Local hospitality hit by severe staff shortages as “perfect storm” of Covid and Brexit sweeps country
- Credit: Farr Brew
St Albans pubs and restaurants are desperately trying to recruit workers as a series of factors combine to create an extreme shortage of staff in the industry.
Post-lockdown wariness from potential workers, plus the effects of Brexit and lack of service staff and chefs from overseas, have contributed to a crisis in the UK as the number of hospitality workers has drastically reduced. Now bookings are on the up again, pubs and restaurants are finding it hard to fill the gaps.
“It’s been a real challenge actually,” said Nick Farr, of Farr Brew, an award-winning independent brewery and pub group which has just announced that it will be adding a sixth pub (The Bull in Whitwell) to its portfolio, which includes the hugely popular Elephant & Castle in Amwell.
“Chefs are the main issue for us. The quality of our restaurants is hugely important – we’re really focusing on excellent menus executed really well, particularly at places like The Elephant & Castle, but finding enough chefs of the right calibre is difficult – especially when you factor in the number of covers we have too. We were already very heavily booked up before the summer weather kicked in. Now we’re phenomenally busy, with bookings going through the roof.
“But it’s a lot of hard work to feed and serve all our customers, across our pubs and restaurants, and we need great chefs – at least four at the moment – but the talent pool is depleted.
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“The mix of Covid and Brexit has been devastating for the industry. A lot of the UK’s chefs from overseas have left the country to go home, and then Covid has made it really hard – in a practical sense - for them to get back, and then Brexit has been the last straw; making it much less attractive to work in the UK.”
Andrei Lussmann, of the Lussmanns group of four award-winning sustainable fish and grill restaurants in Hertfordshire, agreed.
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“Brexit and now Covid is making the job market very tough with every corner of the industry reaching for more staff as we emerge after many months in hibernation,” he said.
“A large proportion of the industry, since being furloughed, have moved into other fast moving sectors where skills are portable such as online retail and the meteoric rise of food to go and of course warehouse logistics and so we have lost good people.”
“There simply are not enough staff to go round,” said Sean Hughes, of Dylans and the Boot in St Albans and The Plough in Sleapshyde.
“We still have our core team but The Plough has a large garden, so to maintain the level of service we need we’ve been training up new staff - and we are lucky that our university team come back soon - but our biggest issue is finding additional chefs that are trained to the level we require.”
Sean warns that the Brexit/Covid impact will be “a big headache for our industry for time to come.”
He is looking to attract young people into his training programme at Dylans (front of house and back of house) so says he will be “contacting schools, colleges and universities to offer new Dylans apprenticeships which won’t just be available to college and university leavers but also to people who want to be part of our industry and learn everything about how a restaurant and a pub works from the basics upwards. We are looking forward to launching that later this week.”
Mark Pearse of restaurant group Tabure said they lost staff who left the UK to return to their home countries to be close to their families.
“Others left the industry altogether to take up jobs in care, warehousing or delivery in the hope that life would be easier in these industries, and work plentiful through lockdown” he said. “And, with Brexit finally coming around, with new restrictions on migration, it has created something of a perfect storm.”
Now with the Tabure St Albans and Berkhamsted restaurants back open and busy, they are short of staff in every department.
“Such shortages have meant we have had to delay the reopening of our newly expanded Tahini restaurant which will re-open as a larger format Tabure Harpenden with 50 covers.”
At least, once they have been able to put a kitchen and front of house team together: Mark says that he has posted a job application recently for a chef de partie and had no applicants at all. Tabure has been so affected by this problem, it has changed the structure of its business by setting up a central point – Tabure HQ - to prep food for all the restaurants, allowing for more flexible working hours as well as other practical advantages.
Sameer Berry of Infuse, an Indian restaurant and takeaway in the city centre, lost some of his chefs to India, many of whom have found it difficult to come back. Others have started their own food businesses in lockdown, or found work in other industries.
He said it is hard to attract new applicants and says the priority has to be ensuring he retains his current team: “We keep the current team motivated and happy, and keep the wages going, even at the times of closure and difficulty. We genuinely care for our team members and feeling is mutual.”
Christo Tofalli of Ye Olde Fighting Cocks said: “The irony is that we now need more staff than ever to open and keep customers safe, because of Covid and all the rules surrounding that.
"This means that something that was always a challenge – finding enough good staff – is now nearly impossible due to the diminishing workforce, and also the margins have got slimmer and slimmer. We have a large garden to the back of the pub, and extended outside seating to the front and side. This means a lot of table service, which clearly relies on people.
"It’s a constant calculation on my part as to whether we have enough people to open, and whether it’s possible to make any sort of profit. It’s not an ideal situation for the industry to face.”
Olga Sipcenoka of Per Tutti restaurant on Holywell Hill, believes workers in the industry are being put off by rumours of not being entitled to furlough should there be another lockdown.
“We are definitely one of the businesses that is struggling” she said, “and that is the main reason I hear. So instead, applicants offer availability for shifts here and there, which doesn’t really work for us as an establishment.”
“As a family run restaurant we offer a lot of perks, with generous staff food, a flexible rota, and always opportunity for progression for those who desire to pursue a career within hospitality.”
However the perks don’t seem to be enough to entice people back into hospitality. Olga also says workers are still wary of the virus and, despite the easing of restrictions and the success of the vaccination programme, there is still a lot of uncertainty. “We have people who are saying that once things are more stable with the virus they will get in touch”, she said.
But hospitality needs people now. As the public emerge blinking into the sunshine, they are keen to socialise once again, and bookings are soaring for pubs, restaurants and events.
Matt Elvidge of Farr Brew said: “There’s a huge appetite from the public to get back into restaurants and pubs suddenly. But we rely on young people, and the industry itself has been through such a lot over the past year and these people are bruised and battered, at a time where we need them to be jumping back into the industry and firing on all cylinders to cope with the renewed demand from the public.
“We have a growing group of pubs and restaurants, so we’re always on the lookout for hardworking, positive people who want to be part of a successful, expanding business and learn all about the industry. If you’re a good chef looking for work – knock on our door!”
Andrei Lussmann is still hopeful for the future of his industry.
“Hospitality will once again pivot as it has done so well over three lockdowns and recalibrate its staff base, with better training and developing talent from within. A combination of opportunity, good pay and ultimately being an active part of something great will lead us out of this present danger. Hospitality is one of the oldest industries in the land and will bounce back.”