By Peter Martin  |  Jan 08, 2021

Look back in anguish

This is usually the time of year for quiet reflection, but does anyone really want to look back on 2020? Nobody needs reminding what a horrendous 12 months it has been - and continues to be.

That, of course, is part of the problem. As the legendary Danny Meyer said when explaining why he was not contemplating a sequel to his best selling book Setting the Table any time soon: “I can’t write the book because I’m living it right now. Everyday is a new chapter being written in everyone’s book.”

“We are all experiencing things we have never seen before,” he added. But in that interview during last month’s Peach 2020 digital conference he gave this piece of invaluable advice: “Whoever you are, if ever there was a time to start a diary and to take notes every day, this is it.”

This might not be the time to form a definitive view of the events of 2020. The memories will come later. We are all too much in reactive mode. But we are learning day-by-day, hour-by-hour even, ways to navigate a course forward, to try to keep our businesses afloat and spirits from falling.

What we have learned is to be flexible, to be prepared for the unexpected, and that “sh*t happens”, and on a regular basis. In the long-run that may be the most valuable lesson for all of us, and not just those on hospitality’s front line.

Being fleet-of-foot, and of mind, has always been one of the attributes of the successful entrepreneur, and when we emerge into the new post-vaccine world some time in 2021 we hope, we can be sure there will be plenty of ambitious and adventurous newcomers attempting to build businesses on the food and drink stage.

We are already seeing them, many with flexibility built into their formats too, as with the likes of Escape to Freight Island in Manchester, Zumhof in Birmingham and Shelter Hall in Brighton. Markets and street food are evolving, and look like being important elements of the new market landscape down the road.

But there is a noticeable culture shift in some of the bigger corporates too, driven by the need for fast decision-making. Bureaucratic processes are increasingly being broken down, even if that does add a touch of unwelcome chaos for management. But that’s the world.

Giving more responsibility to GMs and front-line teams, as they are the ones best placed to react to local circumstances, is happening and looks like the right thing to do, even if it does jar with the centralized command-and-control cultures of many of the big brands.

But with the majority of the country’s pubs, bars and restaurants now being forced by tightening Government restrictions into unwanted hibernation, and probably until the Spring at the earliest, survival is the main preoccupation for business leaders until that post-vaccine world materialises.

Anger and anguish are the most prevalent emotions across the industry, whether glancing back at 2020 or anticipating the coming weeks and months. Most of that fury is rightly directed at Government, and the reasons are well rehearsed.

But the despondency that has engulfed front-line teams, especially in areas, and not just London, that have been plunged back into Tier 3 lockdown after a few short weeks of Tier 2 reprieve or in Tier 3 regions that have had hopes of a Tier 2 escape dashed, cannot be underestimated.

Teams had built themselves up for Christmas trading and will now be idle. What politicians don’t seem to realize is that these people want to work, want to deliver a good time for the public. With hospitality having lost almost 300,000 jobs between February and November, and almost twice as many as any other sector, that deflation will also be tinged with fear for their livelihoods.

More redundancies are inevitable, but the challenge for leaders is how to look after and lift the spirits of those going back onto furlough. One of the big lessons of the first lockdown was how teams remained engaged, with management adopting group Zoom calls and other imaginative ways to stay in touch remotely.

This time it will be harder, but maintaining a sense of unity and shared purpose will be vital – and is something that the sector can and should take forward into hopefully happier times ahead. Trust and resilience are virtues that are going to be required in large doses.

The former, of course, is something undoubtedly in short supply when it comes to attitudes to our political leaders. The anger that has been simmering since end of summer is turning venomous. In every part of Britain, hospitality feels betrayed.

Keeping that sector unity in political matters will be just as important as within individual companies. The sense of solidarity across the sector has been one of the plus points to come out of the pandemic.

The Cabinet may be collectively deaf, but there are backbenchers that are sympathetic to hospitality’s plight and need to be kept fed with fresh data and arguments to challenge Government.

Where the industry can find some hope for next year and the post-vaccine world is with the public. Although not all are fans of pubs and restaurants, given their propensity to support enthusiastically lockdown measures, enough of them have shown, both during Eat Out To Help Out month and in the run up to the last national lockdown, they are keen to get out to eat and drink.

Demand for hospitality is there, although understanding how consumer tastes and habits will have changed is important to understand. With delivery and takeaway businesses filling the void and shiny new drive-thrus popping up across the land, how much convenience and the digital-world will shape decision-making remains to be seen.

Consumers will also need reassuring, and some hygiene practices will become engrained in the new experience. As Danny Meyer also said in that conversation with Hawksmoor’s Will Beckett and I: “Safety is the new hospitality….and ambience.” Operators need to be on the customers’ side.

First published in MCA on December 18, 2020 " target="_blank">