A Bartender’s Story: Struggles and Support During The Coronavirus Pandemic

Jason-Candid Knüsel is a London bartender and we wanted to share his story with you.

Like so many, Jason’s world has been turned upside down since the coronavirus pandemic started, he has had many lows but now the clouds have started to part.

Thyme To Cheers Peers (recipe at end of article). Photo by Jason

We, and Jason, wanted to share his story with you not because it is unique, we are hearing of a worrying amount of similar tales, but because it is important to talk about it. It is also lovely to be writing about something positive. About how our industry has helped one of its own. It is also here to inspire people in similar situations and maybe to contain something that can help someone else out. As Jason said ‘If this can help just one person then it is more than worth it’, and this is his Covid story:

The Dream

‘Just before Covid came I was next in line for a promotion at the American Bar. Covid killed my dream.’ Jason said this with a laugh, a comment that may have been devastating a year ago is now just a foot note to his story.

Ever since he started bartending over a decade ago Jason had dreamed of becoming, like so many others, Senior Bartender at the American Bar in The Savoy. Two and a half years ago he got a step closer to that dream when he moved from his home in Switzerland to London to start working at the iconic venue.

Life was good and his dream was becoming tantalisingly close, then at the start of last year, as it did for so many others, everything changed. Still, Jason was unaware of just how big a challenge he was going to personally face.

The American Bar was one of the early casualties of the pandemic, shutting its doors with no plans to reopen since the first lockdown. The staff were offered the chance to apply for other jobs within the organisation, but this wasn’t the bartending dream Jason had. So it was time to move on.

He was furloughed by the Savoy, but when you speak to Jason you quickly learn he is not the kind of person to sit around and let the world happen, he wants to be proactive and so by August he left to pursue his next step. When the lockdown ended he had another job lined up, but after a couple of weeks that didn’t pan out as expected.

So far, so standard for many. It was at this point it started to go south quickly. The second lockdown hit, and due to the move away from The Savoy he was now unable to collect furlough. When he left The Savoy it was brought to his attention he didn’t have an National Insurance number, assuming it was lost he had been trying to track it down, then the realisation hit that he’d never had one.

Jason is very keen to point out this was entirely his fault. He remembers the Savoy telling him when he joined that he needed one but with everything happening with the move to a new city, in a new country and unaware of the importance of an NI number it slipped his mind and never applied. After all he had worked in the UK for years without one. He wants no sympathy for this, in his own words ‘I messed up, not the Savoy, it was my mistake’ this is just the situation he found himself in.

The Nightmare

With no NI number he could access no government support. No access to any of the ‘lifelines’, such as Universal Credit, that were available. To make matters worse, during the pandemic no new NI numbers were being issued. Between September and January he spoke to dozens of people at Universal Credit explaining his situation and trying to get some money to live on, to no avail.

‘I’m in the UK and working in hospitality so I don’t get the best money, as a result I’ve never been able to put any on the side. I was still living a good life, I was still going out for drinks and food at the end of the month if something was left but I didn’t have any savings. So, I was fighting from October on. I was fighting.’

‘We had a shared flat, me and two flatmates. We obviously still had rent to pay. In the first lockdown we had asked for reduced rent, the landlord denied. During this period I asked again and it went down by 20% but after three months it would go up to 120%. It was dropping the costs for the month but not for the whole year.’

He had to find £1,300 a month to pay the bills and put food on the table. He did some consultancy, found brands he could work for which provided some income but not enough. He got help from family and friends, but still it wasn’t enough. He also stopped drinking (except when people sent him things over which he was very grateful for) and stopped eating meat, all to save money, but still without Universal Credit it wasn’t enough. This is where our industry stepped up.

‘The Drinks Trust were supportive straight away without any issues which I really appreciated. They sent £250 straight into my bank account which was simply genius. There was Speciality Drinks and Edrington-Beam Suntory who twice delivered food packages which was great.’

‘I also got help from Dickie Cullimore and Bartender FC. Firstly, they sent a little bit of money, which they had for people who were struggling for food which members had put in a pot. More importantly, for me, was that they supported me mentally by allowing me to play for free without the fees. This kind of thing is what actually keeps you going because you know you’re not alone even if you are struggling. You still have support whether it’s mentally or physically. That was a thing that kept me going.’

With this help he managed to survive until the new year but with another lockdown in full effect it was a worrying Christmas but immediately 2021 brought some good news.

The Awaking 

‘In January I finally got my National Insurance number. It came on the 4th January so that was my Christmas Day. I hadn’t been able find the money for a proper dinner on Christmas Day or to do anything on New Year’s Eve and I was so down with the money situation. I mean it’s a hospitality thing, we don’t celebrate Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve we celebrate afterwards, and that was so proven. It was insane, it was the best day.’

In November Jason had applied for another bit of help from The Drinks Trust which was still in process when his NI number came through. One of the first things he did on January 4th was to contact The Drinks Trust and cancel that second request. ‘There are other people who need the money more and if I have money I don’t need the help from them.’  

You can hear the relief in Jason’s voice even now as he recalls that day. As he has mentioned the mental side is as important as the financial during tough times. How did he deal with this side of things besides his football excursions?

‘I personally think a positive mindset is the key to everything, especially through those difficult times because I feel like if you have a positive mindset and you can manage to see things from a different angle even if they are negative you can really get the most out of it. Even if it’s 99% shit, find that 1% and then go from there. That 1% is just a little light, a little flame, then it is how you can make that flame grow. This kept me going.’

‘I realised I do love hospitality generally, that is where I belong. But I think it is good to look outside hospitality.’ Jason commented when we asked if he any advice he could pass on. ‘It doesn’t mean you have to leave hospitality but perhaps you have an interest or a hobby that you can use in a different way in hospitality in the future on in the short term to make some money when you are not working. I enjoy photography, and this is a tool I now use which helped me when it came to those consultancy gigs I was doing, because I could shoot the drinks as well as come up with the recipes.’

Jason has reached the other side and is now able to look forward to his next adventure in the UK but he will never forget those that helped him when he needed it most.

‘I would love to thank those that supported me and others during this time. People like The Drinks Trust, FC Bartenders, Speciality Drinks, Edrington-Beam Suntory, Healthy Hospo with their incredible online platform and the list goes on. There has been so much positive help from inside and outside our industry. London Cocktail Week during October, which was just great, helping our industry. I would just love to say thank you to all those people who helped during this difficult time.’

Jason wanted to make sure everyone knew how grateful he was, not just those mentioned in this article. He said he had so much support from so many people it would be impossible to get everyone listed here. However, if you helped him out, or indeed anyone else in a similar situation, just know that Jason and everyone else is incredibly thankful.

He, and we, hope that this story provides inspiration and hope to anyone reading this who is suffering as Jason did. His positivity and sense of humour is constant when you chat to him which no doubt helped him greatly. No matter how positive you are there will always be dark days if you are struggling and it is worth remembering there are always people out there to help. Below are a few of the many people out there ready to give advice, help with mental health or just simply a chat which is sometimes all you need.

The Drinks TrustWebsite, Helpline 0800 915 4610 (24/7)
Hospitality ActionWebsite, Helpline 0808 8020 282 (24/7)
Healthy HospoWebsite
The Ben (for Scotland)Website, Helpline 0800 83 85 87
MindWebsite, Helpline 0300 123 3393

Thyme to Cheers Peers

A cocktail Jason designed during the lockdown. ‘Focusing on wasted ingredients, probiotic / gut benefit and low in ABV. The drink is especially dedicated to the relief of the 3rd lockdown, which should hopefully happen in spring (fingers crossed).’

15ml Amaro
20ml Brandy
60ml N/A Lager Beer
60ml Citrus Kombucha
10 drops Hopped Grapefruit Bitters
Thyme Espuma on top
Method: Build in a tall beer glass, serve over a large block of ice and garnish with thyme.