Sitting at a table inside Galvin La Chapelle, a Michelin-starred restaurant in the shadows of NatWest’s London headquarters, a man and a woman who run a rival restaurant enjoy a free glass of champagne from the owners and settle in for their meal.

But they are not there to experience the fine French dining, nor the Grade II-listed building. Instead, their mission is to slip the waiting staff their business cards and convince them to jump ship.

“Restaurants are absolutely desperate,” says Chris Galvin, who set up Galvin Restaurants with his brother. “Our staff are honest enough to come to us with a handful of business cards from respected restaurateurs. There are no staff. Some of our jobs have been available for six months and we haven’t had one person walk through the door. The cavalry is not coming over the hill.”

Shortages of workers is a reality facing Britain’s restaurants following the double-hit of Brexit and Covid.

Nicholas Balfe, executive chef of Holm restaurant in Somerset, says some tactics used in the race for experienced workers can be “a bit underhand” as CVs dwindle and demand rises.

Restaurant bosses say they have also caught competitors hanging around staff smoking areas in an attempt to convince employees on cigarette breaks to switch jobs.

There is even suspicion that some have skipped reference checks to get heads through the door quickly, with one hospitality chief noting how a worker who was fired and reported to the police for stealing quickly re-emerged elsewhere. “People are hiring everyone and anyone – it’s f–king insane,” they add.

While these are extreme examples – everyone stresses there is a huge amount of comradeship in the industry – such anecdotes highlight a sector in dire need of help. As summer approaches, many restaurants in popular coastal towns are dreading the season, concerned they won’t be able to cope with an influx of tourists without enough staff.

Desperate employers are having to compete for talent with referral bonuses, extra pay and shorter hours at a time when costs are soaring. One restaurant executive says his company now has to find a way to make an extra £30,000 a week “just to stay still” as wages, meat prices, oil and gas, electricity and packaging costs spike.

Finding that extra cash will not be easy amid the growing battle for talent. Kate Nicholls, chief executive of UKHospitality, says the sector is 250,000 to 300,000 jobs short. It means more than a quarter of all hospitality businesses are having to close on certain days, cut hours, reduce capacity or turn away bookings in order to manage.

Not only did the proportion of EU workers plummet ahead of Covid, but the pandemic made the industry seem “fragile and unstable,” says Nicholls, which will have made thousands of young people cross it off as a potential career option. Many domestic workers also left after furloughs and repeated lockdowns.

One boss recalls how some employees bluntly explained why they would never return to his kitchen: “Chef, we’ve been laying on a beach, staying with mum and dad, the British taxpayer has been pumping money into our account. We can cook and get cash in hand”.

Convincing those workers to come back, pay lots of rent and work gruelling hours is a hard sell. Staff who earned £26,000 before Covid, for instance, have emerged demanding £38,000 and saying they won’t work weekends or Friday nights. With extra bargaining power and a fresh perspective post-lockdowns, workers still in the industry want to force change.

“People saw a bud on a tree turn into a leaf and fall off. We now have a generation who don’t want to commit,” says Galvin, reflecting on the uncertainty as restaurants were forced to slam shut.

“I’ll never forget creating a Plan A, Plan B, Plan C and Plan D. Screwing plans up in the bin then pulling them out of the bin and saying ‘actually, this might work’. [Post-pandemic] it’s a lunar landscape. It’s so different – Mondays and Fridays I feel like the aliens have landed as there’s no one around.”

Balfe, who relocated from London to open Holm last year, says restaurants are adapting as shortages shape up to be the reality for the next few years. Considering those with different experience, offering more training and sponsoring chefs from overseas – something that wouldn’t have been considered a few years ago due to the sheer amount of red tape involved – are some ways he and others are dealing with the “sucker punch” of Brexit and Covid.

Harneet Baweja, the co-founder of Indian restaurant brand Gunpowder, says it feels like “challenges are coming from all angles”. While there are plenty of options for the longer term, such as extra training, he stresses that there is no “magic bullet for the short-term” when it comes to staff shortages.

But competing for workers by offering more perks is not sustainable when the whole sector is under pressure.

Scott Collins, the co-founder of burger chain MEATliquor, believes the “horrible period where people were running around poaching staff from other restaurants” by offering “silly amounts of money” was never going to last and for him feels like history. The cavalry might not be coming over the hill, but the sector is adapting after a period of once unthinkable challenges.

“My biggest problem used to be managing the queues. Those were good times,” he reminisces.

Taken from The Telegraph 12/4/22

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