Views from the bar

What do robot waiters tell us about our attitude to serving staff, asks Katie Mather


Don’t trust a person who’s rude to the waiter. That’s how the saying goes. Use the server who brings your food and drinks to you as a bellwether for bellends. This is accepted behaviour. This is a rule I have abided by for years, not really thinking about what it means.

It means that some people treat those serving them as lesser, and that if they do so, they will treat you the same way too, eventually. It means that hospitality staff are routinely treated badly — they must be, or the cliché would not work. So, letting the image play on, how do you deal with the person who’s rude to the waiter, who is in turn putting up with it so you don’t have to? Do you pull them up on their behaviour? Do you think “that was rude” and continue with your meal? Do you tip extra to make up for their bad behaviour? Do you apologise on their behalf? Do you do nothing?

One of the best things about eating in restaurants and drinking in bars is the service. As well as taking the effort out of deciding if your date is a decent person or not, it takes the labour out of drinking and eating. Your drink is poured for you. Your glass is cleaned out of sight. The beer never runs out. The food cooks itself, and arrives ready to eat. Some people do their best to believe that the illusion of all of the above is true. Silver service, or its more modern manifestations of seemingly effortless impeccable service, does everything it can to perpetuate the fantasy. Even while popping champagne at the table, trained wine waiters are instructed to twist and guide the cork to a near-silent expulsion. Above all, the customer must not be disturbed.

Perhaps this is where the idea of the robot waiter came from during the depths of lockdown. Surely to God these were odd and delusional times, and we all went slightly west for a while. However while I was lying on the garden bench trying to astral-project myself to Greece where I was supposed to be on holiday, many people missed eating, relaxing and doing business at restaurants. They agreed that the social atmosphere of dining out was extremely important in their lives, and perhaps they’d underestimated that. I can empathise. What I couldn’t get my head around was the ill-advised thought that to stop hospitality staff from being endangered/endangering others during a respiratory virus pandemic, perhaps robot waiters could be engineered.

“We’ve got the time,” was the general feeling. “Let’s get them invented.”

What a great idea, if all you credit serving staff with is the physical act of bringing your food and drinks to the table without major incident.

Hospitality employment

Furlough or no furlough, in the UK right now, there’s an employment crisis on the horizon. Unemployment rates are pretty much static, but according to the Office of National Statistics, employment is weakening – essentially, there are fewer jobs out there. Many of the jobs that do still exist are within the food, drink and service industries, and where lower-paid and part-time work is common in this sector, pay is still falling despite furloughing through March to May.

As a drinker, and especially if you don’t actually work within the drinks industry, why do you care? And why should you? There are a lot of things for you to worry about at the moment, so if the people pulling your pints or serving your food aren’t at the forefront of your mind, I can probably forgive you. You’ve got your own stuff going on. 

However, it’s worth showing our appreciation for a minute for the people who’ve kept your favourite breweries, pubs, taprooms, cafés and bars running behind the scenes during lockdown, and who are there now, sanitising the tables, throwing open their doors and smiling behind their masks. As Melissa Cole said in a recent piece for this very magazine, look for the helpers. They’ve been working their asses off this whole time, even when their livelihoods were in severe jeopardy. Even now, when they’re still unsure if they’ve got the bank’s support to stay open, or a job to keep going to over the coming months. Insecurity. It’s a killer. According to a release by the Office for National Statistics, the highest rates of suicide tended to be among workers considered to be “low skill”, noting that “ may not be the actual occupation that puts individuals at risk, but features of the job such as low pay, job security and the wider socio-economic characteristics of individuals employed in a particular sector.”

People who work in hospitality are much more likely to experience unfairness at the hands of their employer and the industry they work in. Unlike many cultures around the globe, the UK seems to have continually underestimated the skill involved in kitchen, front of house, bar and pub jobs, and perpetually remunerates them according to that underappreciation. Within her piece aptly titled “Get A Real Job” for food culture newsletter Vittles, journalist Bella Saltiel deftly slides in statistics that slice through the obfuscation: foreign workers make up 43% of the UK’s hospitality workforce. 74% of all waiting staff are officially employed part-time (despite average hours amounting to around 40 per week.) Only 17% of chef positions in the UK are held by women, who comparatively make up 72% of the waiting staff workforce. In her piece she quotes:

“[the] ‘industry of diversity’ shatters when you look at internal hierarchies of power. A carefully curated white facade hides the real face of the labour when back-of-house employees are largely non-EU migrants but the front of house is predominantly white and European.”

An Unofficial Safety Net

“Chatty customers would often ask me what I did on the side. To which, I would insolently respond, ‘I just do this’,” says Bella Saltiel. That “just”. How often have I said that in the past? Since nothing in our lives is certain, how often will I say it in the future?

In my varied career I’ve been a potwash, a kitchen assistant (microwave cook), bar staff for various pubs including an infamous national chain and a local indie, and a waitress and server at a chip shop. The chip shop in particular holds deep memories for me. In debt and about to lose my room in a city I’d moved to three months earlier, before having all of my life plans fall through, I walked in and begged for a job. They gave me one. Is working in a chip shop a dream role for a 23 year old journalism graduate? You forget that stuff when you need the money. Nobody is above a weekly paycheck. Journalism paid me nothing at that time, while fish and chips kept me in rent and food. The team were fun to be around. The customers were, on the whole, pretty respectful. Which was the better career?

Part-time jobs in the food and drink sector are widely seen as an unofficial economic safety net. They’re there if you need a job, any job, fast — but due to the number of roles shrinking across the board, the image of handing an A4 CV across a bar and being thrown an apron in return is a fallacy. Didn’t I just tell you it happened to me? Yes. But that was nine years ago. The expectation remains, however, that if there’s nothing else, there’s barwork, there’s waiting tables. A minimum wage chip shop job might have worked for me at that time. It is not, and nor should it ever be considered to be, an effective replacement for a society that’s actually fit for purpose.

If you do a quick Google search right now to find out how to become more employable, you’ll find blog post after blog post listing the ways you could bag yourself a bar job, collect a ton of valuable skills and then slink off into the “real job” world. You will be hard pushed to find much mention of how those bar jobs can be fulfilling careers in themselves. You are much more likely to find subheadings like “how to make waiting tables sound good on a CV” than any information on how to work your way up to Maitre d’. 

In a recent piece for her newsletter, food writer Alicia Kennedy said: “The flexibility of food service work gives it its pirate-like reputation, which results in both freedom and exploitation, low wages and the ecstasy of earned exhaustion.” 

I feel like this can be extended to describe the long hours and antisocial nature of bar work. Do bar staff enjoy their work? I can’t speak for everyone, but I do. But can it also be the worst? Absolutely. And does it pay well? Hahahaha. Alicia Kennedy’s ironic contemplation of the “ecstasy” of hard work makes me laugh a bitter laugh. Because while we’re told that earning our rent with our sweat and smiles feels satisfying, when your wages are falling and your future is insecure, and people are openly considering whether your knowledge, enthusiasm and heart-beatingly-human body could be swapped out with a Roomba that can also carry plates, it doesn’t feel like you’re tying up the mainsail with a merry band of outlaws anymore. It feels like being taken for granted.

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