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Returning to work: the restaurant wake up call

 

We got quite close to opening Rita’s Soho last year but then… covid. That put a stop to that. It simultaneously shuttered our ‘Bodega Rita’s’ in Kings Cross; too small to operate delivery from, and too unsupported by the landlord to risk pumping relief money into. In all of the time since, I have been desperate to get back into a work routine and at the same time terrified that I was becoming less and less capable.

 

Forgetting the long days, late nights, the hours on my feet, the skipped meals, the weekends on shift. Wondering. How long is too long, before I forget how to do it? Finally, we are on the cusp of getting it all back. I’m both nervous and raring to go but as we begin our recruitment drive I know that the reality of going back to work is a concern for all of us.

 

There is a narrative about the opening of restaurants: they are hard, stressful, you won’t get any time off and you always need to be on call ‘for the good of the business’. In many places I have worked people have asked, ‘how many openings have you done?’ or, when hiring; ’have you done an *opening* before?’ as if each one is a mini battle in which only the strongest survive. People expect them to be tough, assuming that not everyone can handle them. Businesses tend to over-recruit, knowing *someone* will crack under the pressure. Well, I hate to break it to you but we face a period of mass ‘openings’ ahead of us, and this time, we have to do things differently.

I’d like to (for the sake of my nerves and sanity) imagine the weeks following April 12th as a gentle yawn of restaurants uncurling after months of hibernation, stretching their arms and legs. Instead what I think we can all foresee is enthusiastic (read: rabid) stampedes en masse to the nearest al fresco watering hole. It’ll be a shock to the system for hospitality staff, some of whom have been on furlough for almost a year, and like everyone missing the feeling of sun on their face and the condensation of a cold glass against their palm. Whilst I know many are just amped to get back to work, and their career paths, I think it’s important that we bring people back in a way that is sensitive to the great personal setbacks we have *all* experienced. We need to re-learn our routines, establishing schedules that slowly lower us into the boiling pan of anticipation I have preemptively dubbed ‘the roaring 2021’s’.

 

For furloughed staff I have spoken to, returning to work does come with some anxieties, beginning with the very simple physicality of it all. Bravo to those who have kept up their home-gym routines like Rowena, who is on furlough from Brawn, has been subsidising her pay with babysitting stints. She tells me that 6 hours feels like a long day and she definitely feels ‘work shy’ from being out of practice. Rowena is quick to point out her comfort in the knowledge that her employer has always prioritised training, and that this takes the edge off the fear of going back.

 

Another thing that came up was a concern about a lack of training, or loss of knowledge that is crucial to being able to do the job. We must remember that people may have forgotten things, or have developed a lack of confidence, which is natural when you have nowhere to exercise your skills and talent.

 

It’s also easy to forget that restaurant work, at least front of the house, leaves you very exposed. The social performance that is usually second nature to many will take some time to get used to again. Social anxiety in general is at an all time high and businesses will be failing hard if they don’t recognise that mental health support is crucial. I am considering ways that we can make sure our team to-be don’t miss out on the chance to reconnect with their own social and cultural stimulants so they can feel like the best version of themselves – cinema, theatre, dinner with friends, gym class, all the activities that are easily sidelined when you are full time hospitality worker.

 

But what if that wasn’t the norm? Could we find ways to break up the days? Could people work less days overall? What outdated profit/cost ratios have we taken for gospel when they are relics of a changed industry? Will we, as ‘new’ operators be able to negotiate deals that skew our margins in favour of staff welfare and development that creates lasting, sustainable teams. Simultaneously, there will be operators feeling the pinch, hard. How can they make sure staff welfare is not disregarded as they try to recoup losses quickly?

 

These are things that might sound either totally trivial or pie in the sky, but they plague my mind as I try to design both my dream restaurant and one that represents some kind of post-pandemic utopia of hard work, fun, and personal development.

 

I read a job ad for a well known burger chain that promised cash tips split by a new app called ‘TipJar’, free food for four friends every month, private healthcare and the chance to pick up other types of work in the business to celebrate cross-skilled workers, an overwhelmingly good offer my independent business could never match but read between the lines and the hourly wage starts at £8.50.

 

Some ideas we have floated alongside a better base wage include alternatives to cash tips – maybe a pooled welfare fund that staff can apply to for financial aid or grants if they need, a kind of peer led-support system. We could arrange team membership to galleries or local gyms. Enhanced training opportunities. What if people had a real, full hour for lunch so they could go see some art or read in the park. If this sounds idealistic, I’m fine with it because I believe that we business owners do have the power now to at least imagine our new ideals, even if we can’t yet implement them. It’s all about #goals, right?

 

 

This platform has done wonders for creating dialogues around welfare and pay, (this by Ravneet) and now is definitely the time to continue these discussions. The furlough scheme, whilst a lifeline for some, highlighted serious inadequacies in the ways in which many hospitality staff are paid since tronc (service) was not factored into the government wage contributions. In my experience, the people who are really getting paid anything like a decent salary are often getting a large chunk of it through tronc. This has been normalised to the extent that I wonder, who can really blame anyone for doing something that has been done for years? For employers and employees alike, this furlough situation was a shock, and for the industry as a whole, a stark reminder that we need change. We will definitely be looking at how we can create financial structures that provide a sense of security and recognise employees personal needs too.

 

All the people I spoke to about this say that the past year has given them some perspective on work-life balance, which they did not have before. We need to dismantle this idea of competitive work in hospitality; that more hours show more dedication, and as Rowena put it, “things need to be difficult to be good.”

 

Many have realised that hospitality work can be precarious, and have diversified their skill sets to plug financial holes or broaden career options. Lotte, an out-of-work cook, is using the time to complete courses like the Kerb Classroom business course and has been able to explore other personal creative interests like ceramics. She recognises that this balance is not something that should be compromised when she returns to work and instead contemplates the idea of a four-day work week, knowing it will bring in less money but more overall happiness. She also thinks she could be more present at work knowing she had time for personal development. Lots of corporate and creative worlds are moving to this model. Could we explore it in hospitality too?

 

Josh, on furlough from steak restaurant Goodman has been able to reconnect with his fitness regime in a way that is impossible with a changing work schedule. He says that set shifts and advance communication is one thing that would help him retain this work-life balance, adding that the only other option is to fit it in around his job, running to or from work, but again, what small allowances could his employer be making more achievable for him?

 

This is the moment to reconsider the ways in which we can use this past year to to reassess the accepted norms of restaurant culture. I know that after almost a year of not spending quality time with the people I love, and doing the things I like doing, I am desperate to get out and live. I assume anyone who might come to work with us feels the same.

 

Restaurants are bound by hideously tight margins. We all live in fear of the sales to cost ratio and staff is always the sticking point. But now, these margins have to be flexible and we as operators must adjust the dials (Perhaps we can develop supplier relationships that also benefit our teams, something which I’ve seen Smoking Goat and Brat do during the pandemic – though I know this is an effort to support the suppliers too). Could we manage our shifts to be more flexible, offering more responsibility as well as autonomy to staff members. We’re all adults after all. Maybe all this pivoting has introduced new revenue possibilities (meal kits, products etc) that restaurants can hold onto and use to bump up wages. We now know that not all restaurant sales are made at the table. Perhaps the staff % targets we are working to are defunct.

 

The truth is; Brexit is going to hurt. Pandemic recovery will take a long time. We can’t always offer huge salaries, so we start small. It’s as simple as wanting to know that our business can give the people who work in it a fair and equal shot at Just. Being. Happy. There are some excellent, committed employers out there. If you are looking for work, I urge you to seek them out! I’m not claiming to be the only one who thinks this way, many others have led the way, but if we all come together and commit to small changes the silver lining to this long, painful year could be a restaurant revolution in the making.

 

 

Missy is a London-based food and drink entrepreneur, consultant and student. She is the co-owner of Rita’s and Bodega Rita’s and has worked in the hospitality industry in London since she was a teen.

 

Words by Missy Flynn

Edited by: Molly Tait-Hyland 

Photos:

 

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