London awakens: How it feels to work in the bar again
London is buzzing again. Or is it? Are we going back to normal, and what is normal nowadays? Ferdinand Guizetti, Bar-Manager of London’s celebrated Untitled Bar, with his impressions of his first weeks back behind the stick.
It´s the 11th of April, a rather grey Sunday in London. So far nothing unusual. However, there is something in the air. It feels like the last day of school before the summer holiday begins. Even though for bartenders, baristas, and waiters it´s more the other way around. There’s more movement in the city and people are smiling, which naturally did not occur too often during the past months – both because that’s just the way Londoners are and because it has been a rough winter. But now it seems like London is ready for spring, ready to wake up, and ready to recover. Recover from months of lockdown, of isolation, and of existential worry for an industry that lies at the heart of this usually so vibrant city: hospitality – the industry that I moved to London for.
So, here we go. It´s one day before bars, restaurants and cafes are officially allowed to open their outdoor spaces in the UK. The first time Untitled Bar opens since the middle of December 2020, which truly feels like a lifetime ago. In December we were suddenly allowed to open for three weeks after we had been shut down for four weeks, just to be shut down again a few days before Christmas. Before that hospitality had been open for four months after a four-month lockdown. I guess you got the point. Politics in the UK is about as consistent as the weather in London. The only difference is that the weather looks more promising for the months ahead. After months of ups and downs, things will finally get back to normal. Kind of. Masks are mandatory for staff and for guests until they sit at their table. One meter distance between tables, rule of six or two households outdoors. Guests have to sign in with the NHS track and trace app upon arrival. Other than that, back to normal. But what is normal? To make our guests feel comfortable we go the extra mile and measure their body temperature and offer hand sanitizer and face masks, just in case. But will all that actually make our guests feel more comfortable or will it add to their frustration? We wanted normality and not more rules and restrictions, right?
Back to zero
Re-opening a bar after all these months feels like opening a venue from scratch. Most of our products are expired, parts of our staff didn´t come back from Italy, Greece, or Slovakia after the lockdown. Last time we had guests was around Christmas time when the UK was still part of the EU. Now, we´re only operating in the garden and it´s difficult to find good staff with a UK visa. Everything back to zero. So, after two weeks of deep cleaning, training new staff, ordering, and prepping, the team is sitting together in the garden where we will welcome our first guests tomorrow at 5pm. For the first time in four months. We are brainstorming whether we thought of everything, ordered enough stock, and have enough heaters in the garden. We go through every little step of the process again and again: How do we greet our guests? What hygiene procedures do we have in place? Have we checked if all systems work? After we went through everything for the third time, and even though I´m sure we will have forgotten something, we call it a day. Lying in bed the night before the big re-opening, I feel reasonably confident but still slightly worried. The bookings looked good but what if they don´t show up? Londoners have the tendency to book for a couple of places and decide on the spot what bar or restaurant they feel like going to. Or what if too many guests show up? After being closed for so long, we need to seat as many guests as possible without risking too extensive waiting times for drinks or food. And of course, we have to adhere to the distance regulations between tables and guests…
15:00pm, 12th of April 2021 – It´s so good to be back
Two hours before opening I realize we didn’t check if our card machines work. I knew I had forgotten something. We never had any issues with them, so I´m sure they´re fine. I´m trying to take a card payment anyway – no connection. We retry, reset, and reconnect. Nothing works. Calling the support hotline it is. Almost two hours and around twelve grey hairs later we are good to go. Everyone came five hours before opening and we still only managed to finish all the prep just in time. Classic.
The first guests arrive right after opening our doors: “It´s so good to be back!” – “It´s even better to have you back!” is the answer that is supposed to imply that we remember a face that has been at our bar only once before – and that was fourteen months and three lockdowns ago. There are plenty of familiar faces as well though and that feels great!
Making the first couple of drinks feels bizarre. All the movements are rusty and less smooth than they used to be. Holding a tray, talking to guests, especially seeing that many people in one place seems unreal.
Around an hour after opening our doors all the doubts and worries are gone. Turns out we pretty much thought of everything and the team did a great job setting up and prepping. Our guests seem to feel comfortable. One group orders a round of Mezcal right upon arrival and stays all night, laughing and enjoying themselves as well as our drinks and food. Others move their chairs further away from other tables, even though we already keep more space than required, silently having two drinks and leave.
Late night celebrations
Despite the expected hiccups the first night went great. On the way back from an exhausting but very rewarding first shift, I´m cycling through Shoreditch, known to be London´s urban art and fashion centre but also notorious for hosting bachelor parties that get out of hand and end up in physical arguments or involve hip Londoners throwing up on the sidewalk. Today, the vibe is good. People are so happy to be out again they´re celebrating in groups of ten and more, crumped together at one table, making out with strangers, and trying to explain to the bouncer eloquently why they still should be allowed to have one more shot of Tequila. I realise that our hygiene measure are definitely above average. The buzz is returning to London, and I ask myself whether I missed these nights. I think I did. London is a crazy city, home to people from all walks of life, and it’s nice to see these people on the streets again. It’s nice to be back.
13th of June 2021 – Back to life
Now it´s mid-June and hospitality is allowed to be open both outside and inside. There are still plenty of regulations like the ones regarding the maximum number of people allowed to sit at one table but other than that, things feel quite normal. There are still new guests that say that it´s the first time they´re out since the first lockdown. It´s humbling that they come to Untitled as their first bar experience in a year and even more so if they thank you for making their first night out so special. These people have not been out in over a year because they feared the virus. If they tell you that they enjoyed every minute and felt super comfortable and safe while they were with us, that means we´ve done a few things right.
It´s a Saturday night and again I cycle home through Shoreditch. It’s warmer now and it’s not grey anymore. I can hear strangers having an argument because someone stepped on someone else´s white Balenciaga slippers. A group of very chatty and very drunk, high-heeled girls nearly runs into me. Just your usual night here. London truly came back to life, although it’s still a slow and uncertain recovery. I talk to friends and family in Germany where bars and restaurants are just opening again, and I smile. I am looking forward to Germany and the rest of the world to slowly awake and feel alive again – just like London.
Foto: Untitled Bar