Side Plate: “Service!”: Why Mum was right

By Mme. NotLeafy. Edited and proofread by M. NotLeafy

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Sometimes things your parents say stick. Sometimes they become more meaningful when time and experience make it so. Perhaps, then, it’s no surprise that my first memories of a restaurant visit are what my mother told me: “Be polite to the staff; don’t make their lives more difficult than you have to”.

She told me as we crossed to the department store where pneumatic tubes whisked takings between floors and aspirational ladies hungered for charge accounts as well as lunch. She then insisted I repeat it as we negotiated our path up its wide foot-polished stone and metal railed staircase. At 7 though, the wonder of stepping from the shop floor into a cavernous Mad Men-style wood panelled, table-, chatter- and cutlery-clatter- filled world meant all she’d said was overwritten.

It stayed that way until it was time to order and a gaunt, gloom-soaked man approached, pad in hand. He was wearing a dinner jacket, bow tie and sun-denied skin. Slicked-back dark hair exaggerated a pointed nose and thready moustache below, lending him a rat-like air. His sharp, Head-Waiterly eyes divided their attention between the pad and staff on the floor. All female, they wore a shortened Downton Abbeyesque uniform and, from what I could see, never stopped moving.

My choice made, I was then stung when he questioned whether I really wanted a Dusky Maiden – wasn’t the smaller version of a Knickerbocker Glory more suitable for children, after all? – but I was more than certain of chocolate and vanilla ice cream, grated dark chocolate, chocolate sauce, more ice cream, chocolate curls, whipped cream and a cherry. I held firm and began a follow-up protest, when my mother’s foot reminded me of what she’d said: “Be polite to the staff; don’t make their lives more difficult than you have to”.

It was only after she’d eaten her silver-served fish and chips, my sundae glass was empty and we’d watched mannequins – as models were then known – carving seamless flightpaths between tables in the hope of adding this year’s first-floor couture to the ladies’ account spend, that I felt the time was right to ask Mum for an explanation. Why was she so concerned about treating staff this way? She leaned in, stated her usual dictum that everyone should be valued in society but then added “Waiters and waitresses are important; they’re the restaurant’s face. They can make or break your experience. It doesn’t matter how good the chef is, how nice the surroundings; if the staff don’t make you feel welcome and work well, you just won’t enjoy it. And when things aren’t so good out back, they can make it feel better”.

Over time I found out that Mum knew what she was talking about. She’d fled Austria as a teen in the mid-1930s with only a small suitcase for company. Her politically active father had seen what was coming. Anyone remotely left-leaning would be at risk, so she’d done as he urged, unaware that she would never see her parents again. Mum also left behind a hard-fought-for place at Domestic Science School which she’d only realised after making a personal plea to Austria’s Minister for Education. Whether due to this line of study or eligibility for a domestic permit, she started her exile working in private households around the UK and, then, front-of-house in London.

She giggled when describing work at her first large house in Wales, where she was tasked to pass the salt by running with it table-length from one of the employing couple to the other and Evans-the-Garden was kept in his place by the threat that the communists would come to take his house cow unless he did as he was told. It was perhaps telling that, thirty years on and many miles away, the Welsh words she recalled – and taught me – were bore da, bara menin and cau dy geg (good morning, bread and butter, and shut your mouth).

Moving to London and front-of-house meant Mum learned another way of life. Colleagues bonded troop-like and were protective in the face of her naivety. They advised she lick her butter ration in front of others to prevent theft and took over on the floor when their practised eyes spotted diners signalling desire for a different kind of working relationship with her. Yet, she recalled most vividly her bewilderment at a manager calling her in specifically to complain that she was too happy when customer-facing. It was expected in Austria, where front of house staff were valued and proud of what they did but, here, she was told that serving others was looked down upon and should be undertaken miserably. Worse, looking as though she was enjoying her work and, this being reflected in her interaction with diners, meant she was liable to receive better tips than her peers. She needed to conform. I’m guessing that, from the number of jobs she seems to have had and repeated experience, she didn’t moderate her behaviour. The problem was, she told me later, “ a deep-rooted culture, class and status thing. British people confused serving with being servile, affecting relations on both sides”.

Fast forward from that 1960s first restaurant visit and Mum’s words still resonate, applying to the industry more widely too. The value accorded to staff front-of-house and the work they do remains unappreciated by some; see, for example, this Guardian piece and the frequency of restaurateurs’ social media posts regarding customers’ unreasonable demands and rudeness to their servers. I’ve similarly witnessed staff being ignored, criticised personally, shouted and finger-clicked at, just for being what they are. Studies conducted globally show that being both under the public’s gaze and in a service relationship with them results in violation of conventional social etiquette, rendering workers vulnerable to bullying and harassment, including that of a national/ancestral, racial or sexual nature. In addition, entrenched workplace hierarchies can lead to their being bullied and harassed from within.

Attitudes come top-down and the establishment is clear about the status of wait staff.  Labour front-of-house is classified by the ONS as being low skilled, despite business, food/beverage service, organisational, hygiene, cognitive and human-facing skills being central to the multitasked role. Further, the industry appears viewed as an homogenous entity, such that no distinction is made between work in fast-food, family, casual or fine-dining restaurants. All are deemed to be equally low skilled jobs.

The hospitality industry’s labour shortage is already acknowledged to be greater than any other UK employment sector. KPMG’s 2017 report commissioned by UK Hospitality predicts an annual recruitment shortfall of at least 60,000 workers from 2019, assuming that no new EU migration, existing EU nationals stay and recruitment of UK and others from the rest of the world remains constant.

It’s estimated that, in this scenario, the sector will face a total recruitment gap of more than a million by 2029 unless it is able to replace EU workers with others. Resident sources are thought insufficient and yet the government’s proposed post-Brexit immigration regime aims to allow only ‘high-skilled’ workers with the offer of a job paying at least £30,000 per year into the UK.

Last year, a written Parliamentary question was submitted on the impact of possible restaurant closures resulting from the minimum salary threshold. The response referred only to skilled chefs, as defined by criteria developed to identify the top 5-8% of these, and disputed that the immigration system would cause or solve industry challenges. Crucially, even if front-of-house work was classed as skilled for Tier 2 visa purposes, it generally pays less and would exclude people wishing to fill such roles. Had such a regime existed in the 1970s, would it have prevented a young Raymond Blanc coming to the UK to work as a waiter at the Rose Revived?

It seems that looking down on front-of-house staff is going so far that they may very well cease to exist and begs several questions. As fewer young people are seeking careers in the industry, in part because it is associated with low-waged, precarious work, poor conditions and high levels of stress, could any internal action be taken to aid recruitment and retention front-of-house by raising the skill profile and improving pay, training, conditions and, crucially, career status? If so, how might this be balanced with the public’s response to the inevitable price rises? Will labour shortage and increasing costs mean a bean-counter led push towards robots replacing the only personal contact between staff back-of-house and diner?

In the meantime, remember what Mum said “Be polite to the staff; don’t make their lives more difficult than you have to”.

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