It’s just after lunchtime in the kitchen of Damian Wawrzyniak’s new restaurant on the outskirts of Peterborough and the Polish chef is busy preparing an evening menu reflecting the rich ingredients of his culinary journey: Polish “noodles” from his homeland; beef tatare inspired by a stint at Copenhagen’s Noma restaurant and succulent duck, pigeon and vegetables shot or picked in the East Anglian countryside.
Wawrzyniak came to the UK 15 years ago before rising to prominence on the BBC showing Mary Berry how to make his signature “babka” cake but these days he has more than recipes on his mind: specifically the challenge of finding trained staff for his House of Feasts and another restaurant that he plans to open in London next year.
“We are struggling at the moment to find staff because of Brexit – there is no doubt,” said Wawrzyniak, who recently switched entirely to hiring trainees and teaming up with Peterborough Regional College to run an apprenticeship scheme.
EU citizens make up a quarter of the 3 million workers in hospitality, according to a report by professional services firm KPMG. That includes 75% of waiting staff and 25% of chefs. As the clock ticks down to Britain’s departure from the EU, senior figures in Britain’s hospitality sector are warning that staff shortages brought about by an exodus of European workers, and a dearth of new arrivals post-Brexit, is a crisis in the making for an industry that is Britain’s fourth-biggest employer.
The squeeze is being felt all over the country, from booming northern “destination towns” such as York and Harrogate to London, at a time when consumer demand shows no sign of dropping off, notwithstanding Brexit-related anxieties.
“There’s a feeling that the party has ended,” said David Strauss, general manager of Goodman Restaurants group, which runs a string of steakhouses and eateries including Burger and Lobster. Five of its senior managers from EU backgrounds are in the process of leaving to go to Canada and Australia.
“There’s been a boom in the last 10 years in restaurants and it’s still carrying on, but we’re seeing people now look at the future and thinking ‘it’s not going to get much better here’.
“We rely on young people really in central London – mainly from the EU – and a lot have never really been in love with the way of life, weather and the expense, so if they can move they would and other countries are opening up to them now. They’re looking, for example, at Paris, where it looks like the labour laws might change and where the culture of one-dimensional restaurants is ripe for change.”
Some outlets are already closing on certain days due to staff shortages. Others are pulling down shutters, choosing to take a hit on continuing to pay rental costs. Factors such as property price inflation, a weak pound and the upward cost of ingredients which are traded on the international market – butter is a case in point – are backing many in the hospitality sector into a corner.
Britain’s sophisticated mid-market restaurant chain scene is likely to have the flexibility to weather the storm, but some independents may fall by the wayside.
The alarm bells are also being sounded by companies ranging from the sandwich chain Pret A Manger, which says it would find it virtually impossible to find enough staff if it were forced to turn its back on EU nationals after Brexit, through to the pizza chain Franco Manca, which warned this summer that it is already becoming harder to recruit staff.
There is also concern among companies that have made positive noises about Brexit. While arguing that Brexit was bringing a “greater sense of accountability and self-responsibility in the UK” Leon’s chief executive, John Vincent, has also expressed concerns about being able to hire and retain staff and admitted that many of them were upset by the referendum result.
As the Brexit process grinds along, the hospitality sector’s representatives have warned that government plans for the introduction of new qualifications in 2022, as part of efforts to create an army of British-born waiters, chefs and baristas, will come far too late. The result, according to the British Hospitality Association (BHA), could be that hotels, restaurants, bars and cafes across the UK go to the wall.
“We’re a labour-intensive industry so if you don’t have a chef, for example, there is no restaurant. It’s that simple,” said Ufi Ibrahim, the BHA’s chief executive, who said the problem was acute in London and the south-east but was being experienced across the country.
“There is grave concern in rural areas, for example, where public transport is lacking. Being able to find individuals – either British workers or others who would be restricted by access – is a problem. We also have a culture of restricted social mobility. It’s very difficult to see what contingency plans could be put into place to serve in the timelines that have currently been given.”
The Department For Education said: “We are transforming technical education so that young people have the skills and knowledge that employers and the country need.” A new “T-level” system, which overhauls how technical education is taught and administered, will be introduced from 2020.
The BHA’s concerns were shared by individual business owners, larger chains and town authorities. At the Chestnut Group, which operates six restaurants, pubs and hotels across rural Suffolk and Cambridgeshire, various moves are already being made to make the sector more attractive to employees. A 10% stake is being given away to its 140 staff, who can also use an app to swap shifts.
“Hiring in the sector is not easy so we’ve set out to address it in every way, whether it’s to do with helping people find the hours that work for them, or providing training with our own academy,” said chief executive officer Philip Turner.
Britain’s new boom towns are among those with particular challenges when it comes to a shortage of catering workers for key positions such as chefs.
One example is thriving York, which attracts some 6.9 million visitors a year, generating the demand for a string of major new hotels and restaurants. The company, which promotes the city on behalf of its council, plans a marketing campaign next year to attract talent, including chefs.
Some similar issues are in play in nearby Harrogate, where the cost of living has exacerbated recruitment challenges. “Times are tougher [in recruiting] and there has been a noticeable change in the last 12 months alone,” said Simon Cotton, group managing director in Harrogate at the HRH group of hotels.
“How much is driven by Brexit or by the economy getting better I am not sure but most of our businesses are performing better so we need more people.
“The risk is that there will be a lengthy gap of many years between what the government wants to do and then achieving that, so as an industry we are going to have to do something ourselves. In the meantime it becomes an employees’ market, not a employer’s one. I am seeing this in almost all the businesses I am running. It’s a sense that ‘if I don’t get the perks and pay rises I want then I can walk around the corner to the next job’.”
Gordon Ramsay told the Radio Times last month that an “influx” of multinational workers had “confirmed how lazy as a nation we are”. Changes such as curbs on foreign labour were a “big kick up the ass” for the industry, said Ramsay who looked forward to a focus on “modern-day apprenticeship” and on homegrown talent. Ramsay’s views were characteristically acerbic. But across the board there is a belief that the benefits of working in a sector that can offer a range of benefits including good pay, opportunities to travel and career advancement are not being adequately sold to young Britons, or perhaps realised by them.
Will Beckett, co-founder of the Hawksmoor restaurant chain, said: “There are some cultural issues at play and certainly there is a perception that the restaurant industry is not a particularly attractive proposition, or that some young Brits are not up for the type of work involved.
“My experience of British people is that they will work extremely hard not just in managerial roles but as kitchen porters or similar positions.”
In a city where EU workers make up the backbone of hospitality staff, Hawksmoor stands somewhat apart in that a substantial proportion – more than 40% – of its workers are British. Beckett emphasises the need to make staff feel valued: “The restaurant industry is character. You have to really be prepared to pitch in and British people will do that, although they like to know why and for what wider purpose.”
Damian Wawrzyniak is as well placed as anyone to judge the work ethics of British and Polish workers. “I can’t say that there is a difference between the Polish and British. It doesn’t matter what nationality you are. If someone does not want to work then they won’t work,” he said.
By Ben Quinn
November 11, 2017
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