Web Exclusives #5: “The Day that We Closed Our English Public House”

*For our recently published special issue, “Food in the Time of COVID-19”, we received more submissions than we could accommodate in the print version of the issue, so the following article forms part of a series of submissions which will be published as Web Exclusives which speak to the theme of Gastronomica 20.3.

By Carina Mansey

March 21, 2020: Bedfordshire, England 

It was a Saturday morning, and, as per the usual, I was on route to the pub. After a sobering walk through the sleepy English market town, I reached the pub and entered via the backdoor. “Hello, team!” I said, waving frantically. My greeting was reciprocated and I took a seat. While Paul was attempting to make me a cuppa, I considered the abnormality of the situation.1 The last time front and back of house congregated like this was for the Christmas party, which had, due to the nature of our work, taken place in February. However, today found us in a very different situation. When we were settled, our manager addressed us, and then we began the deep clean.

While polishing table 3, I looked up at my coworkers. “What is Roger going to do for breakfast?” I asked. Something akin to “He will have to learn to cook” was Paul’s response. “I feel sad for him,” I mumbled. Roger came here every morning, other than on Christmas Day—the only day, up until now, that we closed. While scrubbing the remnants of something that I hoped was ketchup off table 9, I noticed Roger staring through our glass doors. My heart sunk as he read the notices tacked to them. Roger would not find anywhere offering a cooked breakfast because the Prime Minister had closed pubs and restaurants yesterday evening. I then thought of all our regular customers. They were not just my livelihood, they were people, and people I was going to miss. 

Our team cleaned for hours, and wore through a phenomenal quantity of disposable gloves. Yet, after Paul and I duetted “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which truly illustrated why neither of us had pursued a musical career, we broke for “lunch.” Lunch, in this industry, held about as much rhythm as our Queen rendition, and it appeared that we were not going to break that tradition today.

Whilst eating our 4pm pizza, we listened to a speech delivered by our CEO. As we were employed by one of the largest managed pub companies in the United Kingdom, they were not present. The recording reassured us that, financially, we were going to be okay, and I was grateful for that. Nicholls, from UK Hospitality, had tweeted, “Hospitality businesses are collapsing because they have no income . . . A tide of redundancies is sweeping through the sector . . . ” (@UKHospKate, March 19, 2020) She was not wrong; my sommelier friend had called to tell me of how the social distancing recommendations were impacting London. He spoke of how he had taken a voluntary 50% pay cut, and how fine dining businesses were caving in and that the staff were being crushed in the process.

After “lunch,” patience was wearing thinner than the glove supply, but everything needed to be spotless because nobody knew when trade would recommence. At approximately 7:30pm, we finished, sat down, drank and nattered. Paul moaned about having to eat his wife’s cooking from now on, and we shared our other, insignificant, first world, coronavirus inconveniences. When it was time to lock up, sadness arose. This would be the last time that all of us would see each other for weeks, if not months. I had originally felt sorry for Roger and the regulars, but I now felt sorry for us.

As staff, we tended to distance ourselves from the customers and (re)create an us/them dialectic. Maybe this polarization was to preserve our image and integrity. Many employers and politicians view hospitality workers as part of a lower-skilled labour force and, in consequence, expendable.2 Thus, by branding ourselves as employees, we might subconsciously be attempting to enforce our positions as integral to core business operations, which, in turn, distinguishes us from the regulars. However, the reality of the situation was that I was a customer. I did not just work at the pub; I utilized it in the same way our regulars did, but on a far deeper level.

Sandiford and Seymour stated that pub employees, “experience a particularly complex relationship between their work and their leisure.” (2013:122) The shift drink was an obvious example of this.3 Yet, on our days off, many of us still ate at work. We would also meet for social gatherings at the pub with our coworkers, other friends and families. We often found ourselves gravitating there when we were bored or lonely. To be clear, we did not do this because any marketing guru had instructed the management that we should be “living the brand” (Ind, 2001); it was something more profound than that.

In Sosteric’s study of the hospitality industry, a participant said, “Many employees described the staff more like a family and less like people they simply worked with.” (1996: 304) This was true for us. My words in the morning were, “Hello, team!” The word “team,” in part, acknowledged that we were a group established to pursue a common goal: running the pub or, in today’s case, closing it. Still, my greeting connoted more than that; it “confirmed some underlying identity needs” and situated me as “part of a whole,” and as part of that whole I knew that I had “others to fall back on if the going [got] rough.” (Walker and Miller, 2010: 209)

The distressing prospect of being isolated from our work family, who aided our identity construction, was compounded by the closing of the establishment that many of us spent a major proportion of our waking hours in. Stone accurately reflected, “we work at our play and we play at our work.” (2003 [1958]: 82) The pub did not provide us with a mere income; it was the epicenter of our lives . . . and we had closed it.

Notes

  1. The two people named in this dispatch have been given pseudonyms to protect their identity.
  2. Tribepad found that, on average, hospitality businesses receive 67 applications per job, which made hospitality the second most competitive industry in the United Kingdom. (2019) CV-Library outlined that hospitality staff salaries declined by 4.4% in 2019. (Henning, 2019) Catering, according to CV-Library, was also the third lowest paying industry in the United Kingdom. (ibid) Thus, with a large reserve army of labour, willing to work for low pay, it is easy to see why employees view hospitality and catering staff as expendable. When introducing the points-based immigration system, the government contributed to this view by defining many employed in the hospitality industry as “lower-skilled.” (Home Office, February 19, 2020) Refer to Hansard, Gov.UK, and the online trade press for more information.
  3. A “shift drink” is a drink consumed after a shift.

References

Henning, Augusta. 2019. “Job Market Report – Q2 2019.” Accessed April 3, 2020.https://www.cv-library.co.uk/recruitment-insight/job-market-report-q2-2019/.

Home Office. 2020. “The UK’s Points-Based Immigration System.” Accessed April 3, 2020. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/the-uks-points-based-immigration-system-policy-statement.

Ind, Nicholas. 2001. Living the Brand: How to Transform Every Member of Your Organization into a Brand Champion. London: Kogan Page Limited.

Nicholls, Kate (@UKHospKate). 2020. “Hospitality businesses are collapsing because they have no income and it is a daily deteriorating situation.” Twitter, March 19, 2020. 

Sandiford, Peter J., and Seymour, Diane. 2013. “Serving and Consuming: Drink, Work and Leisure in Public Houses.” Work, Employment and Society, 21(1): 122–137.

Sosteric, Mike. 1996. “Subjectivity and the Labour Process: A Case Study in the Restaurant Industry.” Work, Employment and Society, 10(2): 297–318.

Stone, Gregory P. 2003 [1958]. “American Sports: Play and Display.” In Sport: Critical Concepts in Sociology, edited by Eric Dunning and Dominic Malcolm. London: Routledge. 

Tribepad. 2019. “The UK’s 6 Most Competitive Industries for Job Seeking.” Accessed March 3, 2020. https://www.tribepad.com/pr-and-news/the-uks-6-most-competitive-industries-for-job-seekers/.

Walker, John, and Miller, Jack. 2010. Supervision in the Hospitality Industry: Leading Human Resources, 6th edition. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley and Sons.

Carina Mansey is a waitress, a Social Sciences teaching assistant at King’s College London, and a Sociology PhD candidate at City, University of London. Her doctoral research focuses on the operations of luxury restaurants in late-Victorian and early-Edwardian London. She is also interested in contemporary dining experiences and power relations.