[Editor’s note: Here’s a preview of some of the Recovery ‘good news’ reported in Jul/Aug BayBuzz mag.]
All small- to medium-sized business owners – and restaurant owners in particular – are up for stuff.
I remember a few months into owning my first business in Wellington. I realized that the nagging feeling I had – which felt like somewhere between having an important essay due and abseiling down a cliff without a safety rope – was never going to go away. So, I placed it somewhere way in the bottom of my belly where it happily hums away at such a regular pitch that I very rarely notice it.
But these last few months have tested us all in ways that feel completely new. There are always unexpected things happening, but, in the past, they fell into recognizable categories. Staff calling in sick, equipment breaking down … everyone wanting pizza at 6.30pm! But Covid threw us all into a place where at times it became hard to recognize ourselves or our business.
Some of this was positive. Lockdown gave Chris and I the complete break that every business adviser had tried but failed to get us to take. We got to understand what it feels like to have week after week of home-cooked dinners (or in fact a dinner at all) when usually one or two a week is great. And to wake up in the morning knowing pretty much how the day was going to go.
I managed to put worrying about Pipi to one side as, unlike every other problem we have faced in the past, this was completely out of our control. There was nothing (for the moment) we could do so I was able to enjoy the bliss of uninterrupted time with our sons in the bucolic Powkawa countryside in autumn.
But already that feels like something that happened to someone else.
Since the country has moved out of level 4, we have been in a holding pattern.
Level 3 was great for us as we had been using a mobile app in the restaurant for about a year so we could hit the ground running with online ordering.
But when we moved to level 2 and we were at last able to have people in our dining room, things did not go so smoothly.
The nature of restaurants relies on everyone feeling completely comfortable being in close proximity to each other. This is especially true of a space like Pipi, where diners sit very close together and often end up sharing a table and a conversation. So, by the time we had taken out enough tables to ensure that if someone sneezed or coughed no one else would be on the firing line, our room looked and felt very different.
But it wasn’t just the lack of tables that made it feel different, there was still an underlying unease in the room – no one quite knew how they should be behaving or what was expected of them.
I mostly make decisions based on feel. I do allow my head or someone else’s to have some say in the conversation. But ultimately if things don’t feel right then I will not be able to rest until I have changed things until they do.
It was lovely having people back in our dining room for the few days that we opened at the beginning of level 2. However, it felt so odd and once it started to get busy it became impossible to comply with the government’s spacing restrictions. So, we decided to go back to just doing takeaways and deliveries until we were able to run our restaurant on our terms.
I have always been an optimist by nature, but now I am also one by necessity. Every time I turn on National radio there is someone talking about our industry and it is not always pleasant listening. Especially when the word ‘pivot’ comes up in the conversation over and over again. Business owners are all the champions of pivot. We perfected the art of pivoting when that guy on the radio was still in shorts. And sometimes you run out of ways to pivot or to do so would be to uncomfortable for your business or yourself.
And then there are the people who have taken to predicting this and predicting that, but I never understand this. Maybe 50 years ago people behaved in predictable ways, but not anymore. If Covid has done anything it has made an unpredictable market even more unpredictable.
But hey, as I said, I am an optimist. I knew what I was getting into when I opened a restaurant and anyway it is not just a restaurant. Well not to me anyway. It is what I do. It reflects how I feel about life and how I want the world to be.
And I think this is true of a lot of hospitality people. We are all addicted to the adrenaline that is released during a busy service. The mad crazy dance that is required to make sure everything goes as planned and table 3 get their duck confit and their Margarette at the same time and in perfect condition. It is a bit like being in an opening night of a play over and over again … every night is different and you don’t quite know what is going to happen.
And now – fingers crossed and well done to everyone – it looks like we are going to be able to open the doors wide … well at least to our fellow country people. We are all just looking forward to being able to run our restaurants, bars and café’s as we like to run them. And as long as the whole country has not gorged itself silly on sourdough and ‘my food bag’ meals during lockdown and are on a nil by mouth diet, hopefully things will go back to normal very soon.
Actually, maybe going back to how things were is not quite what is required. I began to get a feeling during lockdown and it has been getting stronger as the weeks go on. That it would be a real pity, after this huge thing that is Covid is over, if things returned to normal.
Something has shifted and I feel huge pressure to shift along with it. What exactly this will mean for me and for Pipi I am only just starting to find out, but I really hope that countries, and businesses, as well as individuals, feel the same way.
I feel that one very positive thing to come out of this is that now we have a precedent for dramatic change. If the world can make the huge adjustment it has for Covid, then now we know it can also do this to help slow down and reverse climate change. And while Pipi is not an oil company, I am hoping we can make changes that will make us more sustainable. A huge part of what restaurants do is to gather people together, keep conversations going, and allow people to feel part of a community. And this helps us all to feel inclined to and gives us the strength to not only recognize what needs to change, but also to care enough about each other to do something about making this change happen.
We are in a position where we can look back with a little bit of perspective. If I were to try and sum up my feelings so far, I would say well the hum in my belly sounds a bit like a chorus of Himalayan monks chanting OM. It will not be settling down any time this year I don’t think.
Compared to hospitality operations in some parts of the country that rely on overseas tourists, I think we are lucky and I really feel for them. As for the future; well right now I am concentrating on lots of new dishes for our menu and making Pipi a safe happy, sustainable place to be.