The Hospitality Hydra
I finally arrived at the back of the hotel after fighting my way through the prelude to rush hour. I was slightly late and had trouble finding the temp agency supervisor, who was not outside to let me in. I managed to get in by liaising with the guard, since the fingerprint identification they used for the steel turnstile prevented me from entering as any other employee would. I found my uniform quickly and struggled as I did last shift, to find two pairs of gloves that would fit my hands. We needed two pairs as the plates would burn our hands otherwise. They still burned our hands if we didn’t carry them with a cloth underneath. We then signed up with another staff manager, who assigned us our table and group number.
Group A served once side of the banquet hall, while group B served the other side. Each group was led by a supervisor, who we would follow using ‘snake service’ to serve each table completely and as fast as possible. I was assigned the same partner as last time, who was essentially my in-house counterpart and whose shift went on until the end of the event. As he had shown me what to do last time, I set to work polishing the cutlery immediately and helping set up the table.
Just as before, the wait staff supervisor went through the instructions for the night. The tone was paternal with a feigned professionalism. He did not expect much from the agency workers beyond being able to follow his rather confusing instructions. He went through the menu, while struggling with some of the vocabulary in a thick Italian accent. We then joined the in-house staff in the backroom of the banquet hall where we were given another set of instructions on how to behave and serve. This was common sense, but we were generally treated like school children, who would just mess everything up if our hand wasn’t held. This encouraged a mood of rebellion, with many temps making jokes behind the backs of supervisors throughout the night.
The shift began with a group of us assigned to the drinks reception where we were instructed to hold trays of drinks and serve the banquet attendees as they arrived. We stood in a line and at the doors to hand drinks to everyone and take them away. Apparently at a 5 star hotel, people must always mediate between guests and the things they consume. Nobody must ever be allowed to serve themselves.
There was a group of blond women walking around during this time handing out programs. I managed to pocket one of them and read it after we finished serving drinks. It included information about the event, which was an awards ceremony of sorts for London realtors and estate agencies. This merely enhanced the vast gulf between those of us who were serving and the guests themselves, who arrived clad in suits and gowns that looked as if they would cost the equivalent of a years rent in London. The irony was not lost on my fellow servers, and glances were exchanged as the revelers swelled. Afterwards, we commiserated over our own housing woes while forming two straight lines in the kitchen, ready to begin serving the first course.
The first course was served the same as the previous shift. A snake service that began in the kitchen. We stood in one long line, slowly trodding forward to the large steel counter top behind which several chefs were rapidly pushing plates out, forming grid-like rows and columns from which we were to pick up the starters three at a time. As soon as our plates were gathered, we would each rapidly quicken our pace from trod to trot, exiting the kitchen and weaving through the tables and chairs like the Hydra of Lerna. This was no easy feat, however it was an extremely efficient way to rapidly serve several hundred guests. This ‘snake service’ repeated with each course. Each server was responsible for their own table, yet we were paired with a non-agency hotel staff member and worked as a team. As a team we cleared one table at a time, adjusted the cutlery for each course, served the desserts, coffees, and chocolates at the end.
During this shift, several things went wrong in the kitchen and there were not enough main courses ready at the proper time. This provoked a high degree of stress from all of the top managers, who then proceeded to shout, slam doors, throw things and of course, blame the agency workers. Both in-house and agency staff were brought into a room after the shift and reprimanded for what to many of us, seemed a false claim – that we put the sugar out too early.
This rather minor detail served as an excuse for the wait staff manager to berate us and tell us how expendable we were. His tirade included lamenting how much money they spend on staff to do the job properly and our seeming lack of competency or enthusiasm for his standards. He seemed to forget that literally everyone in the room (roughly 70 of us) were all paid either the minimum wage or a few pence above it, in one of the largest 5-star hotels in London.