How did you first hear about The Restaurant That Makes Mistakes?
Channel 4 were looking for an expert who knew how to operate a restaurant and one of the show’s producers, whom I had worked with on the Great British Menu, suggested my name. And as someone who loves to teach and train people, I just couldn’t say no. Plus this project was based in my hometown of Bristol, which gave me the opportunity to engage directly with my local community.
Have you ever been affected by dementia personally?
Although I’m almost certain my grandad had dementia, I’m fortunate enough to not have had any direct experiences in my life so far. What I have become acutely aware of whilst doing this project, though, is that if you haven’t been directly affected by dementia yet, at some point you’re going to be. It could be a loved one who is diagnosed with it, a work colleague, or you may get it yourself. And if I’m honest, it’s fucking terrifying.
What did you learn from the experience?
It showed me that dementia is a subject we need to be more open about, in order to encourage society to adjust. 20 years ago no one was willing to talk about cancer, and that’s how I think many interact with dementia now. But if we have a more open conversation and continue to bang the drum through schemes like this, then we’ll succeed in getting the word out.
From a professional standpoint, how do you approach this project?
I started by sitting down and talking to the people involved. I asked them what they needed, and I listened to them. Then at the end of the first day’s service, we had another discussion to see what adjustments needed to be made to help them further. In my eyes, this is a courtesy you should extend to all your staff. Within reason, obviously. Your staff must work within the parameters of the business you run, but I think every company should be adjustable and take the time to listen to the people they employ.
How did you adapt the service?
Much of the focus was on intensive training methods. We would write down each stage of the service, from greeting the customer as they came in to getting their coat when they left, and we would get the staff to use that checklist as a reference point. Then we put several measures in place to help make the process easier. There are so many different factors that people with dementia must confront, and everyone’s different. So it was mainly about listening to what they needed and adapting the restaurant accordingly. This included making sure the restaurant wasn’t excessively noisy, and designing the décor in such a way so as to ensure the staff were never confused. And then we used labelling, not just for the food and drink, but also the glasses, plates and cutlery. For the kitchen staff we clearly marked any item that posed a risk, and assigned each station its own colour to ensure there was no risk of cross contamination.
What was the biggest challenge?
Making sure all the staff were trained to the right level, and I’ll confess I was surprised at how well it went. Before I went in on the first day, I was worried that the whole thing would just blow up in my face. But the team were brilliant. They worked hard, received the right support, and the outcome made me incredibly proud of all they achieved.
What would you say to restaurateurs who are apprehensive about adopting this initiative in their own restaurants?
I would say watch the TV show, and see just how easy these changes are to make. I’ve always agreed with what Danny Meyer said in his book that your staff should always be your number one priority. If you look after your staff, treat them well and have a great sense of community within your restaurant, then your customers will always be looked after. If people watch the show and find out more about the Alzheimer Society’s Dining4Dementia scheme then the message will grow, more people will get involved, and the project can continue to develop in the years to come.
Dining4Dementia saw 10 restaurants from across England and Wales inviting people with dementia to buddy up with restaurant staff and volunteer front-of-house on the 18-19 May, demonstrating that with the right support and some small adjustments, people with dementia can still contribute to the workplace and learn new skills, even in fast-paced environments. It also kick-started the Alzheimer’s Society’s Dementia Action Week (20-26 May), which aims to help include people with dementia in society by tackling the stigma and ending the awkwardness around dementia. The Restaurant That Makes Mistakes will be broadcast on Channel 4 later this year.