For nearly eleven years now I have worked in bars, restaurants and cafes. Sometimes in and around studies, other jobs or unemployment – sometimes full-time. I fell into this area of the service sector quite without design. Never having been one to deal with formal, structured working environments I have always preferred the informal hiring processes of the restaurant and bar. Turn up, ask for a job and get taken on a trial shift. The chaos and improvised working environment has somehow provided a more stable mental environment for me; brief careers in low-paid office positions have usually ended pretty badly… falling asleep at desks, being caught indulging in gross procrastination and generally falling victim to the creeping nihilism which seems to pervade my mind after even brief period entering data.
The physical nature of bar and restaurant jobs, working with hands and becoming ever more dexterous, provides a slow-burning satisfaction in the work. It can be extremely challenging and fast-paced. A heavy rush is often bewildering… the bar, like a ship in battle, needs constant maintenance. Breakages and spillages are constantly announced; glasses are in perpetual circulation from shelf to table to glasswash to shelf; food orders mount quickly, often taking you by surprise. Increasingly, they come with a litany of personalised specifications for the kitchen staff and particular dietary requirements. Plates are dropped, tempers fray and as the night moves on, clientele become more drunk and less coherent.
The job comes with certain psychic freedoms I have never associated with other areas of the service sector. The informality and unofficial nature of the job requires a transient workforce, both physically and mentally. There is hugely high turnover of staff, many migrants (of them, many illegal) students and assorted ‘creatives’. Restaurants and bars remain amongst the few areas of service sector work not totally riddled with a customer service ethos, and an internal culture not drowned in disingenuous company gloss. Staff commonly define themselves as apart from their profession, as artists, students, musicians, or halfway towards their chosen future careers. They are broadly unsettled characters, as yet unreconciled to the prospect of repeating the same cyclical pattern of mundane activity for the rest of their lives. Raw passions run clear during peak times, and provide an anti-bullshit coating on interpersonal relationships. From managers downwards, customers are commonly treated cynically as fickle and forgetful. On the bar, as opposed to so many arenas of public service, the customer is not always right. Indeed, as a matter of pride a bartender is expected to stand their ground over several key battlegrounds: last orders, excessive rudeness and general lewd behaviour. For a chef, management rank counts for nothing and GMs are often shouted down by enraged kitchen. Humour amongst staff is coarse and politically incorrect – few, colleagues and customers alike, are spared the caustic sarcasm and cynicism of workplace banter.
The job still provides, therefore, a pocket of the labour market wherein an individual can exist not totally alienated, and retaining enough of themselves to operate as an individual whilst ‘on duty’. It is possible for a cognitive separation to be maintained between themselves and their work, whilst simultaneously providing the thrill of kinetic motion and perfectionism. It feels good to pour perfect pint after pint, to effortlessly deliver 4-5 plates or constituent dishes in one swoop, to finesse bar tricks – and the synergy between the different areas of bar, kitchen and floor can sometimes even be exhilarating. At the same time, I have rarely felt (apart from occasionally, whilst waiting) that the company owns my ‘attitude’ or my outlook. That pernicious demand, now so present in the workplace, of an emotional loyalty to the company on top of a technical proficiency, has still yet to totally win out. There is still room for a mercenary, an honest wage-slave to clock in and out and bother little with the travails of the business inbetween.
But despite those freedoms, it is a profession plagued by insecurity. For bars and restaurants, the introduction of zero hours contracts almost universally amounted to an improvement in established work norms. Basic legal conditions of work are rarely considered, let alone met. Hours regularly change from one week to the next – no time to plan ahead, to predict earnings, to save. Working injuries occur regularly and are rarely reported, especially in the kitchen. Dismissals are rapid and commonly unwarranted. A particular form of tyranny can reign amongst the petty, vindictive and drunken young men who often pass for managers. Pubs and clubs are youthful environments which trade in the hopeful potential of sexual intrigue as much as in chemical intoxication. In such environments, power disparities between staff regularly develop into particularly shallow forms. These are often just young adults, caught up in a profession of extended adolescence – who have somehow been given responsibilities over hiring and firing people, making large orders of alcohol and keeping books. Theft can be rife, corruption total. Favouritism and privileges are doled out to lackeys, hard-work is commonly unrewarded on its own merit, and sleaziness abounds. As our economic climes continue to worsen, staff benefits once expected as rote are disappearing in the miserly hands of these tin-pot dictators. Staff meals, staff drinks, discounts – all are far from guaranteed. Breaks, in which you might once have replenished yourself with one thing or the other, usually require an obligatory smoking habit to claim.
These cultures are maintained further by chronically low wages, almost always pegged at or close to minimum. I have worked at numerous businesses where strange games have been played with the pooled tips by management on a weekly basis, wages have been regularly ‘clipped’ many hours short of what was worked, and I am personally owed hundreds of pounds of unpaid wages ‘in lieu’ from various employers after leaving. The industry is totally un-unionised, staff are utterly unprotected in law. The high degree of transience in the profession accentuates this process – increasing the barriers to organisation of collective demands. Salaried full-timers can receive an even worse apportionment of income for their labours. A set salary of £20k is often ridiculous when the ‘live-in’ qualities of bar management are considered. Such exploitation among the middling echelons only serves to decrease empathy with part-time grunts, as all in the hierarchical chain kick down.
For all of the freedoms which can be associated with this work, it is increasingly not a profession you can be expected to sustain a full life out of. And, as many more thousands are monthly turned off the dole in favour of the litany of low-paid insecure jobs the Tory ‘recovery’ has created, that is exactly what many more must now attempt to do. It is a young person’s game, degrading for those with families or seeking proper stability. There is a reason these jobs have traditionally attracted creatives, delinquents, misfits and students. It can suit a certain turbulent personality in a certain phase of their life – but it’s not for everybody.
I love my job in many senses – working in a sociable environment, perfecting a set of simple and aesthetic skills, and testing my resolve in the hectic madness of peak hours. That said, it is often far from the job that it could be. The work is tiring, stressful and in its own way – important. For this we are under-remunerated, treated contemptibly and left, after hours, unable to engage in socially common activities and pursuits. This article will not attempt to provide a clichéd ‘solution’ to the issue, itself a myriad of issues related to the generally erratic economic structure of our society as a whole. But, hopefully, the grains of dignity and pride which do exist in the work can be encouraged to shine through – and that can surely not hurt. Almost all of us in this society are sold a role in life that is an affront to our potential. If there could be a definitive, saving grace to work in restaurants, bars and kitchens, perhaps it is that in employing so many interesting, funny and roving souls the pattern is displayed so clearly.