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We mustn't go back to business as usual (but if we're not careful, we might...)

Updated: Mar 4, 2022

Getting a little introspective this week and feeling like someone who has made New Year's resolutions which seemed laudable in the Christmas holidays, but as life returns to normal, they require more resolve than ever.

I know, everyone has been re-evaluating where they are in the light of the pandemic and more. There's been an awful lot of soul-searching in hospitality and catering, in individual businesses, and the industry as a whole. On a personal level, in spite of the privations of 2020, chefs and restaurateurs discovered a home life that they barely knew they were missing; Plenty of them decided to stick there and haven't returned to their kitchens (others have, realised their mistake, and walked back out again.)

Those of us that have gone back into the kitchen have reconsidered our hours and conditions. Many restaurants having reduced opening times so that chefs and managers can have (gasp!) two days off. To be honest it has been a change long time coming; Even before 2020 the industry was facing a staffing crisis. Colleges are full of 16 year-olds for whom catering is one of the few options for compulsory education to 18, having failed to achieve basic English and maths. They soon realised that compared to their mates doing bricklaying, they faced longer hours working for grumpier people in competitive, hot, demanding, and unrewarding kitchens, for little money. Only the most committed stick with it, and of those that do, how many make the required grade? That's why restaurant kitchens were filled, pre-Brexit with foreign workers, especially in London. As with agricultural workers, the industry has relied on migrants who will endure hard work in exchange for the minimum wage and a free meal (occasionally with accommodation thrown in.) Brexit and the pandemic has encouraged those workers to head home, and having got back there, they found it too difficult to return.

There has been much questioning over the last year, we're wondering what we're here for? Who are we serving? And is there more that we can do to contribute to our community and wider society? Especially as we have seen and been involved with so many examples of sharing and support over the last few months.

Here in Trowse we found that the village went into the first lockdown without its local shop (a stunning act of bad timing on the part of the erstwhile store owners), so there was an obvious opportunity to serve the community whilst supermarket shelves were empty, using groceries and produce from our suppliers. We did this in the first few months, and the pub did so in the second lockdown. We concentrated on the Trowse village at first with pop-up takeaways advertised only to residents, later expanding them to the wider community, along with frozen meals. Some of this was just covering costs, some more for fun than profit (quiz and chips, takeaway version), some was actually to get income. The objective was simply to provide a service, to be useful in the place where we are. I am aware that other businesses went much further in providing a charitable function: Feeding key workers, or those in straightened circumstances, and still others chose just to shut down and bide time until the storm had blown over. I don't think anyone should be judged for the choices they made in those early days, there was no knowing how things would play out.

Coming out of the initial pandemic emergency however, many businesses have changed as a result of their experiences and turned over a new leaf. We all want to do better than we have done in the past. A number of restaurants have, like River Green (no, we're not trend-setting) gone totally plant-based, and left behind all vestiges of vegetarianism. Some, like Eleven Madison Park in New York, and Alexis Gautier in London, have even eschewed the meat products that they were still serving in order to turn completely vegan, albeit at the risk of customers not coming with them. Their motivations may be varied and the result is going to be better for the planet, but we need to stay focussed on what we're doing and who we're doing it for.

Obviously we have to please our current and future customers; In restaurants the food offering cannot be compromised for a more 'worthy' menu. No one wants to pay good money for a Lenten style diet, even if a proportion of it is going to feed the less fortunate or off-set carbon.

Assuming the product is as high, or higher quality than ever, the next most important consideration is caring for the staff and their families. As I have alluded to already, young people are not attracted to an industry with long hours and poor pay. Yet, we in the industry know that working in hospitality brings unique rewards; There's nothing more satisfying than creating something which in turn brings an immediate reaction from the diner. Serving people food that makes them happy, makes you happy! But, to quote the Flying Lizards: "Your love don't pay the rent... I need money!" It's true to say that a lot of people working in hospitality are not paying rent, many are young and still living at home, but that is to miss the point: If people are to commit to the industry, they need to be able to see they have a future in it, not just for the 'celebrity chefs' that make it big, but for the ordinary workers in the brigade. Things are improving: Pay for staff has accelerated well above that of our average customer in the last ten years, yes, starting from a very low base, the minimum and living wages have raised average pay by about a third, whilst our customers' has barely risen at all in real terms. Restaurants that blithely sought to retain large chunks of tips or service charges as 'administration costs' have been forced to cough up in the face of customer and government pressure.

These days it costs as much to have an 'unskilled' 25 year-old washing up, as a head chef five years ago. To that end, our contract with the staff must go both ways: We will treat you well, but you must give value in return, you can't be precious about your position and say "it's so-and-so's job to wash up or serve tables" everyone must be available for whatever work that needs doing. Then we'll do our best to: Make sure they have the time off instead of the weekend, they eat, even though we're working when everyone else is eating, and they can get a good night's sleep which is difficult to do when a split shift can start before 9am and finish after 11pm. (Splits won't become a thing of the past until staffing levels improve.)

Every business has got to get better at looking after our planet, and that can start with our relationships with producers and suppliers. Getting much more local means lowering our carbon footprint, but it's not just food miles. If you see your suppliers, or visit their shops, you can be flexible, go with what they've got if something's in season, or there's a glut, short dates, or their shelves are empty but there's something else available. If they're just round the corner, they can deliver when they know it's best for you, not send couriers to arrive on a Monday(!) and come back again and again. Going vegan may be the best thing you can personally do to save the planet, but putting vegan food in the mouths of those who would otherwise eat animal products has to be a win for the environment. If you can do that with ingredients that haven't travelled from Chile or China, even better! We can still trade and support other countries, we may love their iconic foods, we must however make more use of our local produce as a first option.

It was interesting to see wholesalers' shelves fill up with takeaway containers at the start of the lockdowns. At first, anything that was available, but soon a noticeable preponderance of compostable, carbon neutral, and reusable containers. I don't know whether that was due to the demand from restaurants aware of the impact they were making, or a conscious decision on behalf of the wholesalers to improve the availability of greener products. In either case, there can be no excuse now for using single use polystyrene boxes, when reusable or recyclable alternatives are so readily available.

I was accused (not maliciously) of being a hippy recently, so it's fitting to quote Lennon again: "You may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one." Things are changing, people and businesses know the direction they want to go in, but the difficulty is knowing where exactly we are right now. Suddenly it has felt like it's (almost) all over; We're busy, people are eating out, rushed off our feet at times it feels like the (good) old days. Sometimes, it feels more like last summer when we were all 'Eating Out to Help Out', but that all came to a sudden halt, and the worry is that it could do so again. Or, perhaps things are going to stay good; The pent-up demand and 'Staycations' (or what we used to call 'Holidays' in the '70s) will fuel spending for months to come. At other times it feels more like living in a dream, where the restaurant is full of happy customers, but we're destined to wake up soon and it'll be empty once more.

In either case we could easily take our eyes off the goals we have set, with little time to spare, go for the convenient option, resort to tried and tested products or recipes rather than pushing forward with new ingredients or flavours. Brexit will ensure staff and supplies remain at a premium for some time to come and we could return to squeezing every last drop from our existing brigade rather than try to train and retain new recruits. If getting produce from Europe becomes more difficult or expensive than getting produce from Egypt, then food miles will rise again. We must guard against letting our standards slip and allowing what feels like business as usual to actually become the usual busyness. We owe that to our customers, staff, families and the planet.

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