Well, we survived the year of the Wiggles. Barely. With 2022 behind us and lockdowns in the distant rearview mirror, the pandemic carries on but we… just don’t seem to care anymore. I mean, our government is still side-eyeing China, calling to implement stricter testing and border controls on everyone who has so much as transited through there or its territories, while also calling for greater transparency in reporting of infection numbers as a new wave ostensibly sweeps through the country. But beyond that, Coronavirus is just, like, sooo 2020. Perhaps it wasn’t lethal enough, but for those of us unfortunate enough to still need respirators, Ventolin, steroid inhalers and the like months after contact with the 19th novel iteration of the Corona virus, or who were unfortunate enough to have lost loved ones, there is perhaps still a sentiment of wariness as society continues its gentle decay.
There are spikes of hope here and there in that societal entropy, though. It comes through when we witness someone with small dick energy spectacularly fail to troll a Swedish teenager who cares about bigger things, or where we see our businesses are finally giving over some space from their megaprofits for the mental health and wellbeing of their
cogs employees. Sure, there is still political sabre rattling (see above) that has some resounding impacts on the global economic stage, with some superpowers seemingly settling into their senility even as the new jostle for position. There’s plenty of stuff to be worried about if you’re globally minded, if you can’t help yourself, if you don’t have blessings enough to hide the strife, or if you don’t have the misplaced confidence to simply bury your head in the sand.
As a result of all this, hospo continues to function in a weird space. Bars, restaurants and cafes rolling with barely controlled panic as the morning or evening rush turns from the fast paced, all-hands-on-deck operation of a tightly controlled machine into a chaotic and merciless fisting when junior positions simply cannot be filled. “Kids these days don’t want to work,” the clueless Boomers say. “Kids these days want to be paid a fair wage for their labour” the entitled Millennials reply. “Cringe fam, fr” the TikToking Zoomers say as they aspire to Wednesday Addams realness through dance.*
But what does this mean for the industry as a whole? And how much of our society, even now, still runs on those social imbalances? The “I’m doing you a favour by employing you beyond the bookable hours of your international student visa, so I will pay you less for the privilege” attitude? The “this wage is already practically a fortune where you’re from, so I will endeavour to keep it as low as possible until you give up and go back home” approach? The “I will give you six shiny beads for your entire cocoa crop. Oh, and a further sack of remaindered Big Bang Theory bobbleheads for the coffee too” exploitation of producers in developing nations? Or even that old gem “you should be thanking me for making sure you even have a job at all so I’m definitely going to steal your wages if you don’t check every time” approach?**
**Otherwise known as The Ol’ Calombaris Special
I was lucky enough to work for the most part in an ethical space in hospitality, and before the apparent collapse of the global village. The places I ended my career in tended to have an eye towards fair wages, above award, championing inclusivity, with something of an eye towards quality and environmental sustainability where possible.*** Of course, sometimes it’s a little difficult. If you advertise a role in a brewery, for example, 99% of the applicants will be white men with beards. It can be tough to get a proper spread of applicants across the spectra of race, gender, etc. Still, with only one exception, the numbers ran contrary to most fields with management roles at my last workplace all being filled by women, with my co-workers relatively well peppered across borders of gender, sexuality and (admittedly to a lesser extent) race. We tended towards supporting small businesses where we could, the local and the artisanal and the organic.
***My earlier workplaces… not so much
But now, at a remove from the day-to-day, I see the rising costs that infringe on all things, what with periodic collapses of global supply chains, produce left to rot in fields because there is no cheap, exploitable labour in the form of backpackers, immigrants, and international students. The vice-like control that the major supermarket chains hold over the heads of the producers and suppliers that allow very little wiggle-room in some monumentally tight overheads to offer more wages and thus force them to rely on government subsidies to see anything resembling profits even as their product fails to make it to market. The climate change and ruthless profiteering-based exploitation of the environment that threatens our established systems and our understanding of the future of agriculture. And of course, the global pandemic that has irrevocably changed the attitudes of holiday makers, students, immigrant labourers and on the other side, policy makers. All these things affect (among others, obviously) the hospo industry, and all of them put us, as a society, in a place of flux: the very basis of worry.
We’ve seen, over the past few years, border closures restricting the flow of both workers and tourism, leading to gaps on both sides of the floor. We’ve seen international shortages of key products like building supplies, CO2, food basics and many more. The knock-on effects of all these things are still being felt by a reeling industry, it seems. What solace is there on the horizon? I think the only true certainty comes from turning to history – there has always been a hospitality industry, from the beginnings of recorded time. Taverns in ancient Mesopotamia some 6000 years ago, caravanserai along the silk road, fast-food takeaway joints in Pompeii and Herculaneum, thousands upon thousands of coffee shops in England some centuries back, tea houses that are still in operation after a millennium, or plying their trade at the very top of the world. One can only presume that, along with planet-building and sex work, hospitality was there at the beginning of it all.
There was even a time when it was the basis of a good education, with students in American colleges given their stipend of beer to see them through the semester or people earning their degree in London coffee houses that were home to robust debate and the fomentation of new ideas. Hell, pubs, cafes and even at one time hot-chocolateries changed the face of Europe and the Americas, as breeding place for revolutions, the development of paradigm-shifting ideas and even just being a general melting-pot and societal release valve. Beer, tea and coffee provided potable water where disease was otherwise rife and rampant, preventing the further spread of cholera, dysentery and the like even before the standard concept of germ theory was formed, and thus allowing society to advance without the impediment of (some) pestilence. With people paid in beer, or bread, or wine, or olive oil, the primary production of these necessities and the secondary enjoyment of them are inextricably linked. If, as Napoleon would have it, an army marches on its stomach, then it must also be true to say that a society flourishes in its hospitality spaces; be they teahouse, pub or café, restaurant or shisha den.
With this in mind, it is probably fair to say that there is room for a cautious optimism for the hospitality industry ahead. Sure, it may lie at the end of a rocky road and who knows how many years hence, but even the most dystopian, grim-dark, post-apocalyptic futurists still foresee bars and noodle houses operating. Sure, they may only be peddling the roughest imaginable booze, irradiated water, rat-meat burgers and perhaps the odd slice of human, but they are still there. So, if you can swing it, perhaps it’s time to make a booking**** at your favourite restaurant, organise a night out with your peeps, make a little room for another coffee out this week or even do your ‘working from home’ from the bench seat in the window your local. Throw a little support their way before you have to pay in litres of petrol for a grilled slice of the person you had to kill to get the petrol.
****And show up to it