A few weeks ago, a restaurant in London’s King’s Cross emailed its regular customers, with a special offer. It wasn’t the standard come-hither promotion: a free glass of fizz or two main courses for the price of one. It was a £100 voucher for anybody who recommended a new employee who then went on to work for them for at least a month. Around the same time the Manchester Evening News reported that the city’s hospitality staff were in such short supply that pub and restaurant operators were aggressively attempting to poach key employees off each other. A recent survey of hundreds of businesses by industry body UK Hospitality has found that more than 80% have vacancies both front and back of house. The message is clear: as it emerges from the pandemic, the beleaguered restaurant sector has a serious staffing problem.
Partly, this is down to Brexit. Thousands of EU nationals, who were at the core of so many great restaurants, looked at what was happening to Britain and simply decided to go home. Who can blame them? But there’s something else going on too, identified by the Happy Hospitality programme launched by Farmyard, an interestingly eclectic restaurant in Norwich. As Hannah Springham of Farmyard put it to me, so many staff are simply “tired of shitty working conditions and are leaving in their droves”. The lockdowns had many obvious negatives. But there were positives too. Staff on furlough got to spend time with their families, to be there for their kids’ birthdays, to take exercise. They reclaimed their lives. The Farmyard response: “A four-day week plus bespoke contracts which take into consideration childcare, hobbies and mental health.”
Springham acknowledges this comes at a cost. It’s a cost she thinks customers will need to help pay for. It’s a fair point. The fact is that, as we approach the end of the various lockdowns, we need a reset on our relationship with the restaurant sector. For all the people who rant about restaurants being too expensive, and boy how they go on, the pandemic made it clear that hospitality is not some get-rich-quick scheme. Sure, historically a few operators have coined it. Some places are overpriced. They are in a minority. Most restaurants, weighed down by rents and rates, by ingredients’ costs inflated by the folly of Brexit, by the rutted dysfunction of the British economy, cling to financial viability by their fingertips. Too often it is the underpaid and overworked staff who have borne the brunt.
Throughout the past 16 months we’ve bemoaned the shuttering of hospitality. We’ve talked wistfully about the joyous notion of someone else cooking for us and then doing the washing up. We didn’t talk enough about the burden on the people we expected to do this, or the fact that many of them have been on low incomes. You can, if you like, rant about economic realities, but you can’t argue with them. If there’s a chef shortage, candidates will be able to demand higher wages. All that adds to the bottom line.
But it’s also about dignity. I often wonder how much those people who complain about restaurant prices are themselves earning. I’m certain it’s rather more than the people they expect to cook their dinner. You can point out that it’s fine for a well-paid restaurant critic, who gets many of his bills reimbursed, to advocate paying more. I acknowledge the point. But my deep glaze of privilege does not alter the fact that too many people in the hospitality industry have been taken for granted for too long. If we want to have a broad range of restaurants in which to eat out, we’ll have to cough up. It’s as simple as that.