Britain’s restaurants and bars can serve indoors again for the first time in five months on Monday. Many of them are struggling to find enough staff after Brexit and three lockdowns in a year drove workers out of the industry.
Chefs, waiters and bartenders needed for everything from fast-food restaurants to fine dining are in short supply, with industry executives and recruiters saying that many of their most experienced people have left for other jobs.
“The people just aren’t there anymore,” said David Moore, owner of Pied à Terre, London’s longest-standing independent Michelin-starred restaurant. The industry is facing a “fairly massive, very serious skills shortage.”
It’s a sign of scars on the U.K. economy that may hold back a rebound from the worst recession in three centuries – or a spark for inflation that’s already starting to concern investors. It’s a trend that already hit the U.S., prompting McDonald’s Corp. and Chipolte Mexican Grill Inc. to raise wages for staff.
In Britain, hospitality companies were among the hardest hit by rules that closed leisure venues and pushed workers onto the government’s furlough wage subsidy program.
Despite that lifeline, the industry shed 330,000 staff through the pandemic, said Kate Nicholls, chief executive officer of the lobby group UKHospitality. About 20% of all restaurants and 10% of hotels closed shut for good, and many workers are looking at the long hours, low pay and shaky prospects of hospitality and looking elsewhere for work.
“People people are still nervous about committing to hospitality, fearful that the government may still impose restrictions, businesses unable to offer full-time posts,” Nicholls said. “The single biggest driver is uncertainty.”
Pub and restaurant stocks have rallied hard this year, with Restaurant Group more than doubling to the top performance of the FTSE 350 Index. But despite the U.K.’s speedy vaccination rollout, most hospitality companies are still trading below pre-covid levels and hope to get a lift from the return of consumers ready to spend their savings.
Staffing is one of the industry’s biggest uncertainties. Online job advertisements for “catering and hospitality” rose above pre-pandemic levels in the first week of May, the jobs search engine Adzuna said. A survey of 1,000 companies published Monday by the CIPD, a group representing human resources workers, showed two thirds of hospitality companies plan to recruit in the second quarter, up from 36% in the first.
Pizza Express in April set out plans to recruit more than 1,000 new roles, reversing cuts made over the past year. D&D, with more than 40 high-end restaurants based primarily in London, is seeking to fill 400 jobs but so far managed to recruit just half that number.
“We’re having people working much longer hours to be able to run the restaurants,” D&D CEO Des Gunewardena said. “We’re going to be fine, but it is a challenge.”
Thomas Faulkner, a former chef who now recruits for the trade, sees a “critical shortage” of staff likely to linger for some time unless restaurants deliver more incentives.
High turnover due to tough working conditions, high pressure, low pay and a “culture of machismo” meant that London was losing skilled chefs faster than they could be trained even before covid struck, according to a report published by the Centre for London.
“Being a chef is generally not healthy,” said Faulkner.
“What’s happened in this pandemic is they have gone to do other roles, realizing they can earn the same or more money standing in a car park or delivering for Amazon or Ocado. It’s a much more pleasant experience. They do fewer hours. They do sociable hours,” he said.
Britain’s exit from the European Union, which was completed in January, dried up a big pool of labor. More than 50,000 migrants left the U.K. in the second quarter of 2020, according to government estimates, with many more expected to have followed over the rest of the year. Immigration rules makes it difficult for them to return.
Before Brexit, up to a quarter of the hospitality workforce nationwide and 38% in London was made up by EU nationals, according to KPMG.
Gunewardena said the D&D is doing more to train staff, both internally and through government programs. In the short-term, its upmarket restaurants have “been a bit more liberal” with whom they take on board, offering higher pay than what was on offer before and training people to work in fine dining, he said.
“We’re hearing elsewhere within the sector of other restaurants throwing money at people,” Gunewardenza said. “We’re paying the same but bringing people up.”
Some big changes are inevitable in the sector including many moving from other industries, he said. “Longer term, it will be a higher skilled, higher wage sector.”