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“I had a woman scream at me for ten minutes the other week because she got the wrong ice cream,” says Natalia, co-founder of a Margate restaurant. “She even ate it all and said she really enjoyed it before berating me at the bar in front of everyone.”
Rewind to July 4, and no one was happier about the reopening of the hospitality industry than the hospitality industry. After a 15-week shut down, businesses in the sector were teetering on the edge of closure and staff had lost precious hours and income.
Two months and a government-funded initiative later, the improvements are negligible and burnt-out workers are facing the biggest challenges of their careers.
Like many other people in hospitality, Natalia is now struggling to reconcile her post-lockdown experiences with the memory of her job, pre-pandemic. “Maintaining good mental health in this industry has always been really tough, but after lockdown it’s so much more apparent,” Natalia says. “It’s been a really hard summer.”
To reopen, each pub, bar, café and restaurant was individually responsible for implementing the government’s Covid-19 safety measures. While hand sanitiser, perspex and masks played their part, it’s the implementation of tech which has perhaps become one of the most noteworthy changes, impacting everything from profit margins to customers’ manners.
Despite the technology having been around for years, QR codes and app ordering systems never caught on in the hospitality sector (Wetherspoons aside). That’s all changed in the face of the pandemic, as they’ve become the answer to issues of long wait times, crowds gathering at the bar and staff repeatedly coming into close contact with guests.
Uptake has been huge among businesses. Industry-leading mobile order and pay solution Wi5 has seen a 500 per cent increase in hospitality venues signing up to its service and a 2,000 per cent increase in revenue generated from customers. The number of transactions per weekend more than doubled from the first to last weekend of August.
Still, many restaurants are finding that customers prefer their service old-school, which is unsurprising, really. Great service is a key draw for restaurant goers, and swapping interaction for transaction changes the entire experience of eating out.
Front of house staff are feeling discontent with the new systems too, because many were drawn to the industry for the social interaction it promises. “We’ve just become glorified bussers,” says the manager of one Manchester restaurant where guests order using a QR code.
This kind of faceless service, combined with everyone’s personal Covid-related psychological baggage, might have provoked the changes many teams have noticed in their customers’ etiquettes.
Tips, for instance, seem to be on the decline. It’s thanks in part to the practice of ordering and paying via a smartphone, but even those settling the bill the traditional way have become less likely to add a gratuity lately, especially during the Eat Out to Help Out scheme. “People love a bargain so much that they would skip the tip screen every time, even though we were working twice as hard and they just saved £20,” the manager says.
Coronavirus has turned the humble QR code into an everyday essential
Stories of rude and demanding customers are also permeating the restaurant industry. Natalia cites guests’ behaviuor as the element that’s changed the most since before the pandemic hit. “I don’t know if people have forgotten how to go out to eat or something, but I’ve never felt more like a servant than in the last couple of months. I don’t know for sure what it is – lack of human interaction, maybe – but there’s definitely been a shift.”
Jan de Jonge, business psychologist at People Business Psychology, says that this “lack of human interaction” may indeed be contributing to the problem. “We all know about reduced self-control caused by the personality-changing filter of driving in a car,” he says. “A similar process may be happening when we can hide behind a mask and communicate through an app instead of talking face to face. For some of us, social etiquette is diminished.”
This newly implemented tech comes at a financial cost, too. “It’s about £1,000 to set it up for each site, while processing the payments is about ten times what you’d pay your credit card provider,” says Lawrence Santi, founder of the Marylebone Leisure Group which operates bars and restaurants across London. This is adding to the financial strain that businesses are already buckling under while operating with slashed capacities.
Customer-facing technology has been embedded in hospitality systems for years already – think online booking capabilities and review sites. But the dynamics have changed here too, adding even more fuel to the fire of the front-of-house headache.
Pre-lockdown, many restaurants didn’t take bookings at all. Now they can be compulsory and everyone is heavily relying on digital reservation services – which would be fine, if customers used them properly. Instead, there’s lots of panic-booking venues they’ll never turn up to, and undermining the group size restrictions.
“You can book up to six people for one table [as per the government regulations],” says Natalia, “but we’ve had lots of people booking multiple tables online, so they can be a party of 12 or more. Nine times out of ten we’ll get some kind of push back. We had a couple of tables last week who just kicked off when we tried to explain why they couldn’t sit together.”
It’s long been debated whether booking a table online makes us less inclined to honour the reservation, because no shows have been an increasingly significant problem in the industry. However bad it was before, though, it’s far worse in this pandemic-battered world. To try and combat it, some restaurants have implemented a deposit system.
“We started taking prepayments for food via our booking platform and made our T&Cs very strict to avoid no shows,” says Magda, a front of house pro for a small group of independent restaurants in Bristol. “This proved to be rather troublesome, as it turns out that no one – honestly, no one – reads terms and conditions.
“So now you spend half of your week amending bookings and explaining what the prepayment is for. My admin days are so much longer now, Mondays and Tuesdays taken up by dealing with refunds for people who have panic booked.”
Online review sites are causing more grief than usual, too, with customer expectations through the roof and staff finding it nigh on impossible to keep everyone happy. “Just for your own amusement, have a look at our reviews on TripAdvisor,” says a weary-sounding front of house manager, who heads up the team at a destination restaurant in the South West.
“Before March, I’d say nine times out of ten they were fantastic, five-star reviews. Now we’re lucky to get any positive reviews at all. Most of it is people worrying about compliance, or else they wanted more for their money. People have been cooped up for so long, they’re doing less and putting every expectation into coming out for a meal.”
The usual routine is to pay up, leave tight-lipped and then let loose on TripAdvisor at home, she says. But sometimes customers don’t even need to eat somewhere to feel inclined to leave a review.
“Here’s one who doesn’t get the notion of advance booking,” Catalonian eatery Lunya in Liverpool tweeted recently, with a screenshot of a one-star review. The author’s sole issue was not managing to get a table as a walk-in at a fully-booked restaurant during the Eat Out to Help Out scheme.
Staff who previously loved their jobs continue to feel mentally and physically beat, keeping their nose to the grindstone despite knowing their income is anything but safe, with a recession looming and winter just around the corner – two things that will see the number of people eating out continue to dwindle.
Pubs, restaurants and cafés account for 1.8 million jobs in the UK and, according to the largest trade association in the sector, UK Hospitality, three quarters of these businesses are at risk of insolvency.
Its chief executive Kate Nicholls notes the pressure that these businesses and their staff members are operating under. “The reopening is presenting some challenges for the sector and, naturally, a lot of that burden falls onto our team members. There is a lot for staff to adjust to, on top of the usual challenges that workers in our sector face. Everyone in our sector knows that we are not out of the woods by a long way.”
Someone who knows this all too well is Kieran Waite, founder of Season and Taste, a small family of restaurants in the South West. He has already been forced to close one site and let staff go. “We’ve had to restructure the whole company to survive and that has meant making some really tough decisions,” he says. “There were issues with the industry before Covid, costs were too high and margins too low, which is why restaurants have been hit so hard.
Thought to be a key contributor to the recovery of the jobs market, following data collected from the 2008 recession, the hospitality sector has a lot riding on its shoulders. Right now though, it’s enduring some white-knuckle turbulence.
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