In a new in-depth series, GBH News tells the stories of people who — by choice or circumstance — are making big changes as COVID continues to disrupt our lives.
Kate Barry has a cheerful determination about her — the kind of style that served her well in her years as a successful general manager at high-end restaurants like Uni and Toro in Boston. And it’s that same determination that drove her to quit the industry she loved so much.
Barry, 32, always dreamed of owning a restaurant. As a child, she loved whipping up dishes for her family, and hoped to go to culinary school. She moved to New York after college and worked a series of jobs to save money. One of her first restaurant jobs was as a food runner in a Venezuelan restaurant. It was where she fell in love with the industry.
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“We were all ages, all backgrounds, all languages. And I thrived. I was so excited to meet people who I never would meet,” Barry said. “You look out for each other, you sort of have each other's back. Days can be long in restaurants and things that happen can be tough. And so, you all sort of get through it together. And there's a really amazing bond that comes from that.”
One restaurant job followed the next, she said, until culinary school “fell by the wayside.”
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“I still love to cook,” Barry said, “but I found that I really loved doing, sort of, many different jobs and many different tasks and being in a lot of different places. So as a GM, I got to sort of do everything. And I got to eat a lot.”
But the pandemic silenced the sizzle, the clatter and the shouts of orders in restaurant kitchens across the country. It sent tens of thousands of workers home who already lived paycheck to paycheck. And it forced Barry to confront what she already knew at heart: most restaurants had no way to take care of their own, and the industry was never set up to do it. She called it an “eye-opener” for her and many others in the business.
"There's not a big safety net. There's nothing to sort of catch us when we fall."Kate Barry
And that was when Barry decided she had to quit the industry she loved in order to help it. She saw law school as the means to that end.
“It was really sort of me thinking, ‘What kind of restaurant do I want to own one day, and if I don't feel like I can do that restaurant the right way and take care of my staff the right way, then do I really want to own one?’” Barry said.
Behind every successful restaurant are dedicated individuals, she said. The same individuals who suddenly have nothing when their weekly paycheck stops, whether it’s because of a pandemic or a personal crisis.
“I’ve worked in restaurants where we’ve had bartenders who worked there for 20 years. We’ve had a dishwasher who cooked breakfast and cleaned the entire restaurant. And the restaurant literally would fall apart without him there. And, you know, [we] want to do right by those people,” Barry said.
So, when restaurants reopened for takeout, Barry woke up early to study for her law school entrance exam, had a quick lunch and headed to work to “blast music and crush takeout” for hours with her colleagues. Then she’d come home late and do an online exam prep class for a few more hours before collapsing in bed.
When outdoor dining was allowed, she said she spent days dragging heating lamps up and down sidewalks, putting in full days and then returning home to study. Her restaurant career had steeled her for hard work.
“I swear everyone should work in a restaurant at some point in their life, because it just teaches you so much — about dealing with difficult people, and having to think on your feet and handle stress and pressure,” Barry said.
Barry was accepted to New England Law | Boston and began her studies in early September. While she’s keeping an open mind about the legal path to crafting better policy, she mentions labor, employment and immigration law as some of her interests.
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It seems a tough climb, but Barry is optimistic that solutions can be found to help solve some of the big challenges restaurants face.
“There’s some great sort of creative solutions out there that I think can really have a huge impact on the workers in this industry, the owners in this industry,” she said. “We just have to sort of figure out how to get there.”
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