Why we should celebrate the talented staff of the hospitality industry
PUBLISHED: 15:23 06 September 2019 | UPDATED: 15:23 06 September 2019
September 8 is National Waiters Day, promoting front-of-house as a fantastic job with plenty of opportunities. Why do we need such a day? Well while we value our skilled waiter when we sit down for a meal, we all-too-often disparage waiting as not a 'proper' career
Fred Sirieix, general manager at Michelin-starred Galvin at Windows (maître d' on the hit Channel 4 show First Dates and the originator of National Waiters Day) had a bit of a Twitter spat recently with Piers Morgan.
"Could be worse," Piers had tweeted - in the firestorm surrounding Ivanka Trump's surprisingly elevated performance at the G20 summit - "Ivanka could have been a bar-tender 18 months ago."
The courteous, but clearly riled, reply from Fred put him straight: "Bartending and waitressing are highly skilled jobs Piers. All too often they are undervalued, appreciated or respected. Time for a change."
So true. I've had meals - expensive restaurant meals - where the service has made an excellent evening superb. And not just because of attentiveness. Once, at an outstanding Cotswold hotel (I remember nothing about the food), it was the desert-dry humour of the waiter that delighted us. ("Would you like a drink in the bar before dinner?" "We'll go straight in, thanks." "Excellent decision, sir.")
Works the other way, too. A delicious meal at another well-known establishment was punctuated by waiting staff conducting endless exchanges about their social lives, two feet from our table. We gave up on our own conversation.
But the real point is this. Good front-of house staff are psychologists, who read diners' body language that says, 'I want to chat' or 'Leave me alone'. They're fun people who, no matter how madly paddling beneath the surface, give out Zen-like serenity - meaning the customer can relax and enjoy. They're welcomers, who set the tone. They're arbitrators who, no matter how unreasonable a complaint, sort it quickly and satisfactorily. They liaise with (sometimes grumpy) chefs, while working the sort of hours you thought were outlawed. And they're expected to be clued up on food allergies. (An article in its own right.)
All that. And they carry - in Britain alone - an estimated four million tonnes of food, plus billions of plates and drinks, to dining tables each year… making chatting to world leaders at a G20 summit look like a piece of gateau.
So why - when you can rise from waiter to general manager of a Michelin-starred restaurant (Ali Sonko started at world-famous Noma as a pot-wash and ended up co-owner) - is front-of-house all-too-often considered a temporary money-earner? Something to do while you're trying to find a better option?
According to last year's UK Hospitality Workforce Commission report, our hospitality industry employs 3.2 million, producing £130 billion of economic activity - and is forecast to grow. Moreover, as the third-largest private sector employer, it represents 10 % of UK employment and offers hundreds of thousands of well-taught apprenticeships. Riches indeed.
But look through Fred Sirieix's recent tweets and you'll find another interesting comment: "I have never known a more difficult time to find staff. #hospitality industry is at breaking point."
There are serious cross-industry moves taking place to tackle some of the negative perceptions that currently (and wrongly) surround the industry: that these are low-skilled jobs; that hospitality is not a 'proper' career. Big corporate moves to generate positivity include campaigns by Yo! Sushi, Greene King and the British Beer and Pub Association, all aimed at attracting young people.
Cotswold employers are playing their part, too. Henry Bannister is operations manager at the beautiful, 176-acre Tewkesbury Park Hotel. As someone who started off in bar and waiting jobs - and who, by the age of 18, was working in his first Michelin-starred establishment - he knows what a fulfilling career this can be.
"As an industry, we do need to be more active in getting people into hospitality," he says. "At Tewkesbury Park, we work with local schools and colleges to show what the career options are; to show how they can use the skills they learn from us.
"A lot of people who start off in the hospitality industry are a little bit younger. You'll get 16-17-year-olds coming in. They're learning some really good life, as well as career, skills: how to hold themselves in conversation with all kinds of different people; how to talk about the local area. When they move on in life, they'll find that to be a real asset."
It's a big responsibility, working in a top-end hotel such as this. His team could be serving 400 or more customers at the same time.
Yet Henry is also realistic about the potential transience of waiting staff - and uses it to everyone's advantage. "If somebody is here for one month or for 10 years, they're still part of the team; still part of that experience for the customer. But what you do find is that people coming into the hospitality trade can learn skills for other businesses; they can take them into other fields."
And those skills are manifold. If you're serving 100 people for dinner - taking orders, pouring drinks, clearing tables - that's a superb way to learn time-management. If you're having to read body-language, or distinguishing between the needs of a business versus a leisure diner, you begin to gain a real understanding of human nature.
Jonathan Walker, managing director of luxury Bath hotel, No 15 Great Pulteney, agrees. When he's interviewing for front-of-house staff for the hotel's prestigious (but relaxed) 36-cover Dispensary restaurant, he knows exactly what he's looking for. He can pretty much spot it the minute candidates walk into a room.
"They need to be outgoing, because they're pretty much on show the whole time. So when you meet them, they've got to be engaging initially in that conversation with you.
"And customers can read if that's genuine; if it's authentic; if they're being rushed; or if someone's trying to be a bit clever with them. The service is as massively important as the food: when you go into a restaurant, you want [the staff] to have a bit of fun with you; to play around with you."
Nevertheless, the truth of Fred's despairing tweet remains. David Sheen, public affairs director for UK Hospitality, the UK's leading hospitality trade association, also thinks these are times of unprecedented difficulty.
"Currently, rates of unemployment are at a record low and employment rates at a record high. Finding people to fill vacant roles can be difficult if there just are not enough bodies available," he says.
"We are also experiencing some very turbulent times, politically and economically, and a huge amount of Brexit-related uncertainty. When businesses are lacking in stability, it can be difficult to find the confidence to invest."
He's hopeful the Tourism Sector Deal, announced by the Government in January to boost the industry, will have a positive effect on recruitment.
As David Sheen points out: in Europe and beyond, hospitality is seen as an aspirational career. "That is not the case here. We need to be proud of the fantastic jobs and opportunities we provide and get better at shouting about it."
We know that not everything in the kitchen-garden is rosy. But what are the effects on staff?
One Cotswold chef - who spoke to me anonymously - has worked in local pub-restaurants where practically every week there's somebody new on the front-of-house team.
"The issue is that most aren't doing it as a career but as a stopgap, which makes it a problem in terms of reliability. They'll frequently not turn up, and pubs are very forgiving because it's so difficult to recruit."
Managers will start phoning round to see if team members on a rest day could come in at short notice. "But, mostly, you just have to get on with it. Diners probably don't notice - they're only in for a couple of hours at most - but the stress on the staff can be really tough."
At worst, that puts everyone at each other's throats. A waiter fails to write down clearly an order for the kitchen ("Believe it or not, I remember someone writing 'veggie burger' in a way that made it look like 'beef burger!'"; or someone drops a complicated dish, throwing the whole carefully-timed schedule… and there's meltdown.
"A lot of the time, there will be finger-pointing. I've seen chefs make front-of-house cry."
Low pay is a factor, he says; but mainly in terms of knock-on effect. "It's less about the pay and more about mutual respect. Profit margins are low; employees come into a low-paying job, and then they don't respect the employers."
I catch Ellie Dimes, head waitress at Lucknam Park country house hotel in Wiltshire, in the midst of a 12.30-11.30pm shift. Tough hours, hey?
She smiles. "I've got used to them. Some nights you might only get six hours' sleep; others you can have up to 12. On a day like today, I can have a lie-in!"
She's 23, but she knew from the off this was the job for her; hotels run in her blood. "My grandparents owned hotels in Devon, and my other granddad worked at a college, teaching hospitality." At 16, she got a job, part-time waitressing, round the corner from her home outside Bristol, "And I absolutely loved it." So, after A levels, she enrolled on an intense two-year degree at the Edge Hotel School in Colchester.
That's not the only way Ellie has proved she's serious about her chosen career. This year, she received one of the rare, prestigious Royal Academy of Culinary Arts Awards of Excellence, as well as the title Young Waiter of the Year. It's an incredible coup; the final stage involved her setting up and silver-serving a three-course meal, decanting and describing wines, to a table of top judges.
"It was nerve-wracking," she admits. "But, at the end of the day, it's what I do on a daily basis."
Ask Ellie why she loves her job, and there's no hesitation. "Every day is different. You don't know who's going to come through the door. Some guests you end up having a reasonably long chat with; others prefer not to open up. Only in the last two years have I properly been able to read guests; to see when to stand back, and when to offer more information."
There are bad days, of course. "I've seen red wine spilt down a lady's dress - but its human error. We've all broken a glass; we've all spilt something on the floor. So you apologise profusely and offer for the dress to be cleaned professionally."
And good far outweighs bad. Such as when a guest remembers your name - particularly as Lucknam staff don't wear name-badges - and mentions you personally.
It's a job, Ellie says, that can take you round the world - though she sees her own future firmly in the UK. Perhaps, in five years or so, to be general manager of a restaurant. For now, she's simply enjoying being part of a team that runs like clockwork.
"Most days, we just click. We all know what we need to do and we all work together; you can't help but feel happy. There's always going to be a bad day - perhaps when you come in tired. But you've a team around you that will pick you up; they'll understand."
A job awaits uni students
The most recent figures from the Destination of Leavers from Higher Education (2016/7) show that 100% of hospitality students at the University of Gloucestershire found employment or further study six months after graduating. Star alumni destinations include the Sheraton Erie Bayfront Hotel in Pennsylvania, director of Gloucester Brewery, and duty manager at Red Carnation Hotels.
Hospitality offers excellent employment prospects, with unparalleled opportunities for worldwide travel, says Dr Andrew Bradley, the university's senior lecturer in events management/sports tourism.
"Employers are increasingly looking for well educated people, who also have a variety of experience. They want people who make a significant contribution from day one of their employment, so our students are prepared for this by being engaged with a range of hospitality providers from the very beginnings of their course. They also have the opportunity to do more lengthy placements at high quality hospitality establishments all over the world."
Misperceptions of the industry result in too few considering it as a career, Dr Bradley says, making it hard for even the most established companies to recruit the right people. "Which is a real surprise to me! If you are looking for a career that allows you to explore a passion for management and the delivery of high quality experiences, with opportunities for accelerated progression, then hospitality should be for you!"