Taking Stock: COVID, Community and Food & Drink

From the ubiquity of delivery apps to the adaptability of food and drink producers, the pandemic has been a whirlwind – here's how we can reap it, and come out the other side stronger than before

Feature by Peter Simpson | 09 Sep 2020
  • Delivery cyclist in Glasgow

Think back to the spring, to a day off work or uni. Bobbing from bar to bar, squeezing yourself into the last seat in a cafe, absent-mindedly sharing food with friends – those heady pre-COVID days are the past which everyone seems to pine for. It’s in the calls to head to the pub, the desire to book in at your favourite restaurant, and it’s the motivation for the UK government’s Eat Out to Help Out scheme. It was used more than 35 million times in its first two weeks – the government wants you going out to eat, and they want it badly enough that they’ll pay for a good chunk of your dinner.

And in one very limited sense, it stacks up, if you approach this as a problem of circumstance. The people in the food and drink and hospitality industries rely on consumption to keep them afloat, but people aren’t consuming as much as they were before. Therefore, provoking more consumption is the best way to help those people get back to the position they were once in, with schemes like Eat Out acting as an extremely lo-fi time machine wedged into a branch of Wagamama.

But this isn’t a time machine, and no amount of tenners off your dinner can change the reality of the situation. Thousands of people have died as a result of this pandemic, many more have faced shielding themselves from society to one extent or another, and even comparatively healthy people are urged to keep their distance from one another for fear of passing on the virus. Welcome to the present day, where the goal is to try and keep things moving forwards and backwards simultaneously. It’s about taking steps towards normality, while acknowledging the massive changes that are afoot and that cannot be ignored – adaptability is the name of the game, and the adaptability of the people who work in food and drink has been on display from the start of the lockdown.

It was in the ad-hoc delivery services that brought creature comforts to our homes at the height of lockdown, the indy venues quickly adapting their processes to make their food delivery-friendly, and the restaurants offering top-drawer meals for you to enjoy at home. It’s the cafes doing spots of on-the-fly interior redesign to set up for a socially-distant grab-and-go. It’s the bars and breweries switching to takeaway and setting you loose with a pint for the pavement outside.

Around 47,000 people work in hospitality in Glasgow, with around the same number employed in the industry in Edinburgh, and the food and drink scene intersects with so many other aspects of cultural life. But while some people work in venues that put their wellbeing above everything else, or put their time towards building genuine communities through food, others work in precarious conditions and less-than-ideal circumstances. This has always been the case, but coronavirus has kicked things up a notch.

Look at delivery. Food delivery was one of the first areas to get the weird battlefield promotion to ‘key worker’ status during the early days of the pandemic. What does the phrase ‘key worker’ mean? According to one delivery cyclist speaking to BBC Scotland, not a whole lot. “Companies have all pushed for us to be classed as key workers. But it's really clear that this is about their interests,” Alice Barker told the Unlocked Podcast, “they haven't actually done anything to make us feel like we're key workers. We're actually quite disposable.”

Delivery services mean individuals going door-to-door in the middle of an infectious disease pandemic, which is a difficult enough situation to begin with. Throw in the fact that if workers don’t take up enough of the work on offer they can be booted from the tech platforms that hand out the jobs, and things get genuinely difficult for workers.

Delivery apps draw on a pool of casualised and semi-anonymised workers, connecting you with the restaurant you want – the idea that a rider is affiliated with a particular venue is abstracted away. ‘Dark kitchens’ take the same approach, but seek to obscure the very idea of the restaurant as a physical location in the community and convert it into a rentable service. A dark kitchen acts as a black box, where your order goes into an app and food comes out the other end, but the intermediate stages are murky at best. In some cases, these are literal black boxes – container-style structures in which staff plug away at as many orders as possible, while all the interaction and camaraderie of hospitality is stripped out of the equation.

As our appetite for delivery increases, the impetus from business is to get food to our homes as easily and cheaply as possible, but the potential effects are obvious. Fewer front-of-house staff roles, tougher circumstances for those who do still have work, muddier lines of transparency and accountability, and a larger role for tech platforms at the expense of the individual.

For those who work in bricks-and-mortar businesses, coronavirus has brought problems that existed before Covid to the fore. Furloughed staff at The Ivy’s Glasgow branch claim they were told they could carry over their holiday pay into next year, before their managers changed their story on the last day of their holiday year. Unite Hospitality took up their case in an effort to turn the situation around. “I know of some people who had 26 days to take and have lost out,” one member of staff told the Daily Record. “It’s a lot of money for people who don’t earn a lot.” The Ivy is owned by Richard Caring, whose estimated net worth is £820 million. 

When Glasgow hospitality group Lynnet Leisure told 240 of its staff that they face redundancy, and that they couldn’t bring a union rep to meetings about that possible redundancy, there seemed to be no need for justification. “We do not believe there is a need for you to have a union representative at this meeting (nor is there a legal entitlement to be accompanied),” they said, according to the Evening Times.

Pizza Express announced plans to close a heap of restaurants and cut more than a thousand jobs across the UK, in a move that was presented as a sad result of the pandemic’s impact on the high street and the inexorable march of Big App. At the same time, it was reported that before coronavirus hit, many of the chain’s restaurants were actually making money. So was this the result of COVID, or the result of a system that allows a private equity firm to lay off hundreds of low-paid restaurant staff to make its balance sheet look a little better?

We don’t know what the future holds, but it’s not as if we haven’t seen any foreshadowing. When it comes to ‘getting back to the pub’, the Aberdeen cluster of cases from August makes for a cautionary tale. More than 230 cases were linked to an outbreak that drew in dozens of pubs and restaurants across the city, which had barely had the chance to re-open before closing again. Luckily, the furlough scheme was still in operation at the time, making it easier for staff to wait out the closure without the fear of going broke, but that might not be the case next time around.

In Germany, there are proposals to extend the Kurzarbeit short-working scheme, similar to the UK’s furlough scheme, to cover workers for two years. Given what we know about both hospitality and coronavirus, why not do this for bar workers, baristas, or anyone in food and drink? Pubs have been flagged up as the most COVID-friendly environments around – full of unrelated and unconnected people slowly removing their inhibitions and desire to distance – so why insist that it’s actually a good idea to open them up? For any government ministers reading this, 'to make economy go big' is not a proper answer.

The most valid reason for reopening comes down to one word: community. We want to go back to our favourite pubs so that they stick around as living rooms for our neighbourhoods. We want to support our favourite restaurants because they provide intrigue and excitement. We want to buy cans from our favourite breweries, or coffee from our favourite cafes, because they help make the places we live more interesting and vibrant. But we also shouldn't accept the idea that there is a direct choice to be made between endangering the health of vulnerable people and losing the places that make our communities so interesting, or between putting workers in short-term peril and long-term jeopardy. Instead, it's vital to show support with the places and people who make our food and drink scene tick, and to offer them help in ways that support safe, ethical practices.

The importance of physical, public spaces has been vital throughout the pandemic – as sites of protest, collaboration and leisure – and it will continue to be vital as we tiptoe into winter. "Residents should feel like space belongs to them and is in their best interest not in the interest of the market,” wrote former Labour MP Laura Smith in Tribune magazine earlier on in the pandemic. “A sense of collectivity could be rebuilt from community centres, cafes, pubs and libraries.” It's this spirit that leads to tiny cafes becoming hubs for community, to hole-in-the-wall restaurants hosting round-the-block queues, and which sees pubs stick around for decades at a time. Food and drink may not be powerful enough to drive away coronavirus, but it can certainly help bring us all together – we just need to make sure we're doing it for the right reasons.