We are finally here. After 105 days of lockdown, restaurants in England are reopening, signalling the first major milestone since restrictions began to ease. Of course, inessential shops have been open since 15th June, but clinking glasses over a clothing rail doesn’t quite have the same charm or sense of victory. Living in Wales, this long-awaited ‘cheers’ which symbolises so much hope, patience and struggle, will have to wait a little longer but I’m sure that, despite the twitch in my eye, I can be happy for Englanders and their newly found freedom.
It will be difficult to predict the public’s reaction to such an easing of restrictions, but if my recent trip to Liverpool is any indicator, people will be overjoyed to return to normality as restaurants were not merely open, but busy. It was surreal and heart-warming to see people wandering un-masked through the streets, passing restaurant after café after pub, each embracing al fresco dining, creating a street brimming with long-awaited pedestrian chatter and cooking aromas. Such scenes, under the July sun, almost made up for the cancelled foreign holidays and reminded me of the joys of British summer.
Saying this, the idea that welsh eateries can reopen from the 13th July on the condition of outside dining is slightly laughable – it is with good reason that al fresco dining still eludes Wales: diners would have the menus wrenched from their hands in the gale-force winds and any starter would be long since saturated with rain before reaching the tables. Nevertheless, be it inside or gallantly in a pub garden, I’m sure the British public will seize the opportunity to drink anywhere but their sofa and eat anything but homemade banana bread. Perhaps the relief of returning to a semblance of normality will breed a new appreciation and gratitude for the service and catering staff who make this possible.
All media attention so far has documented how consumers will be affected by the changes to restaurant procedure, detailing the 1 metre plus rule, the introduction of disposable menus, as well as the customer trackability system. However, little mention has been given to how these measures, as well as simply the difficulty of returning to full-time work, will affect restaurant staff. Unlike office workers who have been able to pretend to work from home, catering and service staff have been without any form of work since March, so a sudden return to full-time employment must be daunting. The pastry staff in a restaurant where I once had work experience were present for both lunch and dinner service, meaning work started at 9am in preparation for lunch, a three-hour break was allowed after lunch service, and then dinner preparations and service continued until midnight. One young chef lived sufficiently far from the restaurant as to make the journey home during his mid-day break pointless, so his working day was 15 hours. Returning to work after a three-month break would be difficult in any industry, but for the all-consuming nature of the hospitality industry, restaurants reopening and the prospect of returning to work must be additionally alarming.
As a waitress in sixth form, I would complain endlessly about ungrateful and entitled customers who seemed to find pleasure in complaining about anything, and as their first point of reference, service staff would receive the initial and most enraged grief. However, the really thankless jobs lie in the kitchen: though customers complain, they can often be complimentary and friendly. Kitchen staff see none of this. They do not hear the laughter in the restaurant to know their work is worthwhile, they remain in the same hot environment with the same faces every day. They are sworn at when mistakes are made but are rarely praised when tasks are executed perfectly. They are underpaid and overworked, and maybe in light of our recent restaurant deprivation, this is something that everyone can begin to appreciate as we return to their warm and inviting atmospheres and realise how much we missed them.
Whilst the restaurant scene will look very different for the foreseeable future, this may be a cause for celebration rather than concern; restaurants may finally be rid of the self-appointed critics. Customers might adopt a more appreciative and grateful attitude to those that work in restaurants, and rather than complain at the slightly slower than lighting speed service or the ‘cold’ food that somehow manages to steam, they may simply acknowledge how hard restaurant staff work, how difficult it must be to return to their work, and how much their industry is an important part of our lives.
Image Credit via Narcissa