The government's decision to shut down bars, pubs and restaurants and the lockdown imposed on the UK population last week means that most hospitality professionals are now spending their time at home.
To understand how they're coping with the challenge we've launched a brand new series of interviews. For the first in this series, we virtually caught up with Michael Frank Driscoll, head sommerlier at Careys Manor Hotel & SenSpa, New Forest, to talk Disney+, keeping up with wine studies, and the future of hospitality.
Tell us a little bit about the last moments at Careys Manor before shutdown and your current working situation
My last day at work was Friday 20 March. I came in after midday and as a hotel we were preparing for Mother’s Day, with one eye on the news knowing that something big was probably going to be announced, we just didn’t know what. There was a feeling in the air at work that we knew we were either going to be mandated to shut down that weekend or the week after. We’d seen the numbers drop significantly in the previous two weeks and had lost so much business, whether it be spa guests, conference or leisure.
There had been a staff meeting, we were then told we were shutting down operations on Sunday 22 March and that we would be paid up until then, but after that – who knows when we’ll open up again. A feeling of sadness and emptiness was in the room as everyone realised how serious this was.
Throughout the week I had been vocal on social media and so had many of my friends in the industry about the bloodbath of job losses in hospitality that week and there was a feeling it was my turn. I have a pregnant wife, who is also a chef so in the two hours between being told we were shutting down and no more money after March and then being told the government would pay 80% of our wage, it was really stressful and upsetting. I feel more secure now with my employers determined to help us with the government money to pay most of my salary, so I can’t complain.
How's life been since the government ordered all restaurants to close?
I have admittedly treated the last few days as a way to catch up on housework, DIY, spend more time with my wife and laze about on the sofa watching Netflix and Disney+. Though from this weekend onwards, I am consciously organising a routine so I don’t become a hermit and so I can stay half-sane throughout all of this. It’s hard not having much to do, when normally I’m so busy!
I’m spreading jobs out more so I can take longer to do them so I don’t end up twiddling my thumbs. I’m not drinking as much wine as I normally do, perhaps because at home I feel a bit guilty with my wife expecting – it feels a bit unfair on her!
What's your plan for the coming weeks?
Well, now we know that isolation is being more strictly enforced, I will definitely keep up the studying aspect. I will most likely end up drinking through my wine stock at home in the end as well. I’m just taking one day at a time and if I can make any plans in the near future, then absolutely, but my main aim is to study, enjoy the amazing lunches and dinners being cooked for me and sit this out.
I’m... reading and studying with GuildSomm, the CMS study book, and I’m also reading through the WSET Level 2 and Level 3 books as well, to keep everything refreshed.
How's your wine stock looking like at the moment?
So far it’s quite healthy looking, with some South African Pinot Noir staring at me as I type this – I suspect it won’t be there much longer! Anyone that knows me will know how much I love Pinot Noir and I have quite a considerable amount at home. I also have a sizeable amount of Bordeaux that is tempting me as well, so I think I’ll be alright on this front!
What's hospitality's future post covid-19?
It will be interesting to see how the hospitality industry recovers, with some companies being absolutely merciless in cutting their staff – those who worked so hard and got so little back will probably think twice about getting a job in the industry after the way they were treated.
The government on the other hand were too slow and indecisive in what they wanted to do with pubs, restaurants and hotels; by first advising people to stay away rather than ordering a shutdown which came a while later, they caused much panic and mass unemployment when it could have easily been resolved.
Brexit is also around the corner and with this confirmed and our classification as ‘low-skilled’ I think a generations worth of damage has been done in less than a few months.
We've going to be spending weeks in lockdown. Have you got any advice for fellow somms?
I think advice can come from two angles really.
The first, if like me you still have a job and basically sit at home – then great! Keep on studying, do puzzles, crosswords, chill out, keep stimulated and read those wine books at home you [hadn't] time for when you were rushed off your feet. I think it’s also important to stay in touch with fellow peers and especially those who you work with.
Secondly, if you were laid off make sure you get as much help as possible from the government. Talk to your landlords or banks about rent or mortgage payments, talk to all your utility companies about reductions or freezing of payment and cancel any unnecessary direct debits. If all else fails, move in with family or friends, I say this with some knowledge in the area as in 2012, after leaving the Royal Air Force and prior to becoming a commis sommelier, for a month I was homeless and was sleeping rough. You do not need to get in that situation.