Martin O’Connor is a FOH veteran with 30 years experience in this beautiful industry. He’s also a hospitality consultant who recently lost his job in light of COVID-19. We checked in with him from his home in Glenelg, South Australia.
1. You lost your job recently, Martin, I’m sorry. If you don’t mind telling us, how quickly did it unfold?
It all happened quite fast. I was on a break between lunch and dinner service when the news came through that Tasting Australia had been cancelled. That moment is when it really hit me how serious COVID-19 was. I was aware of the spread of the virus globally, but sitting on a park bench and reading the official press release from Tasting Australia was like having the stuffing knocked out of me. I was in a state of shock. The news of all events larger than 500 being cancelled then came through and that is when a real panic set in. Not just within the restaurant industry but the community as a whole.
Large amounts of our events and functions were cancelled and we saw a significant drop in restaurant bookings.
Five days later my employers made the right decision to close the business and transition into a takeaway/delivery mode, both for the safety of its staff and guests. They held a farewell lunch and made the official announcement to all of us. While I personally was gutted to be unemployed, I was in awe of how well my employers handled the situation.
2. How do you see hospitality on the other side of this, particularly in the world of service. Will we need a different kind of FOH style?
It is so hard to know at this point in time as we are in a position of near complete lockdown and the uncertainty of when the other side will be. Sadly, there will be restaurants that won’t survive this and those that do will face a completely unknown landscape.
It is expected that sitting at a table in a restaurant will not be a reality for anywhere between three to six months. For the right now, restaurants with the assistance of the Job Keeper package, are now redefining their business models and transitioning into takeaway/delivery businesses to survive and keep staff in employed.
I read on The Grow Assembly Instagram page that the word restaurant derives from the French verb restaurer, meaning to restore. I was never aware of that and it warmed my heart. I believe restaurants are not just places to enjoy a meal and a drink but somewhere that we connect together as human beings and share our joy and our pain. I have always felt strongly that restaurants can provide a healing to people, if only for a brief period of time, and that will never change.
To predict how service will change and what sort of FOH style will be in place is unclear. There will still be spacing laws in place when restaurants do re-open, between tables and between FOH staff and guests. This will affect service styles dramatically as the normal intimate closeness between guest and FOH staff won’t be the same. But I remain optimistic that we will adapt and that true service will never die. One can convey hospitality to guests with a smile just as strongly as speaking with them in an up close and personal manner.
FOH are resilient and although many of us are now unemployed and our industry shut down for the foreseeable future, we are all seeking ways to adapt what we do and how we will deliver service on the other side.
People will always need restaurants and we will find new ways to ensure that they will always have them. I believe that whatever our concepts were of restaurants before this virus, they will not be the same after it is over.
It is not the end of service for FOH, merely the end of service as we used to know it. I believe in my soul that service on the other side of this will be something that will help restore us all as we learn what is important for the future of humanity during this mess.
3. How are you and your family?
We are all doing so much better than a couple of weeks ago. My wife is now back to good health and has returned to work. This is a huge relief to me as she was quite sick with stress-induced stomach problems. I have now become the caregiver in the family and that is something that brings me great joy.
Due to the nature of restaurant hours I missed out on so much with my family over the years.
My children are all well and our pregnant daughter Belle is doing very well. She had an appointment with her doctor yesterday and all is well with her and the baby. Preparing to become a Grandad also brings me great joy and while these are tough and uncertain times it has brought us closer together than we have ever been before. I remind myself of this on a daily basis and realise how truly blessed I am. It sustains me. It gives me strength. It gives me hope.
Interview: April 6