This week saw the long-awaited reopening of indoor service after months shut and five weeks restricted to al-fresco trading during the coldest April in a century. Pent-up demand has resulted in venues being as full as social distancing restrictions will allow, but now the sector is facing yet another problem: a staffing crisis.
The problem feels cruelly ironic. There are countless mouths to feed but few hands on deck to do it, and everyone from the CEOs of Britain’s largest pub companies to owners of local wine bars are on the hunt for staff. A toxic combination of Brexit and Covid has left many short of people to fill positions, right at the moment every site needs more staff, owing to the requirement for table-only service until June 21.
As Joe Warwick, restaurant manager at Soho destination Sola, puts it: “I'm surprised just how hard it has been to find front of house staff right now. I thought with a new Michelin star, good hours – we close Sunday, Monday and Tuesday– and decent rates of pay it would be easy but there doesn't seem to be anyone out there.”
Brexit saw off many young EU workers, while the pandemic saw huge numbers of people from countries abroad return home. Travel restrictions mean it is unclear how long it will be until those workers can return to the UK – if they even want to.
In the meantime, British workers are filling some of the gaps. Findings by software provider Fourth report that in the first quarter of this year, Britons made up the majority of those taking up new hospitality roles, a marked shift from 2019 when EU workers were the leading group.
I‘m surprised just how hard it has been... there doesn’t seem to be anyone out there
Joe Warwick, Sola
Still, it doesn’t seem to be enough to meet demand; latest statistics from recruiter Indeed show that the number of London vacancies posted on its “food preparation and service” categories – listings for pub, restaurant and bar staff – increased by 586 per cent between February 22, when Boris Johnson revealed his roadmap out of lockdown, and May 14.
Job postings in the industry have soared above their pre-pandemic levels, standing this week at almost 20 per cent higher than levels seen in February 2020. Jack Kennedy, Indeed’s UK economist, said: “Demand from London’s hospitality businesses has soared... so much so that in some areas the number of candidates isn’t keeping up.”
Pub chiefs say they have seen the issue playing out since the April 12 reopening. Ralph Findlay has been CEO of pub group Marston’s, which has a 1500-strong estate, for two decades. He told the Standard that “across the sector labour is tight”, adding that times such as these are “really when your reputation as an employer makes a difference”.
The feeling from big firm bosses is that the roles will be filled in the coming months, by people entering or returning to the sector from other hard-hit industries such as retail or by growing talent in-house.
Some warned that the true state of the jobs market is yet to be seen, however, and that the diverse vibrancy of hospitality teams seen pre-pandemic and pre-Brexit may not return.
All Bar One owner Mitchells & Butlers operates 1700 venues across the UK, including the Harvesters and Toby Carvery chains. Chief executive Phil Urban said the firm is currently hiring, and that he expects the pressure to centre on back of house roles. Pre-pandemic, around 13 per cent of the group’s employees were from the EU. Urban said: “I suspect it’s not going to be for another few weeks that we see the true state of the employment market.
“Some of the people who have left the sector want to come back, but won’t until they’re certain there isn’t going to be another lockdown.
“Everybody is recruiting. I’m still optimistic we will be covered and grow our own talent where we’re short, but there are those macro factors at play at the moment.”
It isn’t just the large firms which are struggling. Elin Hanson, of celebrated French restaurant Otto’s on Gray’s Inn Road, said she has seen many staff return to their home countries “because of the pandemic and Brexit”.
“Everyone is struggling to find qualified staff, especially chefs at mid-level. Visa requirements add further complications, and one of our chefs could not return due to this.” The restaurant plans to register as a sponsor to be able to hire staff from abroad, but expects the process to take months.
Paola Tich, co-owner of Acton’s Vindinista wine shop and bar, said that she would normally recruit part-time staff “within days” after putting a poster in the window, but that now she is struggling to find anyone. Tich added that some potential hires haven’t shown up for trial shifts when they realised they would have to work weekends.
The recruitment problem means more than just overstretched waiters and stressed bosses. Clive Watson, chief executive of City Pub Group, said that the sector will miss the cultural diversity it has seen over the past decade, with “different European nationalities all working together”.
“It’s the sort of forgotten legacy of Brexit, where there has been mass migration out of places like London,” he said, adding that he believes people “will come out of retail into hospitality” to help fill vacant roles in the sector. Greene King chief executive, Nick Mackenzie, agrees, and said he expects “a pool to recruit from as people have unfortunately lost jobs during the pandemic”.
But he warned that industry leaders are wary of cost pressures – meaning, having to raise wages – associated with a war for talent. He said: “I think there will be pockets of areas and disciplines where there is going to be a [recruitment] challenge. What we don’t want is the cost pressures that go with that, because obviously that affects the economic model.”
Others argue the staffing shortage could be a good thing for this very reason, as high demand may push up wages - especially in the hardest-to-fill back of house roles.
What we don’t want is the cost pressures that go with a recruitment challenge, because that affects the economic model
Nick Mackenzie, Greene King
Some say that in order to solve the issue, employers will need draw in workers with perks and better conditions, to make it clear to younger people that hospitality is a good career choice.
Sally Abe, who recently joined the Conrad St James as consultant chef, said restaurants should “reignite” chef applications by offering a “decent quality of life” going forwards.
She said: “We’ve found recruitment to be a little difficult in our kitchen, everyone seems to be looking for chefs at the moment.
“I think much of this is due to the fact that many chefs have had a hard year with little reward. They are now re-evaluating their work-life balance, and are choosing different working environments or career paths. They are in desperate need of having their passion reignited.”
Hospitality, then, has work to do to show potential staff that it is a career worthy of pursuit. As Sola manager Warwick says: “Europeans have gone home because of a combination of Covid and Brexit. We need more British people in hospitality, particularly front of house.
“We need to get the message out there that there is a career in this and that it can be a fun and rewarding job.”