Exclusive: Seven Dials Market boss says ‘Brexit means we are short-staffed for every shift, every day’
Brexit has “absolutely screwed” the food industry after it “ripped away” its labour source, according to the boss behind the West End’s popular Seven Dials Market.
Businesses at the food and drink destination are facing staff shortages “for every single shift, every single day,” Simon Mitchell, who heads the street food market operator Kerb, exclusively told CityA.M.
The chief executive pointed to an exodus of overseas workers from the country following Brexit and said a domestic labour pool of enthusiastic British workers “does not exist”.
Food firms were struggling to hire bartenders and kitchen porters, with just six people turning up to a recent Kerb open day and then “nobody turning up for their first shift,” Mitchell said.
More than 80 per cent of pubs and restaurants have been facing difficulties with recruiting enough staff, versus 62 per cent at the start of the year, a survey from the British Chambers of Commerce found last week.
A labour shortfall has exacerbated price inflation for diners, as businesses were having to pay “more and more” to entice workers, which was then being passed onto “the price of dishes consumers are buying at the end of the day,” Mitchell added.
Hospitality businesses were “getting attacked from every side and every pressure” as they attempted to recover from
Independent retailers may be forced to shut shop while “mega global chains” such as McDonald’s and Tesco can afford to keep prices competitive, Mitchell warned.
Mitchell called on the government to relax visa rules for overseas workers, as well as a five or 10 per cent cut to VAT and reform of business rates for hospitality firms.
The government should also support the industry’s ambitions to further promote hospitality as a career in schools, he said.
New Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is planning to boost vocational training in education reforms, it was reported this week.
Attracting punters to Covent Garden’s Seven Dials Market has not proved tough in recent months, especially as the destination’s stalls have been the subject of many viral TikToks.
After the pandemic, tourists and Londoners alike want to put their money behind independent businesses, Mitchell said. “The days of being excited about going to an ASK or Jamie’s Italian are gone.”
Although the West End has roared back to life, with an extra injection of footfall from the freshly-opened Elizabeth Line, trading was a two-day week affair in the City and Canary Wharf financial districts.
There was “no doubt” that London had changed, with Kerb’s market in West India Quay “really struggling” as financial workers are “not back anywhere [to] near the numbers they used to be.”
Despite many workers in London’s financial districts continuing to work from home, Mitchell refused to declare these locations as “done and dusted.”
Recession and energy worries
A looming recession and sky-high energy bills could even send workers hurrying back into the office on a more regular basis, he said.
Regardless, London was “an incredible city that people want to be in,” with Mitchell forecasting that the capital would “be back to its buzzing seven day a week self in two years.”
Mitchell’s optimism about the capital’s revival is partially rooted in his own business’s head office, where most workers “want to be around their peers,” although office-working is not mandated.
While the business incubator – which also has a footprint at the National Theatre – has not yet seen consumers pull back spending on dishes out, Mitchell admitted there had been a few “negative comments” about prices creeping up.
Cost of living crisis
There was no “certainty or security” that demand would remain buoyant, given it was a “worrying time” for people, he added.
Winter posed a particularly challenging time for the street food market, with rainy weather deterring punters from outside locations, he said.
Petra Barran founded the so-called business incubator from her dessert van in 2009. Now, the business hatches street food businesses from conception into stardom – with an alumni list boasting names like Pizza Pilgrims.
Mitchell described the business as a “conveyor belt” for fledgling businesses, offering them an accessible and affordable way to test the waters of a food brand.