Staff wars: Workers poached by rival restaurants amid shortage

·3-min read
Sam Harrison and his staff (Evening Standard)
Sam Harrison and his staff (Evening Standard)

When restaurateur Sam Harrison was finally able to reopen the dining room at Sam’s Riverside next to Hammersmith Bridge in May, it felt like he had survived the biggest crisis to hit London’s hospitality sector.

Then just as normality seem to have returned, another bombshell landed.

One by one staff started being offered big pay rises to go and work elsewhere.

He said: “There are some very big names with very deep pockets in this transfer market — as an independent it feels like we are Brentford up against Manchester City.

“They phone up and offer our chefs crazy money.

“One member of staff came to me and said ‘Sam I love it here but I am thinking of leaving.’ He was told he could increase his pay from £34,000 to £46,000.

“I said ‘you know I can’t match that, I could go to £36,000 but to be honest you’ve got two young kids, if I were you I would probably take it too. In fact, I might come and work with you myself’.”

The restaurant has been forced to shut on Sunday nights and limit the number of customers it takes on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights.

Mr Harrison said: “We have probably turned away 50 covers every night but we don’t physically have the capacity, we need to give staff a chance to have time off.

“We would prefer to do 140 or 150 covers well than 200 and the customers suffer. We desperately need them but I don’t think I have a choice.”

A similar story is being played out in bars, restaurants and pubs across the capital with staff shortfalls typically running at 25 per cent.

The situation is expected to get worse once hotels start operating at close to capacity again and need to recruit more staff.

The result has been chaotic with some of the best known restaurants in London including Le Gavroche in Mayfair and Pied a Terre in Fitzrovia unable to staff lunch service, at least temporarily. It has also been hard for less well-established venues trying to make their mark in London’s competitive eating out sector.

Florian de Chezelles, co-founder of Spitalfields restaurant The Salad Project, which opened in 2019, said: “You can hire quickly but people can leave you very quickly, the turnover is very high and you have to be extra careful to make sure members of staff are well looked after.

“We’re short of three front of house and two chefs.

“The impact of Brexit can be measured in two ways. A lot of the existing workforce have left and are considerably harder to come by.

“And the points-based system for immigration means that the minimum salary level you need to be earning is around £25,500.”

Although Brexit is probably the biggest single contributor to the shortfall, a whole range of other factors are at work, creating a perfect storm.

Tom Pickersgill, chief executive of Orka, a tech company that provides support for hourly paid workers, said: “Large sections of the workforce have simply moved to different jobs. Chefs who were in kitchens have become Amazon drivers earning £14 an hour.

“Those jobs just weren’t there before. London in particular is a very, very transient market because they can move on so easily, you can see people walk off a job in three hours into a shift because they have got a job somewhere else at a higher rate.”

Jack Kennedy, economist at recruitment website Indeed, said: “There has been a very strong growth in job postings. On hospitality there has been really strong growth in the food preparation and service category, all the pub and restaurant jobs are going very fast.

“As a measure of how the market is changing, in February hospitality jobs had twice as many clicks as average. But by March it had fallen to 60 per cent so it has completely flipped around.”

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