Why We're All Still Here
Words by Jane Ryan
Photography by Supplied
A reflection on the worst bits about hospitality, and, ultimately, why we're all still in it.
I still remember my worst shift in hospitality. It wasn’t the night I dropped a tray of flutes all over myself, or the one where I embarrassed myself by interjecting into a conversation I shouldn’t have, or even the one where the loos backed up and we were mopping sewerage. It wasn’t anything I did. Instead my worst shift ever was the night two men couldn’t fit into the little seated-only cocktail bar I was working at and rather than put their number down, they chose to yell at me about what a pathetic low life I was, spat at me and then left.
In hindsight I suppose it wasn’t that bad. I didn’t cry (unusual for me), but I did take a cold shot of bourbon straight from the freezer to try and fill the empty pit that had settled in my gut and made a brave attempt to keep smiling the rest of the night. However, the rest of that week and for a few more following, the love I held for my job and industry melted away. What was the point of trying to make people happy when someone could walk into your work place, press their nose against your own (ahhh pre-covid times) and tell you that you weren’t worth the air you breathed? It took me way longer to shake off than it should have, but then sometimes things just get under your skin.
Since our bars across Australia have been allowed to reopen, we’ve watched several hospitality staff and owners go through a similar display of outrageous behaviour. We’ve seen people doing runners on their bills in Melbourne and staff being spat at in Adelaide. If you didn't see Ollie Margan's call for more police presence you can see it here. We’ve seen no-shows and guests refusing to sit down, refusing to check-in, refusing to understand everyone is operating in unusual times. And yet Australia’s hospitality staff are still there, opening up the venues and trying to get drinks into the public’s hands. More than that, they’re still thinking up new recipes, staying creative, organising collaborations and launching bottled cocktail brands.
I truly can’t imagine anyone in the office I work at having to carry on if someone spat at them, let alone the loos overflowed.
The reality in venues across the world right now feels more like child minding than it does bartending or serving. It’s as if hospitality staff have all transformed overnight into that teacher at lunchtime who had to ensure we all sat down for the first 10 minutes of break to eat our food. That probably wasn't what anyone signed up for, especially after being booted out of their jobs for the lock-down and possibly being made to feel like they’re lucky to be back. Still, they’re all doing a fantastic job at it.
I suppose there’s plenty of reasons to feel despondent or disengaged with hospitality right now. With all the effort it’s taken just to stay open, the mounting costs against limited income and then, on top of that, people making it even harder to do their jobs, well I’m surprised to see so many brave faces on my Instagram stories. But for those who are feeling really dejected - who haven’t felt like it’s been worth it since pre-covid times - before you hand in your barspoon for an excel spreadsheet, let me ask you one thing; can you remember the best night you’ve ever had in hospitality? I can’t.
Not because I’ve never had a good time but because I’ve had loads of them. You know that feeling where you’re having an amazing night out, but at work, and you can’t quite believe you’re getting paid to chat to awesome people, hang out with your friends and listen to great music? When the evening flows and you recommend someone a drink and they love it, and you knew they would, and they order it again? When you build the perfect round so that the table of eight who all ordered a different drink receive them at exactly the same time, fresh from the shaker? When you’ve helped someone’s birthday, anniversary, leaving-do or Thursday? Those moments are top-of-world this-is-the-best-job-ever moments. And they were what eventually made me forget the bad eggs who rock up to our venues.
“We’re fighting for this, and will continue to fight for this industry because hospitality is one of the founding blocks of our culture. Sociality, to be together, to eat, drink and share experiences is what we live for as people. Food and drink aside, what we do in this business is cater to togetherness. We provide experiences, we offer solace, and allow people to escape from the mundane day to day. We mark the milestone celebrations that people never forget, we make memories. To serve is an utter honour and pleasure. It is a huge responsibility and those that treat it so are the best in the business. Hospitality will play a huge role in the recovery post Covid, in uniting people who have been isolated and in reinvigorating cities. In bringing this country back to life,” Zara Madrusan of The Everleigh said to me when I asked her why we’re all still here.
Her words feel like a battle cry, one I hope will resonate in the hearts of those who love this industry.
“Why am I here? I am here to serve, to connect and to share,” said Michael Bascetta from Worksmith. “COVID may have forced us to rewrite our business plans, but it shouldn't have made us rewrite our purpose for being part of such an incredible industry. Remember your purpose and move the barriers to achieving it.”
As Alex 'Happy' Gilmour of Cantina OK! said, the purpose can often be the knowledge and passion we amass over a career. “I love to find and show someone something new that they find amazing. Be it a guest or colleague, showing someone a product or explaining a technique that really formulates their next steps in their experience in the booze world, watching understanding and passion come across a face, that's the best! That feeling really projects what the industry is about for me.”
I hope these words all help. I'm not saying don't ever leave, or that one day you won't find something else that makes you feel connected or creative. There aren't that many 70 year-old bartenders kicking about so the evidence says one day you might go. But if you've still got some love for the game, don't let the bastards get you down. Especially after a global pandemic. They're just not worth it, even if they do stick in your mind far more than the folks you made smile along the way.
Finally, I’ll leave you with words from Tash Conte, who when asked about why she’s still here said the following: “I love that it is a huge family! There is a resonance within the industry that you can only understand if you have worked in hospitality. You’re not alone.”