CONWAY, Ark. — Shortly before last Christmas, Jarrod Ives and his fiancee could only seem to agree on one thing: He needed to quit his job as a server. Ives loved working at WunderHaus restaurant, a quirky bistro outside Little Rock, but the money wasn’t enough to cover rent and two car payments. The situation reminded him of his childhood, when the availability of food and money was precarious. As they contemplated a life together, they needed more security.
“Our relationship was suffering at the hands of these financial exhaustions,” Ives said.
Ives left the restaurant optimistic about the possibilities to come. He envisioned a job that paid more and having time to play drums in his band. Soon enough, he’d learn a baby was on the way.
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But over the next year, he would take two new jobs, only to quit them, exposing the limits of a mass worker movement that many hope will usher in a new era of economic opportunity in America. Tens of millions of Americans have left their jobs this year in the “Great Resignation,” awakened by the stresses of the pandemic and a labor market where companies are desperate to hire.
The experience of Ives — and much of the crew at WunderHaus, who ultimately would also leave the restaurant — offers a more sobering view of what’s next. No one regrets quitting the restaurant, but most are not better off financially.
A year after that first resignation, Ives has a 3-month-old baby he adores, but not a full-time job. His second job worked him too long, and the third left him too physically exhausted to do anything else. Now, he has a budding music career — his band even signed a small record deal — but on many nights, he eats ramen noodles or canned soup before spending hours out on the road as a driver for food-delivery services. The money woes intensify with each day.
“Financially, I’m stressed,” Ives said. “The pressure is on in a way that it has never been. Now it’s coming to a place I have to ask myself: Is this actually possible?”
The United States is on track to register 46 million resignations this year, suggesting more than a quarter of the workforce will turn over. But it remains challenging for low-wage workers to get ahead.
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Stubborn inflation is threatening to eviscerate the value of raises, while workers’ savings, in part from sizable government checks during the pandemic, are evaporating. With yet another coronavirus wave now bearing down, the physical and mental health stresses of service-sector work are unyielding. While data on what happened next to those who quit is scant, recent analysis suggests that many workers who have left the fields of restaurant and hotel work — the two sectors with the most resignations — end up back in those industries or in similarly low-wage work in retail, according to the California Policy Lab at the University of California.
At WunderHaus, many of Ives’s former colleagues have followed this path, with uneven results. Four of the eight who quit quickly found employment at other restaurants for the same or less pay. They are still searching for better jobs.
The cook who has seen the greatest financial improvement is now a landscaper for a state university. For the first time in his life, he gets health insurance and paid time off.
Others have taken even bigger leaps. Two former WunderHaus owners moved their family across the country during the pandemic to work on a farm in Nebraska, a decision they are now reconsidering.
MARQUETTE, Neb. — For Jacqueline Smith, the decision to leave WunderHaus came down largely to safety. She couldn’t see a way to keep the restaurant going in the covid summer of 2020.
Smith started WunderHaus in 2015 in Conway, Ark., with her younger brother, Auguste Forrester. They bought an old bread delivery truck and, with the help of their spouses, transformed it into a food truck serving European specialties like stroganoff, spaetzle and meat pies. Food was sourced directly from nearby farms.
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The food truck was such a hit, they opened a restaurant in downtown Conway a few years later. They persuaded the owner of an old gas station to rent them the space. They transformed the gas pump area into an outdoor garden and the indoor space into a cozy restaurant with a large bar and a mix of European castles and local artists’ work on the walls. They saw themselves as part of a small-town American revival.
Smith and her husband, Jason, became the heart of the kitchen. Jacqueline, 35, was a musician by training, and Jason, 38, a painter, and they saw the WunderHaus menu as their latest artistic creation, spending hours trying new flavor combinations and recipes for pies, slow-braised pork and a dip made of Italian sausage, cheeses and caramelized onions.
Forrester handled the business side and often served as bartender.
When the pandemic started making national news in early 2020, the Smiths huddled with staff, warning them: This could get bad. Two weeks later, the restaurant was empty. WunderHaus started serving takeout. A month later, they shut down entirely and urged the staff to apply for unemployment.
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As the pandemic dragged on, it became clear that the Smiths and the Forresters had different visions for how the restaurant could survive. The conversations got heated, and the families stopped speaking. Plus, business was down so much, it didn’t seem like WunderHaus could support two families anymore.
The Smiths sold their stake to the Forresters. Driving by the restaurant daily was painful, so they packed up a small camper van with their daughter, Hazel, and drove to the Grand Tetons in the summer of 2020. They just needed a break.
They stopped briefly at an organic and regenerative farm in Marquette, Neb., that they knew from their WunderHaus days. The farm grows corn for organic popcorn, along with soybeans. There are also small herds of cattle and hogs.
They just planned to spend one night, but the evening was magical, concluding with the best view they had ever seen of the Milky Way. Months later, in October 2020, the farm called and asked if Jason wanted a job. Money was running low. They had lived mostly off their tax refund and stimulus checks. He took it.
“Sitting behind a desk for eight hours a day does not appeal to me,” said Jason, while driving a utility vehicle across a recently harvested cornfield on the farm.
Farming was supposed to be a temporary gig. At first, Jason worked as a farm manager and laborer in Nebraska, while Jacqueline and Hazel stayed mostly in Arkansas. But ultimately, the family decided in June to move to Nebraska, selling their home for about $40,000 more than when they bought it five years before.
Now, they are spending far more time with 7-year-old Hazel. In the restaurant, she wasn’t allowed in the hot kitchen, with its gas flames and sharp knives. On the farm, she helps tend to the chickens and harvest a small garden.
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“We’ve gotten to spend more time with her since covid hit than any time since she was a little baby. You know, we’re thankful for that,” said Jason, as he watched his daughter scoop up the autumn leaves and throw them in the air, dancing as they fell around her.
But even with so much tranquility, something feels off. The Smiths miss the South and being part of a large community. Jacqueline is not a farm employee, so they are living off one income, and she’s figuring out whether she wants to reenter the food business or try something more experimental in the arts. They talk about maybe moving to North Carolina next year.
“It’s hard wrestling every day with what to do next or how that’s going to look exactly. Keeping the confidence there’s going to be something good,” Jason said.
HOT SPRINGS, Ark. — When WunderHaus reopened in the summer of 2020, Jarrod Ives felt like it was a different place. Forrester and his wife, Kacy — now the sole owners ― wanted to promote a sense that everyone was in this equally, so they dramatically altered tipping. All tips that waiters earned were distributed across the staff, including the cooks and dishwasher. For Ives, it was a significant pay cut.
“I would work a weekend and pull in $400 to $500 in tips, and my two-week paycheck would be $300. That happened a lot,” Ives said. “Basically it hurt me a lot more than it helped me.”
On top of the tip issues, there were no music gigs. Ives used to make extra money playing the drums for live events, and his fiancee mixed tunes as a DJ for weddings. But all that dried up during the pandemic, leaving them struggling to pay their $875 apartment rent.
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As Christmas neared, he and his fiancee, Katie Vandruff, were on the verge of splitting up. Ives told Auguste Forrester he was quitting.
Soon enough, he saw a post on Facebook about a heavy metal band in Arkansas looking for a drummer. The band had already signed with a recording label and was actively working on an album. It felt like the big break Ives had been waiting for.
Around the same time, a friend offered him a cheaper place to stay — $250 a month in Hot Springs, a tourist hot spot that he and Vandruff hoped would have more job opportunities. He took it. A week later, he had a job at a coffee and wine bar.
The job entailed serving customers at the full bar, then darting to the coffee bar to serve there, and then back into the kitchen to bring out various small bites. The tips were great, and he didn’t have to share them.
“I went from making $200 to $300 every two weeks to making $1,200 to $1,400 every two weeks,” he said. “It was crazy.”
But staffing quickly became a problem. Ives worked a lot of overtime. He was often called in to work on his days off, because the bar didn’t have enough workers. He was forced to miss doctor’s appointments with his pregnant fiancee. The final straw came when Ives told his bosses that he needed a day off in June to record a music video with his band, but he was still scheduled to work that day.
“I felt like we were all being used. We were being looked at as a means to an end, as opposed to people with lives that deserve just as much respect as the employer giving us the opportunities,” Ives said.
He quit on June 1, handing in his shirt and a letter that said: “Due to inadequate leadership, I can no longer give my time to this business.” He said he knows several others quit around the same time.
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In July, his mother died of lung cancer after struggling for years with a drug addiction. They had a tough relationship, but her death devastated him and reminded him how short and fragile life can be.
A family friend reached out and offered him a job at a landscaping company for $11 an hour. It was one of the most backbreaking jobs he’s ever done and left him too exhausted to play drums or help around the house. He quit a few weeks later.
Then, the birth of his daughter, Ella, in September changed everything all over again with sleepless nights, diaper changes and long reflections on his hopes for her life.
“There have been several occasions where I’ve looked back and thought I don’t know if I should have quit the coffee shop job, because that money would be really, really great right now,” Ives said while feeding his daughter a bottle. “There’s a lot of hope, but it’s at a distance, always in the distance.”
After becoming a dad, Ives felt it was a “now or never” moment to make his music career stick. He built a recording studio in an older cinder block repair shop. His band Census released a rock and metal album on Oct. 1 that has had good success. One of their songs has been listened to more than 800,000 times on Spotify. He’s pieced together gig work mixing sounds for various bands, teaching music and playing a few live concerts.
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But there’s a harsher reality to this new life: He didn’t have enough money to make a car payment this fall. The bank fined him $17 when the payment bounced. He had to borrow money to fix a flat tire. He and his fiancee are driving for delivery apps again, trading off who stays home with Ella.
He’s as close as he’s ever been to a successful music career, but he’s also close to broke.
“If I don’t have as much money as I would like to have right now, at least I’m doing something that is fulfilling,” Ives said.
CONWAY, Ark. — Head cook Dylan Rodriguez’s decision to quit WunderHaus in June came down to respect.
Rodriguez, 25, grew up in a Mexican American family in Arkansas. He credits his mother and the late celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain with getting him interested in cooking. He dropped out of the University of Central Arkansas and looked for a new direction. He found his way to WunderHaus in early 2019, relishing the opportunity to learn German and Eastern European cooking. He felt pride at creating something new for his hometown, beyond the Tex-Mex and country-cooking restaurants that dominate the area.
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The restaurant became a culinary school for him, as well as the center of his social life. There were regular text message chains among the staff. They would play cards and share a drink together after work, and often meet up on their days off.
He liked the job so much that he had recruited two longtime friends to work in the kitchen and started dating Krista Hogan, one of the servers. Hogan is the sister of WunderHaus co-owner Kacy Forrester.
WunderHaus was his world, and he and Hogan often joked that it felt like they were on the sitcom “Cheers.”
When Auguste Forrester called Rodriguez in the summer of 2020 and asked whether he would return to help restart the restaurant, Rodriguez didn’t hesitate in saying yes. But with the Smiths gone, the kitchen staff felt rudderless to Rodriguez.
The Smiths had left a binder with recipes, but the kitchen staff knew they had often improvised. Rodriguez, who had coached youth soccer for years, felt he needed to be team captain. He would arrive early and plan out who did what and try to keep staff spirits up on long nights.
“I wanted my people to feel like their work was worth it,” Rodriguez said.
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The clientele had also changed. WunderHaus was located in a town with three colleges. Before the pandemic, the restaurant was often filled with professors. Now classes were online and customers who came in often said they didn’t believe the coronavirus was real or thought the threat was overblown. Rodriguez and Hogan caught the virus in November 2020. They survived, but the experience made them start to question their career choice.
In early 2021, one of the cooks went to prison for drug possession and delivery, another big loss for kitchen staff morale.
After that, Rodriguez said he felt he needed to do more to lead the team. He started referring to himself as “head chef.” But the Forresters said they didn’t think that was appropriate. They wanted everyone on staff to feel equal. Rodriguez said he felt differently. He was investing his life in the restaurant, spending every hour of his life there, or thinking about it. He stopped exercising. He started drinking more. His girlfriend kept asking if he was okay.
In late June, Rodriguez and Kacy Forrester had a heated conversation at the end of a long dinner shift. Rodriguez said he felt the owners weren’t doing enough to help. Forrester said her family was sacrificing everything from finances and time to sanity to keep WunderHaus going. Rodriguez remembers Forrester saying he was expendable and maybe he should just quit. Forrester said she didn’t recall saying that but did urge Rodriguez to talk with her husband.
For Rodriguez, that was the end. He walked into the restaurant a few days later and told Auguste he was quitting but would be willing to work through the weekend. He said Rodriguez could leave that day.
“I had to leave because of my sanity. I was going to go crazy if I worked there any longer. I told them I’m going to have to check into a mental hospital if I keep working for you guys,” Rodriguez said. “There was a rock, a weight over me. I didn’t feel like my normal self.”
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The next day, one of the other cooks, Landon Morris, 26, texted Rodriguez to say that WunderHaus wasn’t the same without him. There was no laughter in the kitchen. The staff text chains were full of debates about who was to blame. By the end of the weekend, Morris quit, too.
“I would have worked at WunderHaus for less pay. I don’t need a lot to get by,” Morris said. “I was just there because I really loved being around like-minded people. … I was really good friends with them. We were almost like a tightknit family.”
Within a week, Morris found a new job on a landscaping crew at a local university. They didn’t even interview him. He makes $15 an hour, about a dollar less than he typically made at the end of his WunderHaus tenure when tips were shared with the cooks. But there’s a big difference: His new job comes with benefits — paid vacation days, health insurance and 9-to-5 hours. He said he doesn’t think he’ll ever go back to working in a kitchen.
“The lifestyle of being a kitchen worker is honestly terrible. Kitchen workers are really an underappreciated sector of the workforce, in my opinion,” Morris said.
The next blow was when Rodriguez’s girlfriend quit. As sister to one of the owners, Krista Hogan was under a lot of family pressure to stay at WunderHaus. Hogan didn’t like being caught in the middle, and she knew she could get hired at one of the many other restaurants in need of workers.
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By mid-July, kitchen worker Quincy Downes quit WunderHaus. Asked to do more cooking, Downes had pushed for a raise from his $10.50 an hour plus tips. He recalls Auguste Forrester offering another $1 an hour, but Downes did not think that was enough.
“It was just like, everybody around me was quitting,” Downes said. “In the grand scheme, people just feel overworked and underappreciated.”
Less than a month later, Downes, 25, got a job at a local pizza and salad restaurant. He now earns $10 an hour plus tips. He keeps an eye out for better-paying jobs but said for now it’s worth it to be less stressed at work.
“This isn’t my career. I don’t want to do this for the rest of my life,” he said. “It’s going to be hard for the next few foreseeable months for people to find something that they really want to do and get paid well.”
By the end of July, another WunderHaus cook left and moved to Boston. WunderHaus staff started referring to the rapid chain of departures as the “kitchen walkout.”
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Rodriguez coached soccer over the summer and then landed a new restaurant job at Zaza for $11 an hour. Hogan works at a different restaurant in town. They both make a little less than what they did at WunderHaus, but they share an apartment now and watch their expenses. They both say quitting WunderHaus was worth it for their mental health. They don’t talk about work at home anymore. While they like their new co-workers, they are purposefully trying to avoid becoming best friends with anyone. They are also still trying to figure out their career paths.
“I’m not saying it’s necessarily even worked out for me,” Rodriguez said. “I just know I feel better mentally, emotionally and, like, creatively now.”
CONWAY, Ark. — Auguste Forrester, the owner, didn’t have much choice about leaving WunderHaus.
The Forresters had never made a profit in the year spent trying to save their restaurant. Auguste, 32, worked the bar and later served as head cook. Kacy, 31, worked as a nurse during the day and then served tables at dinner. Despite their high ratings on Yelp and Google, the stress mounted. They each went to counseling individually — and as a couple.
The kitchen walkout hit them hard. They struggled to rebuild the staff. Auguste took over in the kitchen. They raised wages a few dollars for many kitchen positions and held meditation sessions with staff to try to relieve the burnout.
“We loved everybody that left and everybody that stayed. And maybe that is what hurt the most is that there were just too many feelings, too much love. Too much,” Auguste said with a sigh. “I wouldn’t do anything different.”
As they worked hard to keep the restaurant going, their landlord kept calling. He wanted to sell the property. But first, he needed to dig up the old gas tanks that were still underground. The landlord arranged to do it on a quiet weekend in September. The Forresters were desperate for a break and planned a trip to the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival in Tennessee. But when the workers dug up the tanks, they discovered a big gasoline leak.
The Forresters rushed back to find a construction zone. There were giant fences around the property. The patio was ruined. The outdoor stage area where musicians had performed was full of caution tape and cement. In shock, the Forresters told the remaining staff to take a month off. Deep down, the Forresters knew, even then, it would take a miracle to reopen.
“Obviously, we could have overcome this, too, but at some point, we’re kind of done overcoming. We’re ready to see what’s next,” Kacy said, sitting at the L-shaped table by the door, a favorite of many customers.
Auguste told friends he felt like WunderHaus was a sand castle that survived wave after wave during the pandemic but ultimately was crushed by a machine that comes by at the end of the day and rakes through all the sand.
He would like to try something different now. He and Kacy want to travel and volunteer at their daughter’s school, something that was nearly impossible while running a restaurant. Auguste recently went to Texas to learn about eco-friendly construction.
After making the decision to close forever, the Forresters invited all the staff to their house for a bonfire. There were no big speeches. Just lots of hugs and memories. As the flames grew, Auguste felt like they were releasing the energy of WunderHaus into the air.
Andrew Van Dam in Washington contributed to this report. Hannah Thacker and Olivia McCormack assisted in the research.