THE coronavirus pandemic has brought the world to a standstill for the better part of a year, but one area of business which has been able to keep its doors open to the public is the fast food industry.
However, frustrated staff in one Sunderland outlet, who have worked tirelessly over the last 12 months to keep the public in fried chicken, say they have been subjected to abuse from customers, despite them and their employer working hard to keep the public safe.
Aaron Morris – himself a fast-food restaurant worker – investigates.
KENTUCKY Fried Chicken, on Wessington Way, Sunderland, which operates under the Splendid group, is one of the many outlets across the North East which has stayed opened despite Covid-19.
And while staff have had support from the company to allow them to operate in a relatively safe manner, they say it is the customers who regularly fail to abide by the rules and regulations.
Regulations set out by Prime Minister Boris Johnson state that people must wear a face covering in a contained public place such as on public transport or in a supermarket, and failure to abide by this without proof of exemption can lead to a £200 fine issued by police.
But customers often arrive without the correct PPE – putting the lives of staff and other customers at risk – says Belinda Craig, a team member at the KFC on Wessington Way.
(KFC on Wessington Way)
“People don’t wear masks,” Belinda told SR News, frustrated at the ignorance of customers.
She added: “They just walk in and think it’s okay not to [wear a mask], and then that puts us at risk for them getting some chicken.
“I’ll say ‘Excuse me, would you like to put on a mask?’ and then they’ll say ‘No’, so then I’m like ‘Would you like to leave or put on a mask please?'”
Belinda also recalls a time during the pandemic when a fellow co-worker suffered harrowing abuse, after asking an aggressive and uncooperative customer to be considerate of others.
“There was someone who used to work here called Beth. She asked a guy to put a mask on and he started arguing with her, and it escalated. In the end he was saying ‘I’ll wait for you on your break in the car park’, and then he posted online after it, saying ‘she said that she wanted him to die’… all over putting a mask on,” said Belinda.
SR News caught up with Beth for an exclusive interview (see below), in which she recalled the incident and discussed the pressure and atmosphere in the workplace that it created.
She said: “This one family came in without masks on and I asked them politely to go through the drive-thru if they didn’t have a mask, to follow the Government guidelines, and the man of the family was really rude about it. He started getting angry, saying things like ‘I have asthma, so do you expect me to die by wearing a mask?’, and he just walked out, that was it – that was the last time I seen him.
“Then a couple of days later my auntie sent me a screenshot of a Facebook post, saying that I told him to die basically, really twisting the situation.”
Megan Thompson is another staff member at the KFC in Castletown, and she recalled an incident last month – in which a customer came in throwing chicken all over the shop and making a scene.
“A man came in and approached the counter complaining about his chicken,” Megan told SR-News, adding; “He was saying he got dark meat when he wanted white meat.”
“He was really aggressive and had his key in between his fingers,
“I was scared standing and watching the situation, so it pushed me to get the manager as I didn’t know what he was going to do, especially as he was standing with his key in his hand.”
Although the Splendid franchise says it has done everything possible to protect staff, it has been unable to protect them from the abuse of punters who refuse to abide by national regulations on a daily basis.
Megan suggested that maybe the hiring of on site security would amend these drastic situations, and prevent further escalations in the future.
“I think maybe a security guard would have helped to cool the situation faster,” she said.
(Thomsen Retail Park in Castletown; home to KFC and McDonalds among others)
Earlier this year, Northumbria Police issued a statement, reminding the public that “everyone has a role to play” in stopping the spread of Covid-19 and saying: “We have no desire to use the formal powers now made available to policing, but it’s right that we’re able to enforce against those who disregard these measures and put people at risk.”
In response to our investigation, Northumbria Police told SR News: “We would investigate threatening language or behaviour at a fast-food restaurant as we would in any other part of the community.”
In Megan’s case, the police were informed of the incident – and they came to resolve the situation instantly, de-escalating the situation while escorting the man off the premises to protect staff.
“The police were called to calm him down,” Megan told SR News, adding; “They told him to delete video footage he recorded – as he wasn’t allowed to record on KFC’s premises.
“They got him a refund and then they asked staff for their account.”
There seems no doubt that a ‘toxic’ environment has been created at some fast-food outlets, as the result of the anti-social behaviour of a few customers, who staff say have demotivated them, left them feeling under-valued and reluctant to come to work.
So, the next time you’re at a fast food chain for a non-essential service, you might like to spare a thought for the hard-working staff behind the counter.