Waitressing can be a difficult job at the best of times. The hours are long, the work is exhaustingly physical and the customers have a tendency to take out on you whatever frustrations have been building in them all week.
I fondly remember one weekend brunch shift when a woman berated me because we only had white sugar for her coffee, not brown; she insisted that this was a breach of “etiquette”. She was definitely not sweet enough.
I took the job last summer as a way to make ends meet while I started a new life in Manchester after moving from London. It wasn’t exactly what I’d trained for in drama school, but it paid the bills and I love being around people. I took the good customers with the bad, and found solace venting with my partner at the end of the day.
Then Covid hit. We endured the closure of the restaurant due to lockdown along with the rest of the country, but from July onwards we were lucky enough to be able to set up an ad hoc outdoor space for customers. It was a relief to be able to keep the place open and all we asked of customers was to register with the Covid app, wear a mask when they entered the indoor area and stay seated as we provided table service. Maybe waitressing would even become easier, I thought, as groups were restricted to no more than six. Surely this would be a simple enough bargain to make in order for us all to stay safe while enjoying a return to some semblance of our normal lives?
Yet since customers have started to stream back through our doors, I have been faced with a different reality. When I greet them and ask them to scan the test-and-trace app barcode, many will ignore me or say they don’t have their mobile phones with them, only to sit down and put their phones on the table. It’s not just my restaurant that faces this sort of attitude; one of my favourite places to eat in the city was given a two-star review by a customer complaining about being asked to register on the app. Apparently the place was “brim with ridiculous rules and concepts”. Tell that to Boris Johnson, love, not the service staff.
As we’ve moved into tier 2 and now tier 3, we have had to be alert to groups of more than one household turning up. Despite the rules, it’s patently obvious that we’re receiving parties of mixed households, unless communal living has really taken off in Manchester. There is only so much we can do: I can’t ask to see their house keys, or quiz them on each other’s preferred breakfast cereal. The rules are unsustainable and shouldn’t be our responsibility.
Then there’s making sure people are wearing their masks to keep each other and staff like me safe. You’d think we were taking away people’s right to vote by asking them to pop a piece of cloth over their face while they nip to the toilet. All of this would be bad enough, but to compound issues, management have decided that the maxim “the customer is always right” endures, despite staff going no further than enforcing government regulations.
When you eventually get everyone seated, you hope that the hard work is behind you. But then comes the shouting across the room to get your attention, and the eyes boring into your head as you finish up serving another customer. I’ve cried in work more than once because of the way a customer has treated me.
In hospitality there’s always that one difficult customer, but nothing could prepare me for life post-lockdown. We all want to get back to normal and it can feel frustrating at times, but this situation has truly brought out the worst in people. If you plan to go out this week, please remember to be polite to your waiting staff: they’re living through exactly the same pandemic as you.
The writer is a waitress in Manchester