Shaun Hill’s Michelin-starred restaurant, The Walnut Tree Inn in Llanddewi Skirrid, near Abergavenny, in Wales, is closed once more. There’s no local lockdown, no government-enforced hiatus - instead, the place has been hit by a staff shortage. With usually a team of eight in the kitchen, on Saturday Hill was down to just three, relying on ex-chefs and old friends to step in and help carry out service.
“Two of my more skilled troops left after lockdown as we’d been closed for five months and they began working on other things,” Hill says. “Then, a full diary combined with fewer staff and a heatwave meant some of my remaining chefs started to crack - a couple took sick leave for stress, leaving me short. I managed to get a few old staff back, but after a week I decided to cut my losses and close.” If his chefs return, Hill hopes to reopen again on August 4.
The losses he faces are significant: the restaurant makes a £30,000 turnover each week, and the impact on customers is great. “We had a wedding anniversary dinner for nine booked this week, and we’d already bought in all the wine,” Hill explains. “But they wouldn’t have been happy if the food wasn’t good, and I couldn’t guarantee our usual standards with the staffing situation I faced.”
Hill is far from the only restaurant owner experiencing problems with staffing. Around the country, restaurants have had to reduce opening hours or close temporarily due to staff shortages, with job vacancies in the sector now the highest since records began.
While many cite the ongoing ‘pingdemic’ as the source of their shortage woes, with staff members having to take time off work to isolate following a test and trace alert, Hill says he has struggled to recruit staff in the first place - and for one key reason.
“The problem lies in Brexit,” he stresses. “We are a trade that has for decades relied, in part, on people coming into this country to do it. We are all drinking from the same pool, and that pool has suddenly run dry. Staff shortages following Brexit were inevitable.”
Having posted a tweet about his restaurant’s latest forced closure, Hill was bemused to see a statement from the Home Office on a BBC news article in response, which stated that companies should not rely on “cheap labour from abroad”. The barb angled at the hospitality industry stung.
“What an insult to skilled chefs and waiting staff,” he says. “You wouldn’t call a foreign nurse ‘cheap labour’, would you? And I can tell you, my staff are not cheap. I employed a Swiss restaurant manager and a Czech pastry chef, both of whom were fantastic, and paid well. All my other staff are Welsh.”
As a true veteran of the industry with 50 years of cheffing experience, Hill is pragmatic about his current situation. “These things have a habit of sorting themselves out. At the moment it’s very difficult, but I’ve had a lot of support from my customers. The key is to be open and honest about the problems you are facing; don’t hide behind ‘unforeseen circumstances’. Tell people what is going on.
“Of course, there have been some exceptions. One thing we trialled before closing was to close for service on a Tuesday, allowing us one extra day to prep the food. One disgruntled customer emailed me to say he worked a five-day week in an office, and that I was lazy for closing on a Tuesday. Some people don’t realise that chefs don’t turn up an hour before service and take some stuff out the fridge; we spend most of that day putting stuff into the fridge. The brioche, sauces and petit fours; they all need prepping beforehand, and with fewer staff, there’s more to do.” Hill didn’t respond to the criticism (“there’s no point getting excited about these things”), but admits “it does become tempting.”
Hill hopes to welcome back an ex-employee permanently, and with staff coming back from sick leave he thinks the kitchen will soon be back up to running order. Long-term, however, he believes the industry needs a change of image. “Quite simply, if we are to attract more Brits into hospitality, the job needs to be better. We need to offer better hours and better pay. Of course, the flip side of this is that with food prices rocketing, restaurant owners are caught between a rock and a hard place, the consequence likely being that restaurant prices will have to increase.”
He remains confident that the industry is a desirable one. “I really do think now is the perfect time for anyone thinking of retraining to do so. The three-Michelin star The Waterside Inn is recruiting apprentices, and it’s not the only high-end restaurant doing this. If you want to do this for a living, now is the time to go for it.”