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Help finding signs in restaurant windows, promises of signing bonuses, higher wages – owners and managers are struggling to try to get full-time employees back from the disruption of the pandemic. But for some of these workers, time away from the service sector has opened new doors.


NICHOLAS VAN ECK: Hello, my name is Nicholas Van Eck. I live in Portland, Oregon, and I make custom furniture.

SIMON: Nicholas Van Eck has been a chef for almost a decade. He is also the co-owner of a small restaurant. But the lockdowns put an end to that and left something unusual for Nicolas Van Eck: free time.

VAN ECK: The first thing I did was exercise (laughs), it’s something I – wanted to do. But when you work out for 16 hours every day, you can work out in a workout before or in the middle of it, but it still seems a little silly. So that was what I was really excited to start doing – and just read and relax. I was finally able to do a lot of things that normal people (laughs) have time to do.


VAN ECK: I started making furniture almost immediately. I must have watched a lot of YouTube videos – doing stuff for parents, then stuff for friends, then decided to share what I had done on social media. And then it was kind of a downpour after that – a ton of stuff that happened immediately.


VAN ECK: It’s a really different kind of hard work than restaurants. I think restaurants are both physically and emotionally exhausting. It’s really long hours. In a high pressure restaurant environment, once you’re there, you’re really locked in. You might have hours when you can’t use the restroom, you can’t check your phone, you can’t take a moment to mentally rest. And a lot of times I kind of panicked as soon as I got to work and was in a high adrenaline state for 12-16 hours straight. I think it can have consequences.


VAN ECK: Before the pandemic, I kept having nights drinking a beer and waking up the next day with this horrible hangover. And I was like, dammit, I’m 28. Am I really aging? I completely quit drinking early enough in the pandemic. And a few months later, I did some private events – cook – it was kind of like going back to restaurant mode for, like, three or four days in a row. The day after this event, I woke up and had the same feeling. And I realized it wasn’t a hangover. It’s just the exhaustion that comes from not blinking for four days in a row.


VAN ECK: When I first started cooking, part of it was because it was an intense, almost militaristic environment that I was drawn to. I kind of thought, I’m going to test myself and I’m going to be a stronger person for it. And I had that realization after I could take a step back that difficult experiences don’t always make you (laugh) better. Sometimes they make you worse.


VAN ECK: You know, I think there are, for the most part, a lot of really good people who are still working really hard. And I might have a little survivor guilt about leaving. I really care about the restaurant industry. And I still consider these people to be my peers. And I really want things to change. I think I just had to do a math on my own as to whether or not I wanted to be a part of this or if I just wanted to duck out and take care of myself and also just have another chapter in my life.


SIMON: Nicholas Van Eck from Portland, Ore.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcription provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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