Over the the last 15 months, restaurants have been forced to close their dining rooms, pivot to takeaway, and prepare for reopening on repeat. The focus has been on businesses and their owners — what turmoil means for individual bottom lines and the “industry” at large. Thanks to the “generous,” PR-magnet furlough system, the disorientating effects of opening-closing cycles, ensuing isolation, and enhanced job risk on workers during the pandemic has generated fewer headlines.
Precarity has prevented many from wanting to speak out, or speak candidly. Many took a short time to reflect on their industry and reason that it was time to get out; the dual impact of COVID-19 and Brexit hastened the by-then inevitable departure of many European hospitality workers, whose job security and residency status had been increasingly vulnerable in the years preceding the pandemic.
Now, as the hospitality industry bemoans a crippling staffing crisis weeks after dining rooms reopened, Eater has spoken to four workers in London about their experience of the COVID-19 crisis, personally and professionally, and how reopening has been for them and their colleagues.
The below answers have been edited for clarity.
How would you sum up the last year and a bit, since the beginning of the pandemic and the March closure of hospitality venues?
Audrey Annoh-Antwi, sommelier, Lorne, Pimlico: Initially there was a lot of anxiety with the unexpectedness of closure. The way that previously populous areas became eerily quiet had the air of an apocalyptic novel (I had just started reading Octavia E Butler’s Parable of The Sower). And then we all had to stay inside, with the morbid news for company. I had some wine studies to get on with, a neglected pile of books, podcasts and workouts on YouTube to contend with.
But on a deeper note — at no one time have there been more people restricted to a confined space, and a lot of introspection can come from that especially in the wake of the horror that ignited BLM. And also that the collective livelihood of hospitality professionals relies on socialising and people being able to go out and explore spaces freely, it was scary how that can all fall away.
Ben Lippett, formerly a chef at Orasay, Notting Hill: In early 2020, my partner and I had been in Melbourne for six months, both happily working in hospitality and live music. Our places of work closed almost overnight and the state of Victoria was plunged into indefinite lockdown, so we had no choice but to fly back to the U.K. We returned to pretty much the same situation, cases growing exponentially.
We eventually moved to London in August 2020, and getting back into restaurants was very tough. I started at Orasay in September 2020, was promised a 55-hour working week, a consistent salary, and benefits but ended up doing 65-70 hour weeks and was never paid a full month’s salary (since furlough or tronc were insufficient.) This situation, paired with the cycle of closing and opening, ultimately pushed me to leave the industry. In the January 2021 lockdown I started getting freelance work in food media, and I have now left restaurants to pursue this career path.
Donald Edwards, sommelier, La Trompette, Chiswick: The run up to the March closure and the lack of decent messaging from the government on what we were supposed to be doing then the kick in the teeth over service charge not being included in furlough. Then reopening with all the restrictions, the 10 p.m. curfew remains one of the most ridiculous things I’ve had to work around, and then possibly worst of all the closure mid-Decembe. Then more recently, guests were trying so hard to support us during outdoor reopening and yet ended up sitting out in some of the most unseasonably cold and wet late spring weather.
Some countries prioritised hospitality workers for vaccination, where the U.K. has chosen to continue by age. Do you feel that should have changed with news of the Delta variant?
AA-A: It would have been great if this was something that was considered early on but now it would be a challenge to implement. At least we are at the point where over 25s are receiving their first dose so it should not be too long before younger people receive theirs too.
DE: I would have liked to see all people in customer-facing (also in precarious economic situations) prioritised over those who can afford to isolate. Think of all the staff unable to pay for cars to and from places so relying on late night public transport to get to and from their work and being in contact with large numbers of guests, many of whom show absolute contempt for Covid safety. I think it’s awful that we’ve not been prioritised as a group.
How do you feel about “reopening” — both its mechanics and the term, which can be alien to some restaurants, say, who have been open this whole time for takeaway, because it’s just what they do.
Oli Carter-Esdale, Truman Social Club, Walthamstow: I think there has been something of a mystification. Many workers have, as you point out, been back at work for some time now offering takeaway services. For them, there will be little difference.
Really, it’s almost funny to me as this point. I was brought on as a bar manager where I work to coincide with the venue opening its indoor offering in late October. We then went through two more lockdowns. In effect, it is the site’s fourth opening and third re-opening. The efforts required to carry this out are substantial. From deep-cleaning to stock-takes, and stock write-offs (painful to do), along with the hiring of multiple new staff members all while trying to navigate general customer service while already open for outdoor trading, it’s been tiring.
DE: It’s been extremely hard to get guests to wear masks in and around the restaurant and a lot of hostility to the track and trace app.
How has the news of the Delta variant changed your feelings about reopening?
DE: I think it’s only the senior management that have really taken on board the implications that things may not get fully eased in June.
OC-E: I suppose I’m resigned to the fact that, as the majority of Conservative voters are now vaccinated, their interests once again become more important to the government than the expendable lives, livelihoods, and wellbeing of younger, predominantly working-class food service and hospitality workers whose votes they don’t rely on, particularly in large urban areas.
Frankly it was fucking scary being open in those weeks in December, when case numbers were sky rocketing, and knowing what that would eventually mean. We were powerless at that point. I would dread to think that could happen again, of the consequences and how many more lives would be lost or damaged irreparably by long covid. It makes you anxious to know that some people don’t seem to care and are oblivious to the wider, deleterious societal effects that the pandemic has already had.