As operators and workforces still reel from the uncertainty of the last two years, the explosion of Omicron infections is decimating rosters across the country. Surging cases and a nationwide testing debacle have resulted in countless hospo staff being furloughed across the sector, leaving venues with few options. As nerves fray on both sides, those in the industry are imploring punters to “be kind”.
As Broadsheet reported in November, staff shortages have been a huge issue for the hospitality sector since early in the pandemic, as it lost access to tens of thousands of international workers. Now, with Omicron spreading at increasing speed, operators once again find themselves caught short, regularly losing what staff they have left to isolation requirements and illness.
For those venues that have managed to stay open, the scene isn’t pretty. Workers have reported hostility and frustration from customers in response to service changes, and say dated expectations and grumpy guests are making an already excruciating period harder to bear.
Venue owners and staff have taken to social media to lament the current state of affairs and implore patrons to make sure they not only bring their mask, but their manners, their patience – and, in some cases, pandemic-adjusted expectations.
Mike Bennie, co-owner of P&V in Newtown and Paddington, says that while “customers are mostly very understanding of rapid change in the hospitality landscape” he and his staff “have encountered a sense of impatience and lack of understanding at times”. That sentiment was echoed by a number of operators Broadsheet spoke with. Many are grateful for the business and desperate to provide the best service possible, but they’re also hopeful patrons can see the bigger picture.
Beyond limited stock, staff and opening hours lies a “matrix of complexity”, Bennie says. From small venue owners to conglomerates, the issues impacting daily trade are both complex and compounding, running the gamut of ever-changing public policies, supply-chain issues and chronic staff shortages. With government support retreating, cases exploding and a general mood of crankiness and frustration in the air, operators have little choice but to take each day as it comes.
For Matteo Toffano, executive chef at Carlton’s King & Godfree, looking at his phone in the morning now brings a sense of dread. “Every day I wake up and I am genuinely nervous to look because every text message is about one of my staff members, a friend or colleague that is sick,” he says.
“[There is a] need across the board to understand the massive pressure hospitality members have gone through over the past two years, especially the last three weeks of the Omicron surge. It’s not only affecting our business but also our personal lives.”
“We don’t want to disrupt any of our services, but if we do, it’s due to necessity,” he tells Broadsheet. “Some tough calls to close certain days or reschedule reservations might have to be made. We’ll only do it when we know that our guests are going to be better off joining us another day when the atmosphere is right and the team can serve you happily and healthily.”
Shannon Martinez, of Melbourne plant-based empire Smith & Daughters, recently reposted a message from Victoria’s first lockdown, reminding patrons that leaving a positive review can mean a lot. She says she tends to overlook the power of a good online review, and instead usually shows her affection for venues by simply frequenting them over and over.
Going out of your way to spread some love costs nothing, she says, and it can “mean the world” to businesses doing it tough. “Go and do your favourite bars and restaurants a favour. Go and leave some positive online reviews to thank them for all the amazing experiences they’ve given you.”
As policies continue to change, and a weary public tunes out to restriction details, some venues have taken matters into their own hands. The Lincoln Hotel in Carlton has announced a suite of entry conditions, including group booking limits and table service only.
“Whilst some of these rules are not yet mandated by the government, these are self-imposed rules that we have put in place in the hope that we can stay open so our team can carry on working and getting paid,” said The Lincoln in an Instagram post.
Behind the scenes, stress levels are high. Those on the service frontline are facing challenges of their own. For Eliza Wolfgramm, a more-than-20-year veteran of hospitality and front-of-house staffer at Melbourne institution the Supper Club, there are a few practical things that would make her shift easier – starting with how you show your certificate.
“Turn it up the right way, don’t wave it from more than a metre away, turn up the brightness and do it one at a time,” she tells Broadsheet. “If you want to participate in bar life, that’s what you’ve got to do.”
Raph Rashid of Melbourne’s Taco Truck, Beatbox Kitchen and Juanita Peaches, agrees. “Don’t try to negotiate around the vax certificate. If you don’t have it or the medical exemption, then please don’t try and plead with us. We didn’t make the rules, we are just trying to do what we do.”
Toffano reminds us, “ultimately we are all in this together”. More than likely the staff of whichever venue you attend are just as stressed and exhausted by the pandemic as you are. “So please try to be patient with hospitality staff, they are trying their best to give you a great experience every day, despite it all.”