“You’se closed mate?” Reflections of a Non-Essential Essential Hospitality Worker


Words || Navishkar Ram

The shutter doors were mostly closed, and the lights were just about to be switched off. I stood by the counter, finishing off the paperwork for the days takings, slowly but methodically working my way through the receipts. There was a crack in the shutter door, only about half a metre wide. 

A group of three suddenly appeared by the gap in the door. “Sorry we’re closed for the day”, says I, now looking up and focusing my attention squarely on the trio. Defiant, as though they didn’t hear a word, they took two steps in. “Sorry mate, we are closed up”, I responded once more, this time a little louder. 

Obstinate to my evidently ‘impossible to understand’ second try they stepped further into the café, now standing before me on the other side of the counter. “Sorry, we…are…closed…” I said once more, only now speaking loudly and slowly. 

“Oh ok then”, the man leading the group responds, and walks out with a curious look still plastered on his face. A look that suggested confusion at the fact that a café with most of the lights turned off and the roller doors nearly shut could ever be closed. 

Imagine for a moment, if you will, that you are the type who is so supremely ignorant of another person’s attempt to communicate, that you can quite literally stare that person in the face, have them mouth a phrase three times, and experience them focus the entirety of their attention on you, and still wilfully ignore them. 

This is the reality of many hospitality workers in Australia. From Karen’s who are more invested in their phone conversation rather than ordering, to Dave’s who threaten to stab you for failing to refund them 70c for an extra coffee shot “you didn’t give them”, the experience of hospitality workers across this great land is filled with examples of encounters with morally repugnant human beings.  

Humans have a tendency to remember threatening or personally negative events. Our habit of internalising negativity may stem from an evolutionary adaptation designed to help us remember and learn from these experiences, and respond to these situations should they arise again. But in saying that, the good and honest folk who make up the bulk of café clientele are overlooked all too often.

Often in hospitality, young and inexperienced individuals are thrown into the deep end and expected to absorb bad customer behaviour naturally and without complaint. This often does not end well – mostly for the worker. 

Supportive cafes and management are needed

My experience, in a supportive, stable café environment, has helped me personally stave off the worst side-effects of continued customer abuse. Part of this has come from recurrently good experiences with my regular clientele – who it should be said, are some of the most incredible people I have ever met.

The mental health ramifications of customer abuse, and the mental wellbeing of hospitality workers is a conversation that is desperately needed right now. It’s a dialogue that has remained under the surface for too long. 

Anyone who has ever worked in a customer facing role knows all too well that the customer is often wrong. That does not mean to say workers should provide poor service, indeed it amplifies the need for more effective communication and tailored service provision. 

Yet what most customers fail to appreciate is that workers in hospitality (often poorly paid, overworked, stressed and physically exhausted) experience abuse frequently. Sydney is notorious for its fast-paced lifestyle, this same lifestyle has fuelled a ‘rush-economy’ which prioritises speed above all else. This includes our daily interactions with baristas, waiters and other hospitality professionals. We expect fast service, low prices and good food and drinks. 

Only, quality takes time. The only options available to you, from our POV are:

  1. Good food, service and quality = expensive and time consuming, expect to wait a little while, and you will get service with a smile. 
  2. Bad food, service and shite quality = cheap, and quick, expect at least three hairs and a used Band-Aid as an added extra, absolutely free!
  3. Atrocious food, non-existent service, infinitesimally bad quality = very, very cheap, lots of abuse hurled AT you by staff, long wait times, a couple of pubes in your soup, and coffee that literally tastes like ground dirt. 

Realistically of course, cafes will do their absolute best to provide you with a memorable experience. 

A discussion that is sorely needed

COVID-19 has refreshed our national conversation about mental health. It is likely that the state of mental health will deteriorate further for hospitality workers given the uncertainties regarding their employment. Our customers too, face uncertain times as jobs are shed by the cart-load, and hundreds of thousands of Australians face the very real threat of unemployment. 

Personally, I have noticed an upsurge in positive customer behaviour over the past two months; people have gone above and beyond to help their local businesses. Small, yet meaningful exchanges, that extra smile, that little tip, the “how have you guys been” all makes a change in our lives as workers in this field.  I hope, perhaps naively, that this dramatic change in behaviour will be sustained long enough to affect permanent relational change between workers and customers. 

Maybe then some bad eggs will learn to listen to the narratives of the people they consider ‘beneath them’- you know, the very same people sustaining the economy right now. The non-important, underappreciated non-essential, essential hospitality workers.