David Kost considers himself one of the lucky ones.

As the COVID-19 pandemic upended life two years ago this month, Kost didn’t lose work for an extended period of time. To his knowledge, he never caught the virus. From what he’s heard in the close-knit community of Pittsburgh’s bar and restaurant workers, that’s atypical.

“It’s been very, very tough,” said Kost, 44, who works as a bartender and service manager at Scratch & Co. in Troy Hill.

“For a lot of people in the service industry, if you don’t go to work, you don’t get paid,” he said. “If you don’t get paid, you can’t pay your bills.”

The pandemic proved to be a tumultuous time for workers across the board, but for bar and restaurant employees, it’s been uniquely challenging. Many restaurant workers were already facing low wages and unpredictable hours, and food workers faced some of the highest risks of death during the pandemic. 

In response, many Pittsburgh bar and restaurant workers have found ways to help each other, and some have noted seeing their industry change in positive ways in response to the pandemic’s historic upheaval.

A grassroots safety net

In March 2020, as many bar and restaurant workers found themselves without jobs and in need of help, Kacy McGill and Taylor Stessney started Pittsburgh Restaurant Workers Aid [PRWA]. Initially a Facebook group helping connect bar and restaurant workers to resources and financial assistance to help pay bills, the group grew into a food distribution operation that was first run from McGill’s front porch. It now occupies a storefront on Liberty Avenue in Bloomfield. 

The nonprofit group currently provides food, diapers, feminine hygiene products and other items such as pet food and cleaning supplies to more than 100 families per week across the Pittsburgh region. That number reached as high as 200 families in May 2020, McGill said.

Kacy McGill, co-founder and co-director of Pittsburgh Restaurant Workers Aid (left), and Symone Saul, food distribution organizer for the group, look over bags of food and other supplies to be distributed to families in the Pittsburgh region. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)
Baby food, formula and other supplies are stacked on shelves in the Pittsburgh Restaurant Workers Aid distribution center in Bloomfield.
Volunteer Michelle Pilyugin unpacks and stacks diapers at the Pittsburgh Restaurant Workers Aid distribution center in Bloomfield.

In addition to food deliveries, PRWA also focuses on advocacy and organizing, McGill said, as well as providing resources such as mental health workshops and a wage transparency spreadsheet.

“I think this is a historic moment to really talk about what we would like to see the restaurant industry develop into,” McGill said, “so workers feel empowered to stay and owners also are able to listen to workers and also work in their scope to make sure that the workplace is a good environment.”

Finding, and giving, a helping hand

“Everyone deserves to have their needs met. They deserve to eat,” said Lia S., a cook who volunteers every other week delivering food and other supplies as part of Pittsburgh Restaurant Workers Aid. “They deserve to have hygiene products. You know, the whole thing, I really believe in that.”

Lia S., a 23-year-old cook from Friendship, embodies that mutual aid approach. Over the course of the pandemic, Lia, who preferred not to use their last name, has both received help from the PRWA as well as given it — volunteering to deliver care packages to fellow industry workers.

The Boston-area native had worked in the restaurant industry starting as a teenager and graduated from the University of Pittsburgh directly into the uncertainty of the pandemic. 

I was literally like, let me just go back to doing what I know how to do,” said Lia, who earned a degree in urban studies.  

But COVID made work all the more uncertain in an industry already known for lots of turnover. Lia saw management changes, low hours and periods without work. And coupled with an emergency surgery in November 2020, they needed help. 

The group’s assistance was a “huge relief,” Lia said, adding that by simply filling out an online form, they were able to receive groceries when things were tough.

“I want to do that for other people too, you know, like I want them to feel as relieved as I felt,” they said.

In a similar effort to help community members, Kost of Troy Hill’s Scratch, described how the restaurant shifted gears in the first few months of the pandemic to operating like a neighborhood marketplace providing affordable, if not free, meals, groceries and other supplies. For some in the neighborhood, this meant help with food when they couldn’t afford it or needed to avoid crowded grocery stores.

The at-home chef

Steve LaRosa cooks himself a dinner of leftover beef stroganoff with broccoli at his home in Lawrenceville.

Like many workers, Steve LaRosa lost his Downtown restaurant job as the pandemic shuttered businesses in March 2020.

LaRosa, now 36, was able to receive unemployment benefits, and while the world was on lockdown, the lifelong cook decided to spend some time crafting meals from food he’d kept in a basement freezer — partly to save money but also to keep his skills honed. 

He then posted photos of meals he cooked, everything from miso soup to chicken and waffles, on his social media. He also still made a point to order take-out once a week to support his industry.

Photos of meals Steve LaRosa cooked while at home during the pandemic. From top left, clockwise: Miso glazed grilled hamachi kama, chicken karaage with miso soup, pork and shrimp gyoza, Kentucky hot brown (turkey devonshire), onion and thyme chicken and waffles, and tonkotsu ramen. (Courtesy photos)

I still had friends who were still working and they were hurting,” said LaRosa, who is now working for a national company as a personal chef.

Two years into the pandemic, Steve and Lia both said they’ve noticed a shift in the industry’s dynamics. Workers aren’t “disposable” like they used to be, Lia said, and they’ve noticed an increase in pay for cooks and chefs like themselves.

Workers are being a lot more vocal about their rights in the industry,” LaRosa said. “That entire culture is definitely evolving and it’s mostly for the better. It still has a very long way to go before people who can really effect change, like politicians and stuff like that, will actually listen and do something about it. But that ball is rolling. And it hadn’t been rolling for decades.” 

Ryan Loew is a visual storyteller/producer for PublicSource. He can be reached at ryan@publicsource.org or on Twitter at @ryanloew.

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Ryan is a PublicSource visual producer/storyteller. He joined PublicSource after being a freelance producer of news features and documentary stories in the Pittsburgh region and beyond. His work appeared...