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Where Are We Going?

The eternal question that we thought we knew the answer to, before this time we are now living in.

The reality is that we did not really know. There is an old gag, “How do you make God laugh? Tell him your plans.” which was as true before and it is now. I fully understand that there were believed ‘certainties’ such as commuting 5 days per week, 3-4 weeks holiday per year plus Bank Holiday days mixed in, a regular pay check and, if you invested cleverly a pensionable retirement. Like a great many people this didn’t fit me at all, not that that has helped with the upturning of our normality. No one knows what is going to happen as we move back outside, blinking in the bright light of not being locked down. Apparently, some of us will be able to work from home forever, others for a couple of days per week. It seems a new normal is our future. I tend to side with Keith McNally who replied, when asked what the future of restaurants looked like, “That’s impossible to predict, and anyone who does is talking bullshit.”

Like many, I have wavered and allowed for my opinions to change. I’ve been angry and elated at different point over the past months.

Having returned to meetings in London over the recent weeks, rekindling my eternal love of restaurants, it has been fascinating to see the different models being used by hardy operators and I wanted to examine the new order of service.

To those of you not familiar with the way restaurants work, order of service is the step by step guide each restaurateur puts in place to deliver their best service standards, coupled with the most efficient way to maintain a busy place and happy customers.

Remember how it was before?

You walked into a restaurant, with or without a booking, a pleasant and smiling person greeted you and asked after you. Either they or a colleague walked you to a table, pulled it out to allow you to sit on the banquette or pulled a chair for you to sit. You were then greeted by your server, who smiled, presented you with a menu and took your order for a drink.

The table at which you sat was sometimes laid with a tablecloth, napkin and cutlery, cruets and maybe a candle at night, or simply an old food can filled with chopsticks and paper napkins. Maybe a paper place mat ‘with the menu on it, with colouring-in cartoons on the reverse for the younger guests.

Everything I have listed above is still available in certain places. Sure, you may have to take a temperature test, there might be chevrons on the floor denoting a random distance from anyone else, but the experience once you walk through the door is as before.

In other places I have seen bare tables, a single sheet, one-time-only disposable menu and a QR code to scan the menu. I have been served by team members in masks and by others wearing nothing covering their face.

What is interesting is how we the customer need to adapt to each situation. If you are in a hurry and have a QR code menu, remember that the team have no visual clues as they had before. When you could be seen reading the menu then put it down, there was a good chance that you had decided what to order. There is a large difference between looking at your phone and looking at a menu, which can lead to hesitancy from the server. This is just one aspect of the new experience. I have been asked to wear a mask when walking through a restaurant, been allowed to take it off once sat, asked to put it back on when using the bathroom. I have been temperature tested before being allowed entry (#-note to self, don’t cycle for miles, leap off your bike and run in to the restaurant expecting your temperature to be ‘normal’ !!) but then experienced a totally normal hospitality experience.

So regardless of the style of operation and their new operating plans, understand that some will feel serene and others clunky and ill thought out. Please understand however, that they all come from a place of wanting to reopen, to look after their customers and employ their teams. All of the above is merely comment, there is no judgement.

In the middle of lock down, my colleague James created a survey that we sent to over 500 team members from a dozen different restaurants. The response to questions such as, ‘What would you like to see in place to allow your business to reopen?’ were varied but overwhelmingly they were calm and sensible. Shower curtains around tables, plastic screens between tables, robots serving you, were not mentioned.

Most respondents wanted to be back at work as soon as possible. They wanted to be earning money, as opposed to being given it for nothing, and they really wanted to be back interacting with their customers and colleagues.

In France earlier this month, I witnessed a buzzing and vibrant town. Market day was heaving, everyone was wearing masks, and cafes and restaurants were packed. Let me note it was very warm and all patrons sat outside, and all staff wore masks.

There was one restaurant where the two servers wore see-through, upturned visor style masks that only covered mouth and nose, that allowed more normal interaction with us. This avoided the common site of people pulling their mask down to be heard clearly or merely to breathe or just wearing them with their nose exposed.

I absolutely hate face masks and I understand this is not relevant here. As Laura said to me, when I commented on a place where all staff were masked, maybe they felt safer with them on. It is an individual’s choice.

I salute all of you who have re-opened, even though the rug is being fiercely gripped by an inexperienced cabinet listening to scientists whose views change quickly and erratically - March 1st = herd immunity, March 23rd = lock down – one chief scientist saying in April that masks don’t offer enough of a defence to be relevant, to them being made law in July. Full planes and empty theatres. I won’t go on, as we all can see and read it for ourselves and I am trying to focus on the positive.

What I do want to emphasise and focus on, is the potentially fatal blow to hospitality. Service is what I do for you, hospitality is how I make you feel.

It is easy to forget why customers come to restaurants and it is rarely, solely or even mainly about the food. It is how they are made to feel by the team and the environment. It begins before they have walked in. How were they spoken to on the phone? How easy was the online booking process? Did they get a text the day before asking to confirm or cancel?

When they arrived, how were they greeted and was the order of service smart and efficient without being too fast? The overly sanitised venue can often be the least attractive; if you have decided to go out and enjoy being in a restaurant, pub or bar then you have accepted a level of risk. I am not advocating the reintroduction of maître d’s kissing and hugging their guests but let us find a common ground and make sure the feeling of hospitality is at number one again.

A customer walking into a venue has accepted that the operator and their team are on top of the health & safety of their space, as they did before this time by the way. What they really want is to be made to feel special and looked after, that is how you get them back.

In our new age, with apologies to Keith for my prediction, I do think that the place that knows your name will trump those that are not interested in finding it out. It seems the dining public has said to the mid-range sector of the market, the one that used to offer middle of the road food, concept over substance, growth over personality and profit over everything, that enough is enough.

The reflective period – a new, more positive name for lock down – has seen us search out local producers who, having lost their commercial catering and restaurant market, have been forced to search for their neighbouring public. This has created a local to local market and allowed the public to learn where their produce comes from and occasionally, the names of those producing it.

Our other eye opener has been the city centre flight and continued reluctance to return. This has opened neighbourhoods up to a larger proportion of time and cash-rich home workers. Not stopping at the terminus pub or the post-work bar for a pint before boarding the train or tube, has led to a search for more local options. A larger number of operators have been driven to providing meal kits and home delivery, which has broadened their own local market opportunities. Before, they waited for you to come to them, now they are coming to you.

We are entering an independent world, where local to local is the name of the game. The beginning of communities that are formed from grower and farmer, to supplier, to restaurateur. A world where we understand how our waste is treated, what chemicals are used to feed the soil our vegetables are grown in, what life the animals that we will eat had?

There will always be McDonalds, Starbucks and Nando’s and they are experts at what they do. What this crisis has taught restaurants is that being true to yourself, looking after your team, focusing on your guests and building a community is more important than any concept.

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