As he is about to enter hospital for major gut surgery for the third time, our restaurant correspondent would like to apologise in advance for the message in this week’s contribution.
This column has, I hope, brought readers as much pleasure to read as it has brought to me to write. But on this occasion I must write about a distressing aspect of the British restaurant scene. This is one that has been bubbling under the surface for decades but came to prominence via an email I received recently. It read:
‘To our much loved Le Gavroche guests,
‘As you are all more than aware, the past year has sadly taken a great toll on the hospitality industry, but with restaurants finally being allowed to re-open to everybody’s relief there is still a trickle effect of major problems affecting our industry – in this instance, staffing.
‘Since opening, restaurants up and down the country have suffered greatly with staffing problems partly due to new Brexit regulations as well as there now being a major lack of well-trained hospitality professionals since the pandemic struck. Whilst we have been working our hardest to resolve this issue over the last couple of months, Le Gavroche is sadly understaffed for the time being.
‘Whilst it is incredibly frustrating and painful to report this, we have decided to open for dinner only from 5 pm starting from 14 June until further notice.’
This email from Michel Roux Jr (pictured above outside Le Gavroche by Jodi Hinds) landed in my inbox at 17.39 last Tuesday and drew a gasp of surprise from even this hard-nosed journalist. Pretty soon it was news and on the morning of the following day I received another copy of this email from a British Master of Wine living in Belgium who happens to be an avid follower of this website.
This situation is nothing new. I recall from my days as a restaurateur in the 1980s the feeling that we were always on the lookout for good staff and that I had played my part in this situation. I had the courage to become a restaurateur; I fell in love with the empty building that was L’Escargot; but I never gave a second thought to where the staff would come from. I thought only about where my customers would come from.
This approach has been the norm among British restaurateurs for decades. Some have given encouragement to the leading exponents of hospitality training in the UK such as Bournemouth & Poole College, Westminster Kingsway College, the University of West London and Oxford Brookes University, but this pool has always been far too small. It has had to be supplemented for as long as I can remember by able and willing recruits from outside the UK: from France, Italy, Germany, Spain and Portugal not to mention many from Australia and New Zealand.
These eager recruits came for a variety of reasons. Those from Down Under came to finance their OE (overseas experience), a couple of years when they would work in the UK during the summer and then head off to the snow for the winter. Others may have come for a number of other reasons – to learn the language, to improve their skills or, in the case of many in the wine trade, to be exposed to so many wines that were unknown at home.
Walking down the passageway to our terrific Sri Lankan dinner at The Dorchester last week, The Grill’s sommelier Eugenio Egorov, who was born in Ukraine but grew up in northern Italy, explained, ‘There were not many wines from anywhere in the Americas that were available for me to taste in Italy’, but added cautiously, ‘but I don’t know what the impact of Brexit is going to be …’.
The Brexit vote took place almost five years ago, long enough to have done more than just sound alarm bells in the understaffed hospitality industry. But when COVID-19 struck in March 2020 it exacerbated an already precarious situation. Many European hospitality professionals without a UK passport went back home, unable to work and feeling unwanted in the UK, preferring to isolate in surroundings that were familiar and in a country where they spoke the mother tongue. It is difficult to put a number on this cohort (one in ten is the proportion of those who have left the sector according to Caterer.com) but as any Briton who has attempted to travel abroad over the past 15 months will verify, the paperwork and terms and conditions of travel are onerous. And they are every bit as challenging for anyone who wants to enter the UK.
In 2017, right after the Brexit vote, the Evening Standard reported on its implications for the hospitality industry. Under the headline ‘London restaurants face a major shortage of chefs under Brexit’ it explained how the Soho House group had had to send scouts to Rome, Milan and Barcelona (and promise them each a month’s free accommodation in central London) as it sought to find the 250 staff required to open The Ned, their new operation in the City of London. Under a photograph of Bruce Poole of London’s Chez Bruce in his whites was a typically honest, concise and precise quote from this celebrated chef: ‘without Europeans, we’re ****ed’, he opined.
In the short term he is quite right because there is very little flexibility within which restaurateurs can manoeuvre. There is always the option that cash may unleash some recommendations – Hawksmoor are reputedly offering up to £2,000 to any member of their current staff who recommends another, while Caravan is offering its guests a £100 gift voucher if they recommend a future member of their teams.
Of course there is the prospect for restaurateurs of trimming opening hours so that the staff at their disposal can be matched against the most profitable opening times. This inspired my article last September explaining why so few UK restaurants are now open on a Monday. As Hussein Ahmad of Viewpoint Partners, which specialises in restaurant accounts, explained, ‘on Mondays in 2019, sales were approximately 10% of weekly turnover, this year it is down to 5%’. Restaurateurs are clearly following the sensible maxim of ‘running your profits and cutting your losses’.
In Thursday’s Financial Times my colleague Alice Hancock wrote an article headlined ‘UK restaurant owners blame labour shortages as they cut services’. She wrote that ‘a recruitment firm said the number of job adverts for food preparation roles had increased 608% since the government announced its road map for easing lockdowns in February 2021 and the total is now 16% higher than in February 2020, before the pandemic’.
She also mentioned the volte-face by Tim Martin, the enthusiastically pro-Brexit founder of the pub chain Wetherspoons, who, faced with his own acute staff shortages, yesterday called on the government to favour a visa system based on proximity rather than skills. Since in 2016 he campaigned alongside the anti-immigration UK home secretary Priti Patel, this seems highly unlikely.
In principle, the government is taking the line of insisting that the UK hospitality industry train British staff. The problem with this policy is that this is wholly unrealistic – as a result of which the industry, and customers, will suffer in the short, medium and long term.
I realise that in my own small way I am partly to blame. When I sold L’Escargot, my health precluded continuing as a restaurateur and I was never forced to reinvest what I made – although I was a director of the Butlers Wharf Chef School before its forced closure. And there have been many like me – chefs, restaurateurs, financiers – who have been as lucky and have not had to pay back in any meaningful manner. This will prove to have been a missed opportunity and a great shame because hospitality is one business in which customers can walk in with the worries of the world on their shoulders and leave an hour or two later with smiles on their faces.