I wish to start with a disclaimer. I love my job. Not in an Emily Charlton, Devil Wears Prada, I love my job’ way. I truly love my job. On top of that, given the current climate, I really love having my job. It feels important to begin by making this clear.
As an actress-waitress hybrid, both of my industries -the industries I love- have been decimated by COVID-19. For me, back in March, shit got real incredibly quickly. One day we were cracking jokes behind the bar, I was booking tickets to a friend’s fringe performance; a few days later we went into lockdown. Oddly, as the weeks went by, it was the waitressing that I missed most. I suppose there was a perverse logic to it: not knowing when you’ll next be onstage or in front of a camera is actually pretty normal for a jobbing actor or actress. Being away from the restaurant for longer than six days felt like an emotional upheaval. Unnatural, disconcerting, wrong. I ached for service, I ached for my colleagues. I ached for our barista-style coffee machine the way you would a severed fifth limb. So when my company asked for volunteers to return to work, I didn’t hesitate.
Opening a restaurant under normal circumstances is hard. I cannot begin to articulate the complexity and scale of work that is necessary to ensure things run smoothly. Reopening a restaurant post COVID lockdown was something else entirely. To use the Tory cabinets’ favourite word, It was ‘unprecedented’. There was no scope of reference, nothing comparable to draw upon. It was trial and error with incredibly high stakes. We understood the challenge. We would rise.
After a week of preparation, deep cleaning, training, health and safety, re-programming, and adapting to a socially distanced workplace, we opened. Sporting stormtrooper-esque visors that made my shaved head look like a shuttlecock, armed with buckets of sanitiser, and a track and trace QR code, we opened. I expected it to be hard. I expected it to be busy. I expected it to be experimental and constantly evolving. I expected things to feel both different and the same. What I didn’t expect was to have to explain the very concept of a pandemic so many times each day.
I bet Rishi Sunak is feeling pretty pleased with himself. Eat out to help was a booming success. But at what cost? I’m grateful for the extra tips, just as my employers will be grateful for the revenue, but my feet and back won’t recover this side of Halloween. Do you have any idea how difficult it is to socially distance an overbooked restaurant? Six months ago we were ‘unskilled’ and unimportant. Now, hospitality workers have become the sacrificial lamb deemed fair game if it sorts the economy out. Thing is though, I’m knackered.
I understand that when going out for dinner you are spending money- and time- and thus expect to enjoy yourself. I understand that it is my responsibility to ensure you have a good experience. But jesus fucking christ, this should not- and on my watch will NEVER be- at the expense of the safety of me and my team. Saying “No” in hospitality is hard. ‘The Customer Is Always Right’ is ingrained into us from the very first shift. We bite our tongues, clench our fists and graciously concede. Even in the face of rudeness. Even when we know we are right. So I promise, I will never say “No” just for the hell of it. There will always be a reason.
And presently the reason is simply: WE ARE IN A GLOBAL PANDEMIC.
Current Customer FAQs
Why can’t I sit at the bar? Because then you will be less than a metres’ distance from the bartender… I don’t mind! He minds. And you probably ought to mind. Because of, you know, the virus????
The website would only let me book for six, but there’s actually nine of us. Sir that wasn’t a glitch in the matrix, that was a mandatory booking restriction enforced by the government. The fact that you’re all from the same household (which frankly, unless you belong to a commune of hippies masquerading as middle class suburbans, you aren’t, I’m not stupid) is irrelevent. I’m not allowed to seat groups of larger than six people. Oh it’s only really for six, the other three are kids. ‘Yes, kids who breathe….’
I want the old menu. My apologies sir, I am aware that our menu is currently reduced. We’re only allowed three chefs in the kitchen at any one time to allow for distancing, meaning we can’t churn out the same volume and variety as we used to pre-covid.
No, I cannot make an exception. Because we literally don’t have those ingredients in the kitchen. It doesn’t make a difference how long you’ve been coming here sir, the menu is the menu, as a waitress I am powerless to change it.
Is it disgraceful? Or is it just a business doing their best, surviving by adapting in what is probably the most anomalous era for the hospitality industry.
By all means, you can speak to the manager, but he will tell you exactly the same thing I just did. But he’s male and you’re a chauvinist so you’ll probably accept it coming from him.
Can you take a picture of me and my friends? Well that would involve me holding your phone, there’s a greater than 70% chance you use it whilst you’re on the toilet, so it’s a no from me on this occasion. I’m not being deliberately unhelpful, but if I hold your phone, I have to go and re-sanitize my already blistering hands. I can’t serve this food until I do so, so the food will get cold, the customer will be upset, the chef will get angry. Honestly, your instagram feed is so far down my list of priorities right now, it barely exists…
NO I CANNOT CHARGE YOUR PHONE. FOR ALL OF THE ABOVE REASONS.
A friend asked me a few nights ago if there was a tiny part of me that enjoyed finally having a valid reason to say “No” after years of biting my tongue, but that honestly isn’t it. It upsets me deeply that people put casual enjoyment and mere convenience before my basic wellbeing and safety. I’m a waitress, but I’m a human being too. At the end of the night I don’t fold away into storage like the outdoor tables. I go home to the people who love me. People who depend on me as much as I do them. They are endangered by this flippancy too. Please stop asking me to jeopardise my health, potentially my life, for the sake of your sea bass. You may think I’m being facetious, admittedly I probably wouldn’t die. But if I did contract COVID-19, or came into contact with someone who had, I would be forced to self-isolate for a minimum of two weeks. I wouldn’t be re-furloughed, I would be on statutory sick pay. In the UK SSP currently stands at just under 97 pounds per week. That’s less than 400 pounds a month. 97 pounds per week, even in an industry as grossly underpaid as hospitality, would be such a significant reduction in income that two weeks is all it would take to completely derail my finances. Hurling me face first into debt and uncertainty. Did this even cross your mind when you were throwing a tantrum because your mates couldn’t join you for drinks? Also. Let’s take a moment to re-examine that sentence. I probably wouldn’t die. Probably. PROBABLY. When did human life become so disposable as to bet on a probability. You sit at the high table whilst I pour the wine, yes, but we both breathe the same air. Why is my life classified at a lower value than yours?
The way people’s eyes gloss over you when you wear an apron worries me on a deeper level. Though seemingly minor, it is dehumanisation. The foremost three articles from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are as follows:
1) We are all born free and equal
2) Do not discriminate
3) The right to life, freedom, and safety.
This document was adopted in 1948 out of a need to sufficiently define exactly what fundamental human rights consist of. This was a direct consequence of the atrocities committed in world war two. At first it struck me as sad that humanity had strayed far enough to necessitate such a document, and yet we are reminded every day in both tiny and vast ways that it was, in fact, 100% necessary. When you violate my safety, you undermine equality. No good will ever come of perpetuating the existence of an underclass. I wish to end as I began, with a declaration of love and gratitude. For every entitled arse demanding something I cannot oblige there is an angelic counterpart as lovely as the former is awful. To the compassionate, gracious clientele I meet and look after every day, thank you. Thank you for bearing with us. Thank you for respecting the restrictions. Thank you for checking in. Thank you for considering my safety and wellbeing. (It’s an alien -but moving- role reversal to be asked by a customer how I’m doing) Thank you for being kind. I wish there were more people like you.