There and Back Again: An Interview with Aiden Ardine (Part 1)
As most Americans know, the food, beverage, and hospitality (FBH) industry suffered some of the greatest losses of the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2020 alone, 3 million people in the FBH industry became unemployed due to the pandemic and over 110,000 restaurants closed.
Even now, as COVID joins the family of annual vaccines advertised at your pharmacy, the industry has not gained back the employees it lost. As we will see in this interview, this is not due so much to the COVID-19 pandemic itself – the FBH industry had numerous systemic problems long before COVID; the pandemic merely exacerbated these issues to their breaking points. Major issues like sexual harassment, racism, and sexism are rampant in the industry. FBH workers often face poor working conditions and little to no security or benefits.
In direct contrast to these brutal realities, the lovely swell of human kindness was also a significant (positive) outcome of the COVID crisis, as exemplified in this month’s piece. From May to November 2021, Aiden and Louis Ardine went on their own unexpected journey from coast to coast of the United States, starting in their home state of New Jersey and ending in California. Along the way, they collected stories from local restaurant and hospitality workers, learning how they adjusted to the pandemic. They raised over $75,000 for charitable groups providing aid to restaurant workers facing challenges due to COVID.
March On Foundation first met the Ardine brothers through our own fiscal project for COVID relief, the COCO Fund. Our digital content director Emma Buchman met Aiden and Louis on their walk when they stopped in Philadelphia, and they quickly became some of the COCO Fund’s biggest supporters. With a full year past since the end of their journey, we wanted to get their perspective on the results of this unique odyssey.
In November, Emma sat down with Aiden Ardine, half of the Ardine brother team. Now based in Providence, Rhode Island, he works as a bartender and continues to pursue advocacy projects and nonprofit work.
Emma Buchman (MO Foundation Digital Content Director & Blog Editor):
Thank you again for taking the time. So the first question I had was, tell us about you. Who are you and what do you do?
Aiden Ardine (Restaurant and Hospitality Advocate & Bartender):
My name is Aiden Ardine. I recently turned 30. I live in Providence, Rhode Island with my partner; she’s a teacher here in Providence. I’m trying to make work for myself as a writer, but I have been working in the food and hospitality industry basically since I graduated college from the State University of New Jersey, Rutgers, in 2015.
In that time from graduating college to now, I’ve done a lot of traveling and writing work, and in those experiences I found myself sort of drawn towards service projects. I worked on a play with my friends about the Rohingya refugee crisis in 2017-2019. I’ve done smaller projects raising money by printing t-shirts for good causes, working with UNICEF, groups of colleges across the Northeast.
And in 2021, my brother and I (in a moment of pandemic-induced, “What do we do with our lives?”) decided to walk across the country to raise money for restaurant workers affected by the pandemic. And that’s how I became involved with the COCO Fund through that endeavor, and I think we raised close to $75,000.
And now for the past year I’ve been living in Providence, Rhode Island, trying to be a normal person who doesn’t walk all day five months straight, and getting my feet back underneath me; trying to be a good boyfriend and just catching up on some things I neglected during those six months. So that’s pretty much where I’m at. I’m trying to write a book about walking across the country, and I’m trying to find another opportunity or new roles to be of service to either the Providence community or the larger community.
We’re going to get into the trek that you and your brother Louis took in 2021. But to put that in context, what were you doing for work right before the COVID pandemic began shutting everything down, and what was your job like?
So, I was working in a bar managing part-time, helping out with odds and ends, which got me health insurance… But primarily just bartending three or four nights a week. Had that really great schedule where I was making enough money, had time off, had flexibility, had insurance; so everything was pretty great for me, honestly, not to sound super over-privileged or over-entitled.
Then the pandemic hit, and I had to reevaluate my priorities. I was laid off, much like everyone else during the early phases of the pandemic. I really struggled to get any financial support through unemployment or the stimulus bills – despite what other people might think everyone was not just at home collecting stimulus checks and payments every week. We were dipping into our savings and just trying to find other ways to tide ourselves over.
I went back to work eventually, I think in mid-May of 2020, and remained working in a restaurant in some sort of manager/bartender capacity until October of 2020 when I decided that it was time to move on and look at my other options.
We’ve already mentioned that throughout 2021, you made national headlines for doing this cross country journey from New Jersey to California to collect stories from locally-owned restaurant and hospitality workers. What inspired this idea and what was your main purpose?
Then it became apparent that if we were going to do this, we needed to do it for a cause. We couldn’t just go do something like this solely for ourselves… It was just obvious that we wanted to do something for food service workers, hospitality workers…
So, the inspiration for the idea just came about [in] thinking about what I like to do; and having spent a lot of time working with my friends on creative service projects, where we take our creative talents or skills and use them in some way to amplify the voices of others or raise awareness or money.
But I also love being outside – I like trekking and hiking, I like camping, and I’ve done some long distance hikes in the past. I think it was just the ability and the time to do something for other people. I was looking for nonprofit work, and then my friend just offhand made a joke about walking across the country… it was just like, “Oh, it’s something you could do.”
And I really thought about it. Talked to my brother about it, he was on board. I talked to my parents about it – I had their support, which was super important. I talked to my partner about it, I had her support.
And then everything lined up: our student loans, thankfully, were put in forbearance by the administration; I did have money saved up in the bank; I didn’t have rent to pay, because I was fortunate to be able to stay at home with my dad to reduce my cost of living; and I wasn’t committed to a job at the time because I had quit my job. So all of those normal commitments that people had every single day, that might prevent them from doing something [as] crazy as walking across the country for half a year, we had none of those obstacles.
Then it became apparent that if we were going to do this, we needed to do it for a cause. We couldn’t just go do something like this solely for ourselves, and that’s not where my head was at anyway. It was just obvious that we wanted to do something for food service workers, hospitality workers, those are the people that we’re friends with that we know.
I think the service industry got a really bad deal during COVID. There was very little concentrated relief towards the restaurant industry in particular: we all had to go back to work, many of us weren’t able to get unemployment benefits; we had to deal with the public all the time, even though there was a constant, sort of nebulous lack of information about, “What’s safe? What is comfortable for everybody?”
And then also dealing with the public – at that time, we dealt with people who were, understandably, maybe a little bit impatient; but there was also an extraordinary level of entitlement to just rush and get things back to normal. And when you’re making 50% of what your normal income is, you don’t necessarily have the patience for every single one of your customers to be unpleasant, like you would maybe during a normal summer season (and I work in sort of a seasonal town).
So I just felt really bad for a lot of people, and I felt really bad about the situation. I wanted to do something to put a positive light on the industry and highlight the stories of people that we think make the industry great and get out of that negative head space for myself, doing a good thing for other people.
I feel like I did that – I ended up returning to the industry and shook off my ennui while we were on the walk. I was in a very, very negative, critical frame of mind regarding hospitality in general.
The frame of mind, was that just because of the customers not having a lot of patience, not interacting with you in a polite manner? Or was that also because of factors from within the industry?
A lot of it was factors within the industry that became way more undeniable. All of the awesome aspects about being a bartender or a server in a local watering hole were pretty toned down: a lot of our regulars didn’t come out that one summer because they were understandably hesitant to come out during a pandemic. Even though the governor and the president said it was okay, that didn’t mean it was okay for everybody and their comfort level. So the people who did come out were passing one barrier of entry of, “What kind of person are you? What are your priorities right now?” I understand this sounds super judgmental, but that was my headspace.
So now, I’m dealing with people in a way that you’re used to dealing with difficult people or people who don’t understand the business like you do; but it’s okay because the money’s good, you’re working with your friends, it’s a fun job! Working in a restaurant is… if it’s not fun, I understand we all have to pay our bills, but that’s a huge reason why I remain in this industry, is because I’m not sitting at a desk all day. I’m active, I talk to people, we goof off. It’s fun.
And then you realize that you work in an industry that has very little support: no support for healthcare, no real financial support other than tipped income. You don’t actually make a living wage unless you get good tips, and you’re on your own to figure that out. The schedules are crazy, the hours are not awesome. The industry is rife with inequity in terms of the difference between the experience of male and female workers, or people in the front of house versus the back of house.
All of these things were just bubbling to the surface. I was very foolish not to really be tuned into them prior to 2020, but you can’t unsee them once your eyes are open to it all. There’s just rampant sexual harassment, and part of that is normalized: you can be like, “Haha, we’re all just having fun!” But that “Haha, we’re just having fun,” wouldn’t fly in literally any other professional industry in the country. So just little examples like that.
And then COVID was the straw that broke my proverbial back, and I think it changed it for a lot of people. I’m working in a restaurant now, we’re having trouble finding people and I don’t think everybody’s still sitting at home. I know they’re not, they’re just doing other things because of all the things that I just listed. So that’s a long answer. The restaurant industry is extremely problematic in a lot of ways; and I love it dearly, but it takes a strong stomach and a strong constitution to be able to hold your nose sometimes just to get to the end of the week.
I was a cashier at a chain called La Madeleine when it was my gap year between high school and college. I was fortunate to not ever experience overt sexual harassment, but I did notice the comments that might not necessarily be appropriate were easily exchanged and thrown out. I was young, so I just took them as compliments; but now that I’m older looking back, I would not appreciate those comments today.
Going back to your journey: those frustrations you were expressing, the inequities that you saw, that you see still in the restaurant industry, the lack of support for the restaurant industry that you saw during COVID – how common were you finding those experiences among restaurant and hospitality workers? Who were the kinds of people that you were meeting on your journey?
Just a few of the faces and places the Ardines met on their journey. From left to right: Aiden & Louis with Rachel of Bui’s Lunch Truck in Philadelphia, PA; Aiden & Louis with Joe at J&K’s Half Moon in Hinckley, IL; and Howlin’ Hounds café owner Greg with Omaha City Councilwoman Juanita Johnson in Omaha, NE.
I think there was a huge difference in the effects of COVID in different parts of the country, just because different regions reacted differently. So in great swaths of the West, very little changed…
You get in these cycles where you go to a city and everybody’s still wearing a mask, and even coming from New Jersey and going to Philly, which was where we met you, Philly was still locked down: outdoor dining, limited indoor dining. Whereas New Jersey, we pretty much were, as soon as we could take our masks off, we did. There was just a different attitude. But it’s like… you’re in a bigger city, people have a greater sense of, “Let’s not shut our city down again. Let’s follow all the rules and be responsible about this.” So it varied.
But you go to cities and people were having trouble staffing and had to dial back their hours. A lot of people gave up doing business the way they had. A lot of people sold their businesses – we met a lot of businesses that had just been taken over in the last 6-9 months because an older family, or a couple, or whoever owned a diner were just like, “This is it. We’re retiring early. Let’s see if we can sell this business and just be done with it, because it’s just not worth trying to navigate these trying times.” So that was interesting.
Restaurants are now only open four or five days a week. They trimmed down their menus and they cut down their hours and it’s like… If you come over to Providence (and Providence was already sort of this way), there’s just nothing open on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, it feels like. It’s just because people, they can’t find people who want to work in the industry right now.
I also think people learned to set boundaries for themselves, which was one of the lost silver linings of the pandemic, maybe? People are like, “Oh, once you have that time off, you start to value it more.” Because you never had an opportunity to just take a breath…
I think the big thing that I saw was a lot of “mom and pop” small business restaurants were killed by COVID, and part of that was a staffing issue. I don’t think a huge part of it was the lockdowns; and I think that’s a myth perpetuated by bad actors, because most of the places that talked about how the lockdowns affected their business had a positive story to tell. I think a huge part of it was people just didn’t have the will or the financial buffer to survive a two week shutdown because that’s how razor-thin the margins are in this industry. Then it’s like, why come back if you can find something else?
Our country is homogenizing. Convenience stores are booming right now, and that’s the restaurant [for many] towns. We’d be staying in a motel in some part of the country, and it’s the “whatever” convenience store, the Kum & Go, or… I’m sorry, my whole life was walking from one convenience store to another, it’s crazy I can’t remember their names, but that’s where everybody was going to work because they could provide $15/hour. You see businesses like McDonald’s and Walmart starting to offer healthcare benefits; which is a win for the working person, necessitated by the pandemic; but it’s a loss for small businesses. It’s a terrible irony.
That was the most profound takeaway I got from seeing the restaurant industry at large: only supermassive corporations have the means and the resources to implement those changes, those quality of life considerations that people, workers, want. And unless the government changes and becomes involved in policymaking and gets involved with our industry, you’ll never be able to compete with that. You saw that during COVID. It was obvious during COVID. And I think some people have changed since COVID.
You’re losing culture… The people who were working, [who] were sticking it out and doing a good job, [in] a lot of places just said, “No thanks.”
How many places did you visit just in general on your trip?
When we first started, we tried to visit a diner or cafe a day, so hundreds. But we walked across largely unpopulated portions of the country, so there weren’t a ton of options. We’d stop at a convenience store, a gas station, almost every single day; [we’d] get to talking to some people in those places because you’re just like, “You wanna know something crazy?? My brother and I are just out of our minds!”
We probably visited a couple hundred businesses. We were out there for 162 days, and if we could get breakfast and dinner, we would try to do it. We had to be on a budget. But it was nice to see people and sit down and get a meal at a small, local diner, or café, and maybe talk to a server or the manager… A lot of days, those were our only interactions with other people. Otherwise, we’d just be on the side of the highway for 10 hours just sort of… walking.
Yeah, that’s something I’ve always been interested in – where did you find it was easiest to walk and then make camp when you had to make camp?
The easiest part of the country to walk across was also the hardest. Once you leave Denver, there’s a huge, huge portion of the country [that] is just public land; and you’re entitled to use the public land responsibly. So camping, pulling over and sleeping; you can have an RV, you just have to keep it moving after a few days. So that was really easy, because we didn’t have to do this thing where it’s kind of dodgy, trying to camp somewhere in Pennsylvania… Or New Jersey, there’s nowhere to camp in New Jersey like that. You have to book a campground in advance, because it’s all private property and people are really guarded about that stuff.
It was refreshing to go talk to people who definitely were not politically or even spiritually aligned with us, that were still willing to help two dudes that they just met 20 minutes earlier and offered us a place to stay, or to take a shower, or can they give us some water or money?
Once we left Colorado, that all became easier but it also became massive distances between even gas stations. We’d have to carry all of our food and water for two or three days at a time. So that’s a trade off. But we could sleep wherever we wanted, which was cool! Sleep on the side of the highway… If something got easier, something else harder popped up to take that victory away from us, I guess you could say.
What percentage of the trip were you camping? Did you ever stay in hotels?
We took time off in major cities to do “promotional events”… but also to rest, see the country and talk to people. So throwing out those times where we stayed inside with friends for three or four days at a time, we probably were camping five nights a week and then sleeping inside two nights a week – whether we were in a motel or hotel; or staying with a friend of a friend of a friend who connected us on Instagram or Facebook or something like that. That was really cool, because not only were we out there meeting people who worked in restaurants, but we were getting perspective from people who didn’t work in restaurants.
And then inevitably, they weigh in on what we’re doing and everyone’s pretty supportive. Everyone knew someone who worked in a restaurant, and that’s why we thought it was such an interesting thing to do; and so important, because everybody knows somebody who works in a restaurant, and can relate because they think of that person… So we got a lot of people’s perspectives on the lockdowns and whether or not they were hurting or helping business.
We’ve learned a lot about people in the Midwest and farmers and what they do. People that we would’ve more readily written off as just Republicans who obviously are going to vote for whoever’s a Republican, without really thinking that they’re people and they do, in fact, make informed decisions and their life experiences led them to that, just like my life experience has led me to my own informed decisions…
That was a good experience for me personally, because before we left, it was election season (thank God Biden won), but there was a really bad feeling, and there still is a really bad feeling in America. Some of it’s real and some of it is just an echo chamber of our phones and TVs. It was refreshing to go talk to people who definitely were not politically or even spiritually aligned with us, that were still willing to help two dudes that they just met 20 minutes earlier and offered us a place to stay, or to take a shower, or can they give us some water or money?
And obviously I say that, very well aware of the fact that I am a very classic-looking white dude. But that was encouraging, and I think people appreciated watching along our journey because people back home with no conception of the middle of the country were like, “Oh it’s a different place, but they’re just people like you and I.” America’s so insanely big. It’s crazy.
What were some of your favorite places that you saw or visited on your journey?
I loved Philadelphia. I’ve been to Philadelphia many times, but going to Philadelphia and talking about what we were doing, and we got to meet you, and we got to really investigate the food scene and talk to people there. That was a really encouraging first stop or first step, and it’s just an awesome city.
But just getting to see the Midwest and be in the rural part of America, the breadbasket of the country, and just literally walk across corn fields… while mind-numbingly boring at times, there’s something incredibly beautiful and powerful about being out in the wide open, completely alone. Just you, the sun, the clouds, and the weather. I think about that a lot.
The most beautiful places were definitely in the western United States, up in the mountains. When we crossed the continental divide west of Denver, that was… I think about that day almost every day; and just being on top of a mountain and there’s these really quiet meadows and… It’s really quiet and still up there and really beautiful. And to do something like that with my brother on an adventure, those moments were the best.
A few photos of Aiden’s experience of the western United States: (from top left) Rogers Pass, CO; Steamboat Springs, CO; Vernal, UT; and Salt Lake City, UT.
Illinois was a really interesting place for us. We walked to Chicago as soon as we crossed the border and just kept going (because Chicago’s right on the border with northern Indiana), and we met people in Chicago that we didn’t really know, but they put us up and they took us around. We met a bunch of business owners and then we met people in Chicago that helped us get all the way to Geneseo, Illinois, and then to Rock Island and then to the Mississippi River – a whole family of people putting us up, taking us to their favorite restaurants. I really liked that part of the journey, just because there were still people around.
All the way basically to Omaha, we had those experiences where we would stop in a small town and someone would be like, “You gotta go to this place!” We go sit down, and someone would treat us really well and we’d get to talking. Then as soon as we got to Nebraska, we had an awesome time in Omaha. We met this guy Dan Michaels, who runs a radio show in Fargo. He came down with his nonprofit foundation and made a contribution, and we did a live, in-person radio show. We’d been talking to him every week. And then he took us to Scheels, which is a sporting goods store out in the western part of the United States, and they got us shoes. Then we went to all these businesses in Omaha, and everyone was really kind and super friendly.
Then as soon as we left Omaha, it was over. It was just: walk 40 miles a day, it was a hundred degrees every single day, and just do whatever we could possibly do to get to Denver. You’ll notice, if you were following us on Instagram, it’s like we’re posting, we’re posting, we’re posting, we’re posting, and then it’s just… a post every four or five days, once a week. It’s just because we were like, “All right, let’s just finish. We just have to walk every day, days on end.”
The parts where there were lots of people were really great, but the ability to be by ourselves doing something really, really hard, with no one around, was also really cool. We walked across Utah and Nevada. That’s a weird thing to do, and it’s really hard, but we did it because we had so many people help get us to that point. That was the best part of the journey for me.
That’s awesome. I’m glad that you guys received all of that support.
*All photo credit goes to Aiden and Louis Ardine. You can see *all* of the photos from their journey on their Instagram account @ardinesxamerica.*[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]