By Tim Wilkinson
The Covid road map is very date based. 12 April. 17th May. 21st June. It doesn’t say anything about how those changes might be experienced. In this short piece, I look at the experience of a business owner and at my own experience of going out to eat in the last month.
The reopening of indoor service on the 17th May has been long awaited for by many food businesses. From the customer point of view the rules are fairly simple – something you couldn’t do, now you can! Of course, there are various caveats: indoor eating is restricted to groups of 6 of up to 2 households, and wearing masks when moving around the indoor space is compulsory. An article in Big Hospitality gives more details from a business perspective, for instance on staff mask wearing, groups outdoors and track and trace. Reopening of indoor service has also been met by increased customer demand compared to pre-Covid; The Guardian reported, for example, surging reservations, spend and business revenue compared to the same week in 2019.
Behind the positives of the headlines has been a huge amount of hard work to ready hospitality for reopening. I came across Linda Anderson’s blog this month; which gives a fascinating insight into the journey of The Kitchen Croxley, a café and cake business in Rickmansworth over the last 18 months. The blog records and describes the numerous logistical and practical adaptations that The Kitchen Croxley has made including: pivoting to takeaway, expanding the takeaway offer and developing systems to manage social distancing across different lockdowns. But on top of that, what comes through is the lived experience of making those changes. Reading Linda Anderson’s blogs I got a sense of the energy it takes to run a small food business. There is the mental effort of checking government and industry guidance, the physical exertion of reorganising furniture and cleaning, and the emotional labour of trying to provide a familiar service to customers when so much has changed (e.g. the rising prices of supplies, new staff, new menu items). I thoroughly recommend tracking back through Linda’s blogs: they are a tremendous record of the ongoing adaptations and challenges faced by small business owners in food service industry.
For me, as a pre-Covid customer of cafés and restaurants, I must admit that I’m finding the lockdown mentality a difficult habit to break. Part of me wants to go out to eat but part of me doesn’t. I think it is mainly resistance to doing something I haven’t done for a while. Food critic and broadcaster Grace Dent wrote a tongue in cheek reminder about how to behave in a restaurant in A restaurant refresher course for anyone, like me, who might be struggling to get their head around it again. It has been a while! But I have been to eat out (in a restaurant, outside) and for a coffee (in a café, inside).
On the first May bank holiday, I went to a restaurant for a meal outdoors. The track and trace check-in was part of a cheery welcome and outlining of the rules and one-way system. I found it helpful to get that out of the way so that you weren’t wondering what to do once you were in the restaurant garden. I enjoyed the ‘small’ things like the staff coming to ask ‘is your food okay?’. That was great. As was the background noise of conversation from socially distanced tables – there was something familiar and warming in that. Unfortunately, the food did get cold in the wind though, and so did I. There was no inside option at this point and the restaurant doesn’t control the weather, so we made the best of it with blankets and coats.
Later in May, I met a friend at large café for a coffee indoors. There was a long-ish queue for the tills – it looked like track and trace was taking time to complete – with those taking orders also dealing with technical and check-in issues. The wait gave me a while to get my head around the scene beyond the tills – of perhaps 60 mask-less people eating and drinking indoors. Very novel! I felt for the staff who pre-Covid might have been focused on food service, but were now having to be app experts and explain Covid rules to anxious or confused customers. Once we’d got our hot drinks, we walked through into the hall-like cafeteria. It was noisy – not unpleasantly so, I think I had just forgotten how loud a room full of people with teaspoons and forks can be!
All this reminded me that going out for food is an experience – it’s not just about the food, but the atmosphere and being around other people. As a consumer, it is easy to forget the experience of business owners, staff and other customers – for everyone this is new phase. It’s not a return to ‘normal’, but a new encounter that comes with many thoughts and feelings about how it was before Covid, and how it should be now. We can expect to be pleasantly surprised, but there is a continued need for understanding as new processes are developed and refined. It would be easy to forget the last year, and the challenges that hospitality businesses have faced.