Unsung Santa Cruz: Restaurant workers share stories from the back-of-house and thrive in a difficult industry

Michael Hanson, purchasing manager at Gayle's Bakery & Rosticceria.
As the purchasing manager at Gayle’s Bakery & Rosticceria, Michael Hanson manages all of the raw ingredients for the thriving Capitola business.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Post-pandemic, the restaurant industry is more challenging than ever, but within it are stories of hardworking employees that keep these businesses open despite the odds. Here, we celebrate two back-of-house workers doing just that.

Working in the restaurant industry, whether it’s waiting tables, working the line, tending bar or brewing espresso, requires fortitude.

In the front of the house, hours of calm, friendly service can drain the emotional resources of even the most stalwart extrovert, while in the back of the house, the relentless stream of orders ticking from the printer can trail to the floor. Cuts and burns are common, and are either ignored or quickly triaged, ideally before it disrupts the flow of medium-rare steaks and artfully composed salads to the expeditor. Breaks, if they’re taken, and meals, if they’re eaten, sometimes take place crouched on an overturned bucket in a dingy corner next to a locker filled with aprons, worn Dansko clogs and food-splattered Crocs.

The restaurant industry has never been easy, but over the past two years food businesses have been through the wringer. Surviving has required navigating wave after wave of impossible situations, from closing dine-in operations completely and combatting predatory delivery fees to supply shortages, surging inflation and new threats of illness.

These factors, plus the unfortunate truth that many customers were not their best selves during all this, caused workers to leave the industry in droves. A million people — about 6.5% of those in the restaurant industry — left it by the end of 2021. The industry led the country in departures, even in the time of the Big Quit.

Restaurants still haven’t recovered. Santa Cruz County faces another hurdle due to a shortage of affordable housing, which can prevent potential hospitality workers from entering or remaining in the industry, despite many restaurants increasing wages and benefits. Over the past year and a half, I’ve talked to dozens of restaurant owners in Santa Cruz County, and every single one of them is hiring.

Those restaurant employees who have stayed ensure that the food businesses we rely on and value remain open, and make sure the meals and friendly smiles are there to greet us. This was no small feat before the pandemic, but now, after everything we’ve been through, it seems remarkable.

As 2022 drew to a close, the Lookout team began discussing our Unsung Santa Cruz series. Those stories shine a light on the vital work of community members who might normally fall under the radar. As a food correspondent, most of my coverage throughout the year revolves around chefs, business owners and restaurateurs. With Unsung’s goal in mind, let’s shine a light on restaurant workers, the back-of-house and front-of-house staff who actually keep the lights on.

I received more than a dozen heart-felt nominations for restaurant workers deserving of praise. Goyo Cornejo was nominated for his reliable work cleaning Venus Spirits Cocktails & Kitchen and its sister café in Aptos, Venus Pie Trap, and his work in the kitchen, all while being a father of two. H&H Fresh Fish Co. in Santa Cruz nominated its entire staff for the “care, respect and humility that exists among everyone on this team.”

A customer gave a thoughtful compliment to every staff member at Otoro Sushi in Scotts Valley. Tortilla Flats owner Azra Simonetti sang the praises of Juan Martinez, the head chef at the Soquel restaurant for 33 years. At Penny Ice Creamery and The Picnic Basket in Santa Cruz, Marie Carmen Ortiz, Jessica Perez and Rachel Ramirez have worked there for between nine and 12 years, starting as kitchen employees and ice cream scoopers to become invaluable members of the Glass Jar team.

Two stories in particular stood out.

Michael Hanson who started working at Gayle’s Bakery & Rosticceria in Capitola as a teenager and now, more than 20 years later, is the production manager for the entire bakery. He’s seen a lot in the past two decades, but there’s something special about Gayle’s that keeps him coming to work every day with a smile on his face — and it’s not just the fact that he met his wife there.

Cesar Chagolla, an employee at Achilles Restaurant in Santa Cruz. Chagolla works six days a week at the fast-casual Middle Eastern restaurant and owner Elias Stanom describes him as a model employee. The new responsibilities he has been entrusted with at the restaurant reflect how far he has come from his troubled past, and continue to inspire him to improve his life.

Let’s meet both of them.

Michael Hanson began his career at Gayle's Bakery & Rosticceria as a busser more than 20 years ago.
Michael Hanson began his career at Gayle’s Bakery & Rosticceria as a busser more than 20 years ago.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Michael Hanson, purchasing manager at Gayle’s Bakery & Rosticceria in Capitola

The entrance of Gayle’s Bakery opens at the nexus of two long counters. To the left is all of the prepared food, ranging from deli salads, sandwiches and a hot bar featuring pasta Alfredo, tri-tip dinners and appetizers. To the right is a cornucopia of baked goods — dozens of cookies, cakes, cupcakes, pies, bread, breakfast pastries and seasonal treats.

The sheer variety of food is mind-boggling, especially when you consider that everything is made in-house daily. “We do everything by hand. We have mixers, but that’s about it,” says Michael Hanson. As the purchasing manager, Hanson is responsible for making sure the raw ingredients for all of Gayle’s products are available and distributed throughout the numerous kitchens and baking areas, including blocks and blocks of butter, mountains of bacon and about 80 cases of eggs a week. “We don’t buy anything prepackaged other than some canned goods like ketchup and tomatoes,” says Hanson. “I don’t really deal with the meat and the produce — the kitchen likes to deal with that themselves. But everything else that we use goes through me.”

Hanson grew up in the San Lorenzo Valley and got a job at Gayle’s as a teenager busing tables in 2000. Today, purchasing manager is his main title, but his duties extend beyond that, from managing shipping and receiving of deliveries at the warehouse and to occasional IT specialist.

Inflation has made his job more challenging as prices for raw ingredients have soared. He notes that as recently as last year $40 was a high-water mark for a case of eggs; now a case sells for around $100. As a crucial ingredient in Galye’s breakfast items and many doughs and baked goods, it’s a hit that’s been difficult to navigate while striving to maintain a fair price for customers.

But what Hanson takes the most pride in at work isn’t securing the best deal; it’s the team of people that he manages. Some start at 4 a.m. and go back and forth among the bakery, the bakeshop, several offices and a warehouse to make sure that the kitchen and building staff have everything they need. “They have done a fabulous job doing their jobs,” Hanson says. “My whole crew is stocking, making sure that everything is supplied, and it’s not easy. As their boss, it makes me proud to know that they do a really good job.”

“He is so helpful and his tasks are so varied. Throughout it all he’s unfailingly kind, steps in and keeps all those balls in the air,” says Louisa Beers, a co-owner of Gayle’s who has been with the company since 1981. Not only did Beers nominate Hanson for Unsung Santa Cruz — she also hired him as a teenager. “That’s why I straightened his collar for his photo — I’ve known him for a long time.”

Hanson has grown up alongside a thriving community at Gayle’s. He says that over the past two decades, he has watched new couples grab coffees at the espresso bar, get married and have kids. During the pandemic, a group of people continued to meet in the parking lot even though the bakery was closed, just because this was the spot where they had always gathered. Hanson also met his wife at Gayle’s; she continues to work in the sales department. “It’s the little things that are exciting and cool to see and be a part of in this whole growing community,” Hanson says.

Cesar Chagolla, a cook at Achilles Restaurant in Santa Cruz, has left a life of gangs, prison and drugs behind him.
Cesar Chagolla, a cook at Achilles Restaurant in Santa Cruz, has left a life of gangs, prison and drugs behind him.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Cesar Chagolla, cook at Achilles Restaurant in Santa Cruz

As a cook at Achilles, a fast-casual Mediterranean restaurant in Santa Cruz, Cesar Chagolla is in charge of making sure that everything “on the line,” from the slowly spinning chicken shawarma to the herbaceous falafel mix, is ready for the evening rush. As customers pile in, he makes everything to order, frying falafels and waffle fries as tickets flow through the point-of-sale system. And at the end of the night, he and his coworkers deep-clean the kitchen, set the alarm and lock the gate that surrounds the parking lot.

Chagolla takes pride in his work, but says the trust and support he has earned from Achilles co-owner Elias Stanom is his biggest accomplishment. “At one point, I wasn’t really a responsible person. He has trusted me enough to give me the password to open the restaurant and just be a responsible person in society.”

A Santa Cruz native, Chagolla became involved with gangs at an early age and spent his teenage years and early 20s in and out of jail. He struggled with drug addiction and at one point was homeless. Four years ago, he was sentenced to three years in prison for armed robbery, a crime he says he committed while high. After serving a little over two years, Chagolla was released. Now 27, sober and a graduate of New Life Community Services, a Santa Cruz drug rehabilitation center, he’s turning his life around. Working at Achilles has become an important part of his transition into society.

“I’ve been trying to stay sober and positive. I have a lot of support from my family and Elias. Just the fact that I work here — I like my job …” Chagolla trails off, a little emotional. “It’s a lot.”

Stanom says Chagolla is a model employee and insists that he’s holding him to the same high standards that he holds all of his staff. “I’m not helping him that much. If he doesn’t want to help himself, he’s not going to go anywhere. But Cesar works hard, he’s on time, he has experience and is a quick learner,” says Stanom. “As a business owner, I need someone like him.”

Stanom describes Chagolla as a “very, very good guy,” and applauds him for the work he’s put into himself in the past year. “He’s very strong. What he has done so far, it’s really not easy.”

Now, Stanom is encouraging Chagolla to earn his driver’s license for the first time. Once he does, he will be able to help with Achilles’ many catering orders and deliveries. “It’s sensitive because sometimes we serve 100 to 200 people, so you need someone responsible for that,” says Stanom.

It’s clear that while Stanom is his boss, the two get along as friends, frequently smiling and laughing with each other. The way Stanom talks about Chagolla’s future opportunities as facts shows his faith in his employee; he always says “when,” never “if.” Chagolla nods along with the plan, at one point confirming that yes, he has already begun to file the paperwork for the license. Stanom has committed to giving Chagolla six shifts a week so he can continue to save up for his own car, and eventually his own apartment.

“You can do it,” he says to Chagolla. “You can do it because I think the hard part is already over.”