Emma Underwood: 'We are only at the beginning of what will be a long, emotional and arduous test of our industry'

The Staff Canteen

Emma Underwood writes about her experience of the Coronavirus pandemic and how it has changed her life and the lives of other hospitality workers.

The week beginning March 16 2020, is one that we will all remember for a long time. Normally, the third week of March is a booming one for the hospitality industry.

Flanked by St Patrick’s Day and Mother’s Day it is typically one of the busiest and happiest times of the year. At Darby’s we were also in the throes of screening the Rugby Six Nations, enabling us to build the biggest team we had ever had.

While for many the coronavirus had already caused a huge loss in business in the prior weeks, it was Boris Johnson’s speech on the Monday urging the British public not to visit pubs or restaurants without enforcing closure that seemingly sounded the death knell for the industry.

We were all left to scramble to take care of our teams and save our businesses without any help from the government. Those four days preceding Rishi Sunak’s announcement of covering furloughed staff were for most of us filled with unimaginable levels of stress and anxiety.

The list of restaurant closures grew. Social media became a hive of fear and despair. My phone was a barrage of messages and calls with friends that owned and managed restaurants desperately discussing ways to survive the crisis.

We all knew that without any help it would be an impossibility. My texts began to be written through tears, and I know that my friends receiving them were responding in the same way. A phone call with my old boss, Gary (Usher), left me shaking.

I woke myself up every morning crying. It felt like we were losing the entire industry, a mass grieving for everything we worked so hard for.

The hospitality industry employs some extremely vulnerable members of society, it has a high proportion of international workers with very little support network. At Darby’s, the most important thing was to make sure our team was protected, so we closed the restaurant doors.

Plans were then made to keep all employees within a tight network offering emotional support and regular food hampers, with provisions for delivery for those who were in isolation. Sunak’s announcement of the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme has alleviated their financial concerns, meaning the team can now just concentrate on keeping themselves healthy and safe.

In the meantime, Dean Parker, the head chef of Darby’s, has been busy providing food donations for the NHS through Cook 19, while we also started a shop through the hatch of the bakery at the side of the restaurant.

We open four days a week serving our guests a selection from our bakery, butchery, wine cellar and a range of meals to cook at home. It has meant that myself and Dean get to stay busy and keep in contact (at a very safe distance) with our regular guests.

Many use it as part of their precious daily exercise allowance as it has become a valuable highlight to what is now a quite mundane way of life. We are only at the beginning of what will be a long, emotional and arduous test of our industry.

Our worlds ‘on the other side’ will be markedly different, as it is devastatingly unclear how many of our businesses will be able to survive. For the moment we will just have to continue to adjust to this different pace, and supporting one another over FaceTime, until we can start to recover.

About Emma Underwood

The Staff CanteenEmma Underwood is the General Manager of Darby's Grill at the Embassy Gardens in Vauxhall. Her previous roles saw her run the front of house at Stem, Where the Light Gets In in Stockport and at Gary Usher's Burnt Truffle in Heswall.

Emma started working with Gary in 2012, when she joined the Sticky Walnut team as a waitress before becoming the general manager at sister restaurant, Burnt Truffle. 

Emma is also part of the TMRW project, alongside food writer Anna Sulan Masing.

TMRW is a platform to help people starting out in their career to grow, learn and connect with each other. It hosts the Chefs of Tomorrow Dinners, front of house initiative The Switch, and a series of talks and panel discussions.

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The Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 9th April 2020

Emma Underwood: 'We are only at the beginning of what will be a long, emotional and arduous test of our industry'