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Dining Out Post-Lockdown: A Plea for Empathy

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Tackling the topic of getting back ‘out there’ is rather more challenging than it might seem at first. As we know, the hospitality industry has had a rotten 12 months. Restaurants, hotels, supply chains, growers, farmers – this enormous series of beautifully interconnected businesses and people – all ground to an abrupt halt. Last summer there was a re-mobilized sense of urgency but then there was another lockdown, and again 3.5 million lives were left to negotiate the whims of ever-changing government policy. As a result, many livelihoods suffered.

But the roadmap offered a glimmer of hope, a light at the end of the tunnel and now, here we are. Finally, I can return to that long dormant and most favourite habit of mine: eating someone else’s food.

With winter’s frost finally thawing, the clichés and metaphors began tumbling out of every journalist’s prose. The spirit of spring, rebirth and rejuvenation was in the air. I wish I could claim that like a caterpillar cocooned in a chrysalis (see?) we’ve all spent the last year waiting to emerge as fully-formed butterflies. But sadly this isn’t the case.

The unhappy reality is the past twelve months, for many people, have demonstrably been the worst of their lives. Financial difficulties, the mental stress of not working, or not knowing if you have a job to go back to, coupled with the monotonous fatigue that lockdown brings have led to an industry that is hurting, badly.

a new normal should be grounded not only in the joy of eating out, but love of the people who make eating out possible

I was recently invited to an alfresco pop-up in Chelsea where I got chatting to one of London’s foremost restaurateurs. He was reticent to recall the heartbreaking story of one of his staff, a family man with a wife and two kids, who have lived in great comfort for the many years he’s been with the company thanks to his good wage and tronc. Yet as the government declined to cover tronc in the furlough scheme, the financial pressure of the year meant the payments on his three bedroom house were no longer possible, forcing him to downsize to a one bedroom apartment – his kids sharing the double bed whilst he and his partner rotate sleeping on the sofa, and the floor.

I bring this up not to bring the mood down, but to temper the jovial news of restaurants re-opening with just a reminder of reality. The people who are cooking your food, serving your wine, waiting your tables and collecting your coats, they are still there, they are still smiling. Despite the year they have had, our near insatiable demand for eating out ensures they’ll go back to 12 hour shifts, being on their feet all day, slaving over a hot stove and doing our dishes. Please, I implore you, be nice to them.

Dear reader, I’m confident YOU will be nice. I’m trusting you have the nuance to know when to hold your tongue and when to lavish praise, gratitude and adoration. But again, sadly I must say that not all customers are created equally.

Speaking with restaurant owners and managers over the past few weeks I’ve heard one-too-many tales that I’m more than uncomfortable with. Customers shouting at waiters because of minor delays in the kitchen. Customers complaining, at great and rather drunken lengths, to restaurant staff that they are cold – having themselves booked a 9pm dinner table outside in April. Not August in Santorini. April in London.

And yes, just to be clear the restaurant did tell you the seating is covered but not heated. And yes it was on your confirmation email. And no, your waiter isn’t Jupiter, the Roman King of Gods who controls the sky and all the weather. They’re your waiter. Please…just…stop. And as if all that wasn’t enough, the quantities of no-shows and last minute cancellations (along with the subsequent expectation “that’s fine isn’t it?”) are so fury-inducing that it’s a small wonder anyone wants to work in the industry at all.

we have to look at the difficulties, the anxiety, the nervousness, not only of potential patrons but of the staff

It seems rather than the aforementioned butterfly, many restaurant patrons have become troglodytes after a year of working from home. Instead of beautiful wings and delicate sensibilities, they’ve developed a kind of Gollum-like character, craving their one ‘precious’ meal.

The truth at the heart of this lies in confronting the reality of the last year. Reading the PR puff pieces and pretending everything is fine and dandy because we can all sit on the terrace at the River Café again is a bit like closing our eyes and sticking our fingers in our ears so we can pretend that none of it happened.

We have to look at the difficulties, the anxiety, the nervousness, not only of potential patrons but of the staff, the 3.5 million lives who are this industry. Of the handful of times I’ve been out to restaurants sometimes the service has been great, often warm, welcoming and friendly and occasionally distant, cold and standoffish.

The very palpable anxiety many of us clearly feel (for me it’s a minor case of agoraphobia) is a side-effect of the past 12 months and yes, 95% of people will revert back to their old ways as if nothing had happened. But that is to ignore, not address, the challenges caused by the pandemic.

My mind keeps coming back to that senior waiter, sleeping on the floor of his now rented apartment. He’s lost his house, his children have gone from having their own rooms to now sharing a bed, and yet on May 17 he was pouring your coffee, serving your lunch, and taking your order. After the horrid 12 months his family has faced, he’ll go back into a world of 14 hour days, split shifts, whilst navigating new protocols in his restaurant, abiding by the latest set of rules anxiously that govern his days, whilst at night he returns to his floor, the stark realisation of the last year.

Dear reader, could you do that? I for one know I lack the physical and mental fortitude to live that reality, but as guests, we must face up to it.

The purveyor of pessimism I don’t wish to be, but if we are to learn anything from this year, and we must, it should be that we lean into the often harsh reality of the struggles of many of the people in the industry that, quite literally, feed our habit of eating out.

It’s been said before and I’ll say it again until I’m blue in the face. Be kind to those people. Anthony Bourdain said once that if you’re cooking, you’re basically on the side of the angels. I feel the same about the industry as a whole. If you’re a waiter, a chef, a sommelier, a farmer, a grower, a picker, a forager, a kitchen porter, a maître’D then you, my friend, are my hero.

If we are to create a new, new normal, it should be grounded not only in the joy of eating out, but love of the people who make eating out possible.

 

Mike Daw is a London-based writer and hospitality professional. After graduating from catering school and completing a degree in Hospitality – with a stint working at Le Manoir aux’quat Saisons – he moved to London to open The Beaumont in Mayfair and now works for private concierge brand Ten group.

Cover photo licensed by Adobe.

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