Wed, 20th Nov 2019
CODE Special
The waiting game



We’ve heard about the chef crisis, which really is symptomatic of the fact that the restaurant industry is booming. But it’s not just about chefs – it’s a staff shortage; a shortage of talent.


One of the great things about hospitality is that it has always attracted misfits, the gems of society who break the rules to create beautiful things. It will always seduce people who work better on their feet, in teams, and outside society’s civilised hours, but there is a need to attract not just those destined for this life.


The “chef brand” has developed around books, TV appearances, and competitions and also – as George Pell (managing director of L’Escargot) articulated – a whole lifestyle of “foraging, hunting, fire, and creating a craft”. It might not be reality, but the chef persona has become aspirational. What about front of house? Semantics are always important: you just don’t hear “when I grow up I want to be a waiter”. Where are the heroes? ‘Waiter’ and ‘server’ are subservient words in nature – so does front of house need a re-brand?


What is our brand?

Some work has already been done. We now have ‘mixologists’ who are ascending the heights of cool, and the same goes for the highly trained experts in wine, ‘somms’. But a waiter appears to just ferret products from A to B.


"Brand is your business story, your core purpose and your customer promise", writes Maria Ross, wine writer and marketing consultant. As such, front of house is intrinsic; they are 'brand ambassadors'. Through their work they build on the story of the food and the environment. They sell the idea that the guest is exactly where they need to be. Brand is also reputation, philosophy, and the cause and reason for business; and the business of a waiter is to facilitate space to provide a service within which people can relax. So, although ‘waiting’ isn’t an all-encompassing description of the position, it is hard to think of a better noun for the job title. What makes the job worthwhile is being able to curate that wonderful time.


Perhaps it’s the way we sell the profession to the hesitant youth that needs a rebrand. To complicate matters, being a waiter at one establishment is not the same as another. One terrible restaurant, with bad staff/management/training ruins the “brand” across the industry. Floor staff are having brand identity crisis – who are we as a front of house industry? We aren’t New York where the concept of service as a profession has become ingrained, nor are we Europe where hospitality feels seeped in family ties. What is the story we’re trying to tell the next generation?


What are we selling?

Romance. I don’t mean the sullen two tops on Valentine’s Day. I mean the love of the job, the love of the industry, the desire to be on the pass time and again – a sense of joyful purpose. Anett (a bartender at Picture) told me how she fell into the job, then in love with the industry. The constant learning and developing, the fact that “making someone happy makes me happy”. And Yasmin (a waitress at Picture) talked about job satisfaction she feels daily, but they both spoke about the different people they worked with, the bonding and the special relationships gained.


James Ramsden (co-founder of Pidgin in Hackney) further explains the idea of learning: it “doesn’t pay well to begin with, but the scope for progression, development and most of all variety is huge”. Tracey Matthews of Gaucho echoed this with “you can’t be Jason Atherton in two years, but you can – if you work hard – be managing a restaurant”.


Dan Pink, economics and business author, explains how money, surprisingly, isn’t a motivator. You need to pay people enough so that they stop thinking about money and start thinking about work, but what gets better performance and personal satisfaction is mastery, autonomy, and purpose. These three words describe a career in hospitality; these are core values you can get out of this profession.


The competition and the future

The industry sits on an antiquated work structure. With ‘flexible working’ being the phrase du jour (see RSA Animate short ‘Re-imagining work’) and the rise of working remotely, it is easy to see how the hospitality set-up seems out-of-step with the ever-connected world of business. But these are the reasons that the industry is booming – the public’s need for real moments, personal connection and physical interaction over a meal. How does that translate to the millennial looking for a peg to hang their career on?


Matthews talked about trying to think more widely about different paths within the industry – not just in a linear fashion (“a ‘career tree’ not ‘career path’”) – and also about adjusting to different learning styles so that more people could succeed. Pell feels that the industry is moving towards developing brands, which might appeal to a younger generation. A generation who instinctively know how to film bite-sized media to market themselves and a business; a generation that will want to be involved in running and developing restaurant ideas; that’s how they’ll start off as ‘a waiter’.


We all know how exciting and how rewarding it can be on the front line – serving people beautiful food and ensuring a wonderful time. That’s easier said than done when battling the daily pressures of running a precarious business, and the rewards just aren’t as Instagram-able for Front of House, but we don’t seem to be good at blowing our own trumpets.


For me, I think I want to see more of the faces that make up front of house. I want to have more heroes. Let’s talk more about what we do: the good, the bad, and the ugly. To quote Pell, “my life has been amazing. Sure I’ve missed out on a lot, but the things I’ve seen and done – I’ve had a wealth of experience that you can’t get elsewhere – I wouldn’t change it for the world”.


Let’s shout about that story, let’s blow that trumpet, lets make that our brand.


Anna Sulan Masing


Co-founder of the TMRW Project

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