I recently stopped working in a beer bar in Edinburgh. I worked there fulltime for 20 months and loved it. But there are two questions I was consistently asked by my customers that irked me. The first: what are you studying? And the second, often asked immediately after I’d answered the first question: so, what do you do?
While I can’t deny I was a little flattered by the first question (considering the last time I was in a university was a decade ago), I was taken aback that it was the first assumption by many of my customers – that I was working behind a bar, so I must be a student.
The second question, however, never failed to shock and confuse me. What do I do? I’m standing here behind the bar, wearing a uniform, giving you beer advice and pouring you beers. What do you think I do? I work here. Many times the customer would then laugh, perhaps thinking I’d misunderstood them, and say “no, but what do you do?”
That attitude – that bar work is something you do while studying, or as a temporary job while you wait for something better to come along – is not unique to the United Kingdom. It’s an attitude I also encountered while I was studying and working part-time in bars and restaurants in Wellington, and it’s an attitude that seems pervasive across New Zealand.
Ava Nakagawa is the manager of the popular Pomeroy’s beer bar and restaurant in Christchurch, and owner of the cafe next door, Little Poms. She currently employs 20 fulltime staff and 10 part-time staff across the two businesses. She says the fact many New Zealanders don’t think of hospitality work as a legitimate career is demoralising.
“It’s incredibly backward in New Zealand about how it’s viewed as a ‘non-career’ and more of a stepping stone – hospitality is hard, not everyone can do it. The industry suffers for it and everyone that says it’s not [a legitimate career] then are the first to complain about service not being up to par.”
That attitude, unfortunately, is one that even the government shares. Nakagawa says she was forced to jump through hoops to convince the government that one of her staff members from overseas was worth keeping in the country on a working visa. “I just recently sponsored a staff member after her visa ran out as it’s so impossible to find experienced people and was very disheartened with the process. I had to post the job to Inland Revenue to prove we couldn’t find a New Zealander, but as it’s a ‘low-level job’ and despite us requiring experience and relevant knowledge, no experience is required for the job [according to] Immigration New Zealand,” Nakagawa says.
“Basically, there is no value put on professional hospitality staff. For example, the role that I was looking for was required to be able to run a service of 250 covers in weekend and also make coffee one day a week. In the eyes of Inland Revenue and Immigration, anyone could do that without any real experience. It felt like a kick in the guts to hospo, and especially to all my incredible crew.”
Nakagawa says the first change needs to be with how the New Zealand government values hospitality staff. It’s something Lucie Campbell, the operations manager of the Auckland freehouses The Lumsden, Wood Street and Uptown, agrees with.
“The fact the government doesn’t acknowledge [hospitality] as a skill shortage doesn’t exactly help with the perception that it’s not a career option. Even Work and Income are unable to find suitable candidates when we are going through the immigration rigmarole of trying to find suitable New Zealanders for a role,” Campbell says.
Over her three Auckland bars, Campbell employs close to 30 front of house staff during the summer months, with about half of those being New Zealanders. She says she’s fortunate she has good staff retention rates, but still encounters problems when trying to hold on to experienced international workers.
“We are incredibly lucky with the longevity of our team, particularly at The Lumsden which is rare in New Zealand hospitality but a problem we face is when we get great overseas workers who want to stay, but Immigration doesn’t view bar work as a legitimate skilled role.”
Yet we, as beer lovers, expect a certain level of knowledge and expertise from the staff serving us, which doesn’t fit with the prevailing perception that anyone can work in a bar. Campbell says she thinks it’s crucial to have staff with the adequate skills working in specialist beer bars. “We have a unique and flourishing beer scene which, although it seems to us in the ‘craft’ world to be everywhere, is actually still very much in its infancy in the eyes of the bulk of the population.
“Knowledgeable staff are able to speak to the ‘new to the craft’ world customer and guide them in the right direction. There is certainly some hand-holding to be done to stop them walking out – that is all down to education and awareness of the staff,” Campbell says.
“We provide on-the-job education and training and try to ensure [staff] attend tastings and brewery days to immerse them fully into their beer education. It’s amazing to watch, as a lot of our staff start off not even beer fans and now I have 21-year-olds who are part of barrel-aged beer subscription programmes.”
Nakagawa also takes the job of training her staff seriously. “At beer bars, the staff have to be viewed as the front person for the breweries. They’re ultimately the ones that can make or break a beer experience with their knowledge. It’s also incredibly important to have knowledgeable and experienced people from a licensing point of view,” she says.
“We have coffee, wine, beer and food training whenever [staff] feel they need it. [For] every new wine list, our wine person comes in. Rachel from Punky Brewster works part time with us and is amazing at quick refreshers, and our brewer is helpful with training too.”
So what needs to change in order to give hospitality industry the respect it deserves? Nakagawa says the value society, and the businesses themselves, place on staff is crucial.
“Stop viewing [hospitality] as low level. Increase all wages to ‘living’ so it’s not viewed as a ‘minimum wage job’. Providing great job security to retain staff, value them – your business is only as good as your staff – [and] close at Christmas.”
Campbell has a more drastic idea. “Everyone should be forced to work in a busy bar or restaurant for one night and I feel that attitudes would most certainly change.”
After 20 months’ working in a Scottish craft beer bar, I am the proud owner of four calluses on my right hand, having consistently poured cask beer through nine vacuum hand-pull engines during that time. I’ve changed six beer casks and three kegs in the space of five hours. I have cleaned vomit off the men’s bathroom floor and the toilet lobby on a weekday night. I’ve had to call the police on someone who entered the bar drunk and would not leave. I have been grabbed. I have been yelled at. I have been called a “petulant fuck” by a huge man as he leaned over my bar, just centimetres from my face because I asked him not to vape inside. But yet I have loved working behind a bar, most of the time, even if I was earning just a little more than the Scottish minimum wage as a manager.
If we, as beer drinkers, want specialist beer bars, serving quality beer and providing accurate and up-to-date information about what we’re drinking, I think it’s time we start viewing serving beer as a legitimate career.