“Being on the walk really broke a lot of my preconceived notions about what’s important and what my values are. And my values are being around people that I love, helping people regardless of whether or not I love them, and just being a good citizen or member of my community…”

There and Back Again: An Interview with Aiden Ardine (Part 2)



Welcome back to Part 2 of our interview with Aiden Ardine (Read Part 1 here)!

2020 was a year of immense challenges for all of us. The food, beverage, and hospitality (FBH) industry in particular suffered huge losses as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, with 3 million people left unemployed and 110,000 establishments shuttered.

To make matters worse, the pandemic underscored many pre-existing conditions within the FBH industry; major problems like sexual harassment, racism, lack of job security or benefits, and unsafe working conditions were highlighted and exacerbated by the chaos of the pandemic.

Through all of these trials, people throughout the world managed to come together to support each other, and nowhere is that more apparent than in the journey of Louis and Aiden Ardine.

From May to November 2021, Aiden and Louis went on an unexpected journey from New Jersey to Califoria. Along the way, they collected stories from local restaurant and hospitality workers, learning how they adjusted to the pandemic and beyond. They also 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 COVID relief program, 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 passed since the end of their journey, we wanted to get their perspective on the results of this unique odyssey.

Picking up from Part 1, Aiden goes more into the meat and potatoes of their journey: did they accomplish the goals they had for the trip? How long did it take to recover from the intense walk? And through everything they heard and saw, what can the public do to support local restaurant and hospitality workers?

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What are one or two stories that stand out the most to you from your trip?


We met this woman, Angie at Cindy’s Diner in Fort Wayne, Indiana. It’s this tiny little railway car diner; the city had picked it up and moved it around the city as they developed it, but they wanted to keep the diner intact because it’s an institution.

Angie started working there as a dishwasher and was now the proprietor. She bought it from the people that she used to work for, and then COVID happened and she had to basically shut the diner down. She sticks out in my mind just because she was still so positive about everything, and she was willing to just work really hard. She’s doing the job of four people by herself, because it’s literally a railroad car, so she couldn’t really have anybody in there helping her anyway; it wasn’t necessarily safe or responsible. She sticks out in my mind just because she was so positive and so hardworking, and they treated Louis and I really well. 

We got in there at six in the morning, it was really early, and we clearly were not from around there; but everybody, once they figured out what our deal was, everyone was really, really kind and supportive. They gave us a pat on the back as we left and, “Good job guys!” So that’s one.

We met this gentleman early on in our journey. His name was Reggie and he owned a barbecue spot in Trenton, which is right on the Delaware River across from Pennsylvania. He was one of the first people that we sat down and formally tried to talk to. He just had such a positive attitude about everything that was going on and his business and his role as a member of his community and a caretaker of his community. 

Trenton doesn’t have the greatest reputation as a small industrialized city in the Northeast, and there’s been a lot of problems with crime and drugs. And Reggie was like, “I’m just going to start doing whatever I can to make this place fun again.” So they would do weekly block parties on Friday to get community outside (we had just missed the first one that they’d done since COVID started, because they got the word from the city that it was ok). I really respected his hustle and his initiative, but also his genuine desire to use a restaurant and food to bring people together and to develop a sense of community.

That’s back to my point earlier about how small towns just have gas stations now. That’s what you’re losing when a gas station chain or Walmart can afford to pay better and provide some quality of life offerings: you lose the diner that’s been open for 40 years. You are losing a part of the community, losing a sense of culture. Our country is just slowly just flattening out because of capitalism and commercialization.

So Reggie was a really cool guy, and he was really positive and encouraging about what we had to do. He started his food truck, and they did do a party every single Friday over the summer time. Life is good and he’s making it happen now in his little small space. I think of Reggie often, he’s a good dude. I would like to go back to his barbeque spot too, the food was good.

Trenton doesn’t have the greatest reputation as a small industrialized city in the Northeast; and Reggie was like, “I’m just going to start doing whatever I can to make this place fun again…” I really respected his hustle and his initiative, but also his genuine desire to use a restaurant and food to bring people together and to develop a sense of community. 

Another one that sticks out to me is the antithesis to my dire, “The industry doesn’t provide any quality of life.” We met a man named Blane, he was a barbecue master outside of Omaha and his business was thriving. Takeout added an element to his business, so he was making more money, he had more business.

But he pointed out to us as we were talking to him that, that’s his sister-in-law, that’s one of his cousins… His dishwasher makes $22/hour because he wants to keep it small and treat the people who aren’t in the family like they are family. Part of that, the biggest part of that honestly, is paying people. 

That is the one thing that I’ve really been thinking about for myself personally: just pay me more money, always, all the time. This whole notion that people are paid too much when they’re making nothing is just crazy. So I really respected Blane, he had a really good business model and he was sharing the wealth. He knew and cared about the people that worked for him and they worked for him for a long time.

Dishwashers shouldn’t work at a restaurant for seven years. I mean they should, but that’s just not what you see. That’s one of those churn and burn turnover positions because it’s really hard, you don’t make a lot of money; but if you’re treated with respect, and a big part of respect is compensation, you’re going to stick around. So Blane was cool. I’d be curious to see how they’re doing, but yeah, really positive guy and he ran a really tight ship, so I respected that.


That’s awesome. Did you accomplish all of the goals that you and your brother set out for the trip?


We didn’t raise a million dollars for charity, which was one of my goals, but that’s okay. We did a lot of good.

Honestly reflecting on the experience, I very much wonder how we could have done things better just to accomplish that one goal: raising an insane amount of money and being more active on social media. We should have just had somebody helping us do it from afar. I underestimated how much work I would have to do every day to really execute my vision.

We had two goals, which was to raise money for charity and to make it safely from one coast to the other. And we did that! Truthfully, we didn’t have a single negative interaction on the entire walk. Nothing bad happened. We met some people who we weren’t crazy about talking to, some real sort of far-right types. But even then, we only had so much energy for those people because we’re tired and we just don’t care! You know? I just got to a point where I just don’t agree with you and everything that I’ve seen has led me to believe the contrary, so you’re not going change my mind, take it or leave it. Some people took it, some people left it, and you just keep moving. 

My favorite thing is people would constantly just come at us like we were the reason that nobody wanted to go back to work. I got so sick of hearing that from people: “But nobody wants to go back to work, they just want to collect stimulus checks.” I would just shut people down because that’s just not true. I don’t know where everybody is, to be clear. I’m still curious about where everyone is working, but none of my experiences indicated to me that people were simply sitting on their couches smoking weed, eating Doritos, and collecting $400-$800/week from the government. And if they are, good for them, truthfully. 

But yeah, we accomplished everything we wanted to. We saw America; we took a gamble and knew that we were going to need a lot of help to accomplish our goals, and our faith in humanity was restored and rewarded at every turn. 

I finished the walk and was very tired and extremely… sort of empty of all of my vitality afterwards. But it was an adventure. I underestimated how much time I would need to feel like a normal human being again afterwards. But it was cool. Nobody gets to do shit like that, and Louis and I were really, really lucky.

So we accomplished all of our goals. I wish we would’ve raised more money, but I’m not done trying to help people. Maybe I’ll figure it out on the next project.

A few more photos of Aiden’s experience: (from top left) Steamboat Springs, CO; Prophetstown, IL; Johnstown, PA; Dumont Lake Campground, CO.




I think that’s great! You just mentioned that you didn’t expect it would take so long to feel like a human being again. What was the recuperation process for you guys after you got back home?


I mean, honestly, there wasn’t much of one. It took me until the winter time to figure out that I was exhausted and needed to slow down. When we got back, we did a couple of events, we had to tie off some things with you guys, with RWCF. We had a few more interviews and then, not to sound crazy or super-entitled, but it just got to a point where we were continually getting interview requests, and Louis was just like, “Listen dude, I need to find a job. I need to figure out what I’m going to do next.” 

I was in the same boat, but I came home and immediately moved to a new city and just started looking for jobs, because we spent all of our money walking across the country, or we donated it. We got to a point where all these interview opportunities, and Louis is like, “Unless they’re going to compensate us for our time, I’m not going to do a hundredth interview.” And I was like, “I completely understand that.” 

Being frank, if I was going to be a nonprofit or be of service, last November would’ve been the time to start applying for jobs and do all those interviews. But I needed to work on my relationship with my girlfriend, Hope, who moved to a new city by herself and started an extremely challenging Master’s program by herself and needed some support. I needed to work; we were broke and we had bills to pay because it’s a cold, cruel world out there. 

So it was just a lot of having that conversation with Louis and just being like, “You know what? We’re going to table this stuff.” I’d been working two jobs basically until the beginning of October, finally got to a point where Hope was out of school, so she’s earning now. I’m working in a bar that is five minutes away from here on foot. It’s owned by a Mexican family and the cuisine is top notch. The bar program is really inspired and genuine and the customers are all really cool. I’m making decent money. 

So now I have time during my day and I’ve been reaching out to people from the walk. I’ve already pulled together a lot of the material for a book. I have no idea how I’m going to execute finishing it, but it starts with having these conversations again. 

It took a year to get my feet back underneath me. If I didn’t have to work or if I were completely alone, maybe it would’ve been quicker; or if I had planned better and had a cushion in the bank so that when we came back we weren’t like, “…shit.”

Maybe I would be working at a nonprofit right now and walking across a different country, making a career of that sort of lifestyle. But I also don’t think that was entirely what Louis and I were interested in doing. Being away from home crystallized just how important being around our people was to us (which is ironic because I moved to a different state a week after coming home!). 

One of my big takeaways from the walk is that we needed so very little to survive every single day, and we only needed a little bit more to have an awesome day; whether that was a great conversation with somebody, or a sick meal, or we got to sleep in a comfy motel.

So, when I look around at the world and I think about getting a new job, and so much of it is just to have more stuff… Do I want to work in a nonprofit just to impress people and say that I’m doing something of worth with my life, just so that I can hear myself saying it to other people? That’s not a judgment on other people who do that, but why do I wanna do that? 

Being on the walk really broke a lot of my preconceived notions about what’s important and what my values are. And my values are being around people that I love, helping people regardless of whether or not I love them, and just being a good citizen or member of my community, and nothing else matters. What I look like, what I dress in, what I do for work, as long as I’m treated with respect and dignity and make enough money to treat my family well. 

So I’ve been trying to figure that out. I think I’m close. I walk to work every day, I can walk to the grocery store. I work with people who are kind and passionate about what they do. I spend a lot of time with my partner, and we go home to New Jersey extremely frequently, which is great because it’s only a six and a half hour drive. 

And now, do I have enough space to expand my circle? It’s having a conversation like this, or working on my book, or finding a group to work with up here.

I feel like I’m finally where I want to be, where I have the energy to do that stuff, because Louis and I were just completely out of our minds for a bit and we didn’t even realize it. We would just get these flashbacks to some highway in Nevada and be like, “…AH!”


I don’t blame either of you for needing that time, that was a really intense thing that you guys did. And I was paying attention: I was watching you guys on your social media and I could see how you were pushing at that last stretch to get through. So I don’t blame you for needing that time to recoup, but I’m glad that you feel like you’re getting your foundation, your bearings, and that you’re able to do that with the person that you love.

So, one year later, what do you want the biggest takeaway to be from your trip for yourselves, for the blog audience, for the people that you spoke with, or the people who followed your journey in real time?


These are always the hardest ones. I mean, first and foremost, I’m extremely grateful for the support of everyone that helped Louis and I, including you guys at the COCO Fund and the kind people at Restaurant Workers Community Foundation, and every single person that helped us achieve our goal of making it across the country safely. 

Where I’m at right now is that the work is never done… I know I just talked about how I needed a year to get my proverbial shit together, pardon my French. But sometimes that’s why I kick myself, because I’m like, “Was there a way to have done this where I could have just kept it moving?” Because it feels like we need to keep working towards building community and it’s just not over.

One of my big takeaways from the walk is that we needed so very little to survive every single day, and we only needed a little bit more to have an awesome day; whether that was a great conversation with somebody, or a sick meal, or we got to sleep in a comfy motel.

The work is not done – whether it’s in the food and service industry, whether it’s dealing with issues in our politics or our government, or the climate or whatever the issue is in your community…

I didn’t realize it at the time and I wouldn’t have given you this answer a year ago, but it never stops. And for someone like me, it is a privilege to be able to do more, to be of service. I’ve met a lot of people and they’ve echoed those sentiments. I remember talking to a guy I met, he’s pursuing a PhD from Brown but he’s from Chicago, and we just got to talking. He said, “It’s a privilege to be of service.” And I was like, “Alright, respect, dude. I know what you mean.”


I totally agree with you. I’ve been in activism work going on four years now, and it really does never stop. You have to take breaks for yourself just to recoup, but it doesn’t mean that everything else stops around you. And while you’re stopping, people are suffering in real time, and that can be hard to cope with. But you can’t help anyone if you’re totally burnt out.


Taking care of yourself is the first part in being a holistic member of your community, because you can only give what you have

This is something that I would say from last year that I would say the same, but nobody can do it alone. It takes community to achieve meaningful change. We had so many people that you didn’t see help us.

Sometimes it can feel like if you’re not surrounding yourself with people who are on the same page as you and are working towards the same goal, the oppressiveness of our reality really starts to set in. You think you have to do it all by yourself, and you’re not going to fix climate change by yourself. You’re not going to fix America’s political system by yourself. But with 10 people it might not feel so bad, with a hundred people it might be easier; and with a million people or a hundred million people, anything is possible. 

The work is never over, but make sure you surround yourself with good people that are on the same mission as you.

Nothing is impossible, but you need to know your limits and when to ask for help. That was a huge part of our walk: humbling ourselves and asking people if we could have water or asking people if we could sleep in their backyard. People do that every single day: they’re constantly looking for the basic necessities of life and they have to beg for it of the wealthiest country in the world. Humility is a good thing too.


Well that brings me nicely into my last question – you’ve been mentioning the many misconceptions that people have of how restaurant workers responded and reacted to the pandemic. You mentioned the  misconceptions about stimulus checks, and that those persist. There are still many real inequities in the restaurant system, as you were highlighting earlier as well.

What would you want to say to the public about these misconceptions or about these inequities? What sorts of reform would you want them to advocate for?


It’s tough, because a lot of the best things about working in a restaurant, for someone who works in a restaurant, are the worst things about the industry in terms of a workers’ collective or unionizing.

If you are going to give up tipped wages in favor of stable income and healthcare, there’s a lot of people that would not want to do that. I know tons of people who would not want to do that, because there is something wonderful about making hundreds of dollars a week in cash and not having to pay taxes on it. 

I guess I would want to tell people just to be patient, especially with where we are right now. There’s a lot of things that people don’t see. I work for a family business, these are human beings that you don’t see keeping these businesses afloat on the strength of their own back and nothing else. People still haven’t recovered financially from COVID and… won’t, maybe ever, if not in a long time. 

Because as we mentioned before, the profit margins are so thin. People who keep restaurants open are definitely not doing it for the money. In many ways, they are serving their community; they’re creating spaces that are welcoming and hospitable and inviting and encourage people to get to know each other and have a nice time. 

I’ve noticed a very transactional nature to our business, and it can be very fast. Because of COVID, some businesses that were able to stay open unimpeded (like a Starbucks for example, something that was already very transactional), when that was your only interaction with the food service industry for six months or whatever, and then you go into a bar and you’re like “(snaps fingers) Lickety split,” you’re going to get the exact opposite experience. It’s going to take even longer than it did before.

Your expectations have changed, but the industry has changed [too]. I would just preach patience and understanding. Louis and I preached that all last year when we were on the walk, it was just a lot of patience and understanding and remembering that we’re human beings that work in this industry. We are not robots. And the day they replace us with robots, you’re going to be really bummed because there’s going to be no soul serving you food anymore. It’s just going to be food. 

I also think people should tip. I don’t know that I have any sweeping policy ideas; I definitely did last year, but being back in the industry, I’m sort of trying to suss out for myself what those would look like, where it would make everybody happy. You can’t make everybody happy, but I think treating people with dignity and respect goes a long way…

The price of things is just going to continue to go up, and we have to raise the prices. We will do the best we can with the resources we have. I feel like a lot of people think we have anything to do with it! You know what I mean? I just serve the drinks, dude; I didn’t price the metal that it takes to make this keg that makes your beer more expensive now! That has to do with five or six years of geopolitical negotiations. I have no control over this anymore. 

So I think appreciation, patience, and respect for the people who still want to do this is definitely a good place to start. I don’t want to live in a world where we can’t go out to eat and it’s just fast food or fast service, where it’s as quick and streamlined as possible for efficiency and keeping costs down. If that’s what you want, that’s fine, but you’re going to destroy your food and service industry and your communities. 

Then you’re going to be left with basically a bunch of the same restaurants and bars. I like going to new places and meeting people with different perspectives about dining out and bringing their family’s history into the cuisine. I don’t want to lose that, and I’m worried that we could because it’s just so expensive to run a business…

I worked in a café for several months and that was a huge thing that was really getting to me, is people just wouldn’t tip. It’s fine because we made a wage, but also just the entitlement [of], “I need this thing now!” And it’s like, “Yo, you come to this café because we have a reputation for being ‘crafty’.” You just can’t have it all. It’s not all about you, we’re providing a service. You just need to treat us with some respect and maybe tip us. 50 cents would be cool, not asking the world.

The beginning and end of Aiden and Louis’ journey: on the left is Asbury Park, NJ (their home state) on May 1, 2021; on the right is San Francisco, CA on October 9, 2021.



*All photo credit goes to Aiden and Louis Ardine. You can see *all* of the photos from their journey on their Instagram account @ardinesxamerica.*

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