Tuesday 15 June 2021 12:02 pm

Staff crisis in hospitality: Act now or risk being the next France

The hospitality sector is in the midst of a staff crisis. We always knew that staffing would be a challenge with full reopening post-Covid, that not everybody would return to work after furlough. Many of our French and Italian staff went back home during lockdown and had decided not to return to the UK or have decided only to return once all Covid restrictions on travel have been lifted. 

Others secured jobs outside the industry and have concluded that those jobs working nine to five with no evening shifts suited their lifestyles better.

What we didn’t anticipate was the speed at which we would need to rebuild our staff numbers. With our booking lines rammed our People department worked around the clock recruiting around 100 new staff per week through most of May. We expected customers to return in big numbers after such a long lockdown. But we were surprised at how full our restaurants were from the get go.

The last few weeks have been bitter sweet. Our front line teams have been severely challenged. They have had to work long hours to cope with being very busy while short staffed, particularly in our kitchens. But our revenues have been much stronger than expected bringing in much needed cash to start rebuilding the financial health of our business. And customers have spent well and tipped generously, so our staff have been able to earn well after what has been a very long financially difficult lockdown.

So is staffing a temporary or permanent problem? What is almost for sure is that demand for eating out, subject to Covid eventually coming under control, will continue to grow. At the same time the industry has to face the reality of a reduction in numbers of staff who have left the country or the industry. We have to replace those leavers with new full time and part time staff entering hospitality. So we at D&D have a major focus on making the working lives of our people as rewarding as they can be, and in promoting ourselves and our industry to staff in other occupations such as retail, travel and aviation, which may be slower to bounce back than hospitality.

Next month we are launching a D&D “Summer Camp” aimed at training people with little or no experience into front of house and kitchen staff capable of taking up full or part time positions in our restaurants. We are also working closely with the government on its various training initiatives such as Kickstart to bring more young people into hospitality.

Many continental European countries have seen the quality of their restaurants cease to improve. Look at France.

The longer term outlook for restaurants has some certainties and also some challenges which will have a significant impact not only on our economy but our quality of life. What is certain is that working in restaurants will, in the long term, become a better paid and hopefully more highly prized occupation. Staff costs will rise and the cost of eating out in restaurants is also therefore likely to increase. The optimist in me can see a future of more and increasingly highly motivated and talented young people entering hospitality, being rewarded well and customers happy to pay more for eating in restaurants. 

The pessimist in me sees continuing challenges in attracting staff, an inability to increase prices and a squeeze in profitability for the sector. Many continental European countries have experienced this and seen the quality of their restaurants cease to improve. Look at France. In stark contrast, the UK and London in the last 20 years have gone from having what was considered some of the worst food in the world to being amongst the best. This is a prize we must not lose. 

The government needs to support the industry both financially as it recovers from Covid, and in terms of enabling it to continue to attract the talent to maintain the UK’s hard earned reputation of having world class restaurants. That doesn’t just mean retraining young people in the UK. That is not likely to be enough. We will need to have policies to welcome enthusiastic, hard working staff from overseas – both high skilled and lower skilled – into the UK, to support our economic recovery. Our quality of life in the UK has improved massively over the last 20 years. Great restaurants, bars and cafés have been an important part of that. Let’s not throw it all away.