was spending on labor, food costs, and exactly what its profit margins are.

“I feel very strongly that the more information people have, especially when shared in a digestible way, it’s better for everyone,” said Dennig. While they’ve had a 100% retention rate since they opened last October, she said, “We want to empower our team and not feel afraid of losing people to their own ventures. That would be the best version of what Daytrip could do in my eyes.”

For line cook Balkarn Singh, who also has his own pop-up called Country Chaat, that kind of transparency, previously, was unheard of.

“I’ve never worked in another kitchen where the owners laid out for us how to get to where they are, and at the same time as opening a restaurant, are mentoring us in the process,” said Singh.

That’s just one way Dennig and Stern have created a restaurant where diners constantly remark on how much fun the staff seems to be having at work.

In addition to a service charge automatically included in the check, which is evenly split between waitstaff and kitchen workers, Dennig said open communication and consent is crucial, especially since they opened during the pandemic; but it applies to other areas, too.

Dennig and Stern believe in universal healthcare, but since that isn’t a law of the land, providing a health care option for staff is a high priority — but it’s still not the industry norm. “When we hired folks, we told them ‘we don’t know what this will look like yet, but some kind of health benefit will kick in after 90 days, and we will figure it out with your input,’” Dennig said.

Using a consultant to present the staff with options, everyone who works 30 hours a week or more had a vote in which option they chose. They landed on a stipend per check, which can be used for health care, or not.

When told that  Eagleton sat down with us while suggesting our beverage pairing, Dennig laughed and said she wasn’t the least bit surprised. “There must be a level of ownership in the space that allows our staff to do things like that,” she said. “They feel comfortable treating the space as their own.”

Daytrip’s owners say they give staff more latitude than they might have experienced at other workplaces — for example, they can use their own judgment to decide whether to comp a dish; they don’t have to ask management first.

“We really trust everyone’s judgement, there’s a high level of trust between us and the team. We feel it, they feel it, and it feels palpable in the way they interact with the physical space and our customers,” she said.

Cross-training their team for both front and back of the house positions is another way they do this. Not only has it helped the restaurant when a worker must take an unexpected day off, but it’s given valuable on-the-job training to employees. Another way to indicate that Daytrip workers are part of the restaurant’s overall fabric was the decision to put the entire team’s names on the menu, as you might see in a program for a play.

“They want to change the unhealthy lifestyle, habits, anger, work culture and what happens in kitchens that we’re all so used to seeing and hearing about.”

Daytrip line cook Balkarn Singh

“That was intentional and felt logical as we are all building this together and everyone’s work and creativity and excitement goes into making Daytrip what it is,” said Dennig.

For Singh, it’s definitely affected how he feels about coming to work, and about his industry as a whole.

“What they’re doing is beyond commendable, they want to change the unhealthy lifestyle, habits, anger, work culture and what happens in kitchens that we’re all so used to seeing and hearing about.” All of this is something he hasn’t felt to this degree in other kitchens he’s worked in.

“That’s made have utmost respect for them in every single way,” he said. “The culture is so supportive and so minimal ego compared to other kitchens I’ve worked in that, at first, I was taken aback that it wasn’t what I was used to.”

Of course, this greatly affects Singh in terms about how he feels when he goes to work. For someone like him, who has dealt with anxiety for most of his life, knowing his work environment is such a stable, cooperative one, where people are genuinely happy to be, is a huge change from what he’s experienced in the past.

“It makes it really easy to put your best foot forward,” he said. “When you’re somewhere you want to be, helping people you want to help, and don’t feel that sense of anxiety, it’s huge.”

A plan to bust burnout

Mägo owner and chef Mark Liberman is building an anti-burnout business. Credit: Isabel Baer

Mägo
3762 Piedmont Ave. (near W. MacArthur Boulevard), Oakland

Putting all the team members’ names on the menu, regular team meetings where they all have input and having the entire team interact with the customers to a much greater level is also part of the work ethos at Mark Liberman’s Mägo. His restaurant opened in mid-2019 on Oakland’s Piedmont Avenue and quickly became a neighborhood favorite, offering hyper-seasonal, upscale but not fussy, food.

Liberman took two years off from kitchens as he planned Mägo, saying that he’d experienced serious burnout in his previous jobs. He knew that when he opened his own restaurant, one of his highest priorities would be to prevent that from happening again, to him or his staff.

While hearing women talk about work-life balance is the norm, it’s still rarer to hear men bring up the topic. Liberman opened Mägo with his wife, who works full-time herself, as his partner. The couple also shares two children, a 5-year-old daughter and a 1-year-old son, born during the pandemic.

“I’ve worked with a lot of chefs that got divorced because they never saw their families or kids, so I was very conscious of that,” he said. When working with a broker to find the right space, his conditions were a patio, an open kitchen, and an address within a small geographic area.

“When I worked in the city, if there was a situation at home, it would take me an hour to get there,” he said. “Now I’m a 10-minute bike ride.”

That work-life balance was a priority of the chef/owner immediately attracted general manager Johnnie Magana, since he could sense right away that the culture there would be different.

“I’m over the attitude,” said Magana, who came up through the ranks in many fine dining restaurants in the Bay Area and New York, working with a number of high-profile chefs.

“It’s become evident that these people don’t exist or have the names they do without a team supporting them. You can’t execute all this crazy food that takes four hours to prepare a carrot a certain way without the rest of the people doing” much of the work, he said. “I easily made a choice to not accept that behavior anymore, because if you don’t have a team to keep you open, you’re not open.”

Liberman said that while he’s always considered a restaurant a team effort, there’s even more emphasis on that now, with all staffers attending a weekly meeting on Saturdays. Typically, those meetings have been for management, only.

“Everyone has a voice at these meetings and everyone’s heard,” said Magana. “I will make a point of asking everyone the same question, and whether it’s a super small thing, or larger, if we all don’t agree on it we don’t do it.”

One of those decisions has been to open for service only four days a week, which they started doing in 2021.

Of course the restaurant has pivoted numerous times during the pandemic, offering take-out, then not, and changing from an a la carte menu to a tasting menu.

“If we all don’t agree on it we don’t do it.”

Mägo general manager Johnnie Magana

“The staff was behind it as long as we could create a financially viable solution for them, but they’re making good money now, with us open four days a week,” said Liberman.

This doesn’t mean Mägo’s workers aren’t in the restaurant beyond those four days, but the pace is slower, allowing for preparation and administrative work. “When we were open for service six days a week, I was constantly trying to catch up on the business side of things,” Liberman said.

As to why everyone’s name appears on the menu, Liberman said, “We all contribute to the experience. Everyone there at night is wearing a lot of different hats and doing a lot of different things. Sensing that they all want to be there makes for a better experience for the guest, so it makes sense for that to be part of the experience, so they know their names.”

Liberman said the way Mägo is structured has been at first challenging for some staffers, who are more used to the usual hierarchy; sometimes it takes some getting used to.

“We have no host, no bussers, and no bar backs,” he said. “We’ve restructured the dining room and kitchen so that everyone does everything, and that’s really different.”

Since many cooks, by nature, are introverts, some of Mägo’s newest hires can be taken aback by the expectation that they run their dishes right to the diners. Liberman says that though it’s initially uncomfortable for some, it’s important because it emphasizes the entire team, and because “sometimes diners have a lot of questions, and the cooks are able to answer with actual facts and honesty about the chicken and why it’s special.”

Liberman said that he doesn’t ask employees to do anything he won’t; he is just as likely to be the one running plates out to guests as well.

“As both the chef or a guest, I like to talk to people,” he said. “I think the guests also like learning about the food from the cooks.”

Celebrating staff

Pomella owner Mica Tamor. Credit: Sasha

Pomella
3770 Piedmont Ave. (near Yosemite Avenue), Oakland

Co-written by chef/owner Mica Talmor and mononymous tech/marketing lead Salaams, the Pomella newsletter is usually upbeat and funny, with a strong focus on the restaurant staff and their accomplishments.

Piña makes the restaurant’s hummus, one newsletter announced, saying that “if you ever wonder why our hummus is so good, it’s because it’s made by a happy sweetheart of a man.” In another newsletter, a cook named William is praised for being just as great working the line or doing prep. In yet another, Pomella manager Liz Cohen’s birthday is the centerpiece, with Talmor and Carbonara writing that if banana cream pie is the dessert special that week, we have Liz to thank for it.

The staff birthday celebrations started at the end of 2020, when Cohen and Talmor’s birthdays became fodder for the newsletter. William’s soon followed.

“It caught people’s attention, and we got good feedback that customers were interested so we kept going,” said Talmor. “I wish I were that smart to come up with the idea, but it happened organically.”

The staff birthday celebrations aren’t just in the newsletter. On the Saturday afternoon closest to the team member’s birthday, they have a special staff meal chosen by the birthday celebrant, along with a cocktail of their choice and their chosen dessert.

Talmor said that the commemoration forces her to think about what she appreciates most about that employee, as part of the tradition includes public praise for what that staffer does best. It’s good for staff morale, and it breaks down the walls between customers and staff, which Talmor realizes, can only improve relationships.

About the birthday celebrations, Cohen said, “I’ve never worked for a place that did something like that. We feel included, and everyone shows up, even on their day off. They come in because we really care about each other.”

While Talmor’s customers have certainly noticed that her prices are higher than they were in her previous restaurant, Ba-Bite, she feels that using social media in this way can help her be more transparent about why.

“When we choose to bring our team forward, it makes it more personal and more clear to the customer what the financials of it are about,” she said.

Also, seeing the people that are usually behind the scenes be recognized for the work they do makes it more likely customers will want to help pay for their health insurance, she believes.

“It’s not like we didn’t care about our staff before,” she said, but social media allows her to express that care in a different way.

“When we choose to bring our team forward, it makes it more personal and more clear to the customer what the financials of it are about.”

Pomella owner Mica Talmor

On the one hand, the emails are a marketing tool to increase sales, Talmor said. But on the other, since she opened right as the pandemic was starting, it’s a way to generate a personal connection at a time when we were all forced apart. Things have improved, of course, but now customers actually recognize employees and call them by name, masks and all.

For Cohen, who has learned many of the regulars’ names since she is often handing them their online orders, having a customer wish her happy birthday “creates an incredible environment for both the customers and the people that work here.”

Talmor also signs her messages (red heart) Mica. While she feels she engaged with her customers at her previous restaurant, opening right as the shut down happened forced her to communicate in a different way.

“Pomella is all about this community, and the fact that people showed up for me during COVID, week after week, even for the prepared meals to heat up at home,” she said. “I feel very attached to the project, to our customers, and therefore very attached to the people I’m sending the emails to.”

Before the pandemic, Talmor didn’t give much thought to a newsletter, but people have responded positively to her communication style, so it’s become a crucial part of what she does.

Cohen says the personal touch is felt by the staff just as much; coming from working in more corporate restaurants, she notices a huge difference working in a place owned by a sole chef/owner, and a woman at that.

Turnover has been pretty low during the pandemic, Cohen said, which says “a lot about the culture she’s created here for us.” “The team feels really valued by her,” Cohen said, “taken care of and heard.”

Alix Wall

Alix Wall is an Oakland-based freelance writer. She is a contributing editor of J., The Jewish News of Northern California, for which she has a food column and writes other features. In addition to Berkeleyside’s Nosh, her writing can be found in The San Francisco Chronicle, Edible East Bay, and more. Alix is also the founder of The Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is producer/writer of a documentary in progress called “The Lonely Child.”