'It's just going to paper over the cracks for a month or two until everything comes to a head'

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Deputy Editor

Last week, the hospitality industry passed a major milestone in its recovery from the pandemic.

Fourteen months after they were first locked down to curb the spread of coronavirus, restaurants, pubs, bars and cafés welcomed guests indoors once more, hoping this would be the last time they would have to exclusively serve them outdoors.

We touched base with chefs Sean Noonan, head chef at The Fox Roby Mill near Wigan, Ben Wilkinson, head chef at Michelin-starred Cottage in the Wood, and Paul Askew, industry veteran, chef patron and owner of The Art School Restaurant in Liverpool, to talk about their first week back. 

Turning a new leaf

Sean Noonan left a previous role and was spoiled for choice for where to go next. He picked The Fox Roby Mill partly because he found his place within the operation, but also because he was looking for an employer he could trust to uphold his team's best interests.

"I had a hotel job offer and a golf course," he said, with good financial benefits and travel opportunities for both roles, but "the big thing was that they care about the staff." 

Sean is among the chefs who have chosen to change employers, but remain in the industry, and he is convinced that many who have left in recent months will still come back.

"They will because they love it. Take a chef away from the hours they do and the fast pace and put them in an office, and they'll soon realise that they don't want to do it." 

"There's a good atmosphere within the industry at the moment, with everyone reopening," he said, and as for his own case,  he chuckled, "I'm made up to be back and to have people inside rather than sat in a beer garden getting soaking wet."

The higher end will bounce back from the recruitment crisis

Ben Wilkinson feels fortuitous to be working somewhere like Cottage in the Wood. 

Many independent restaurants have struggled to make ends meet in the past year, but owners Kath and Liam Berney managed to hunker down, keep their team on board and even reinvested in the business. 

Now, they're going back with a manageable best case-worst case scenario mapped out. 

"I've been the doomsayer from the beginning," Ben said.

"When we've been having our management meetings and we've been doing our forecasts for the year, there've been a couple of voices banking on the restrictions lifting on 21st June. I've said 'no, I wouldn't count on it.'"

Nonetheless, he said, "the numbers for us look good - if the restrictions are in place we're going to be okay, if they lift, we can do a few more covers and we'll be more than okay." 

The trouble, he believes, will pile onto the places who haven't taken the past ten years to take a long hard look at themselves, and are less attractive to much-sought out chefs.

"Some of the guys have shown me what the agencies are offering," he said. "It's absolutely bonkers and it's totally unsustainable."

"Paying temp chefs £18 an hour they won't be able to keep that up for long. There'll just be some huge crash when everyone realises that the bank is empty and then I don't know what will happen."

"It's just going to paper over the cracks for a month or two until everything comes to a head," he said.

As for the chefs who have left the industry, he's unconvinced they'll be coming back, because they were never lucky enough to work for employers putting an emphasis on staff.

"It's not like my chefs," he said. "It's these big hotels that may be doing four weddings a week and who've relied on chefs who just got on with it, just jobbers. They've all left the industry, they're doing deliveries for Sainsbury's." 

"They've got better lives now. These are people who didn't believe that they could do anything else so they stuck at cheffing but then they found out there is actually a different life out there." 

"Some places are going to have to rethink their whole approach, but I honestly think that at the higher end, the decent restaurant end, that it won't be too bad."

"Already over the last few years, everyone's been shifting to give their teams better conditions, better pay, reasonable hours, more benefits and perks and making it more of a profession than just a job."

"That shift has done everyone at the higher end a world of good in this situation."

'A perfect storm'

Paul Askew has been open since April 12th, but the weather has been so inclement that business sufficed only to keep staff in work until they reopened indoors last week.

"And the minute outdoor dining started, we had nothing but torrential downpour, hailstones and snow," he laughed.

That having been said, the return of indoor dining means that even with restrictions in place, he said, "if it carries on at the rate that we're at now we'll be fine. It's incredibly busy, we're at Christmas levels of bookings." 

The problem isn't a lack of demand, quite the opposite: the levels of pressure on staffing are so extreme that it could stop operations like Paul's from operating at full capacity. 

"We've had to switch off some areas of the building," he explained, when there isn't enough staff on the rota to fill them - which, to him, is partly to do with ongoing restrictions.

"It seems that British people don't want to be back in the industry - FOH predominantly." 

"The chef side is relatively okay in my area," noting that London's higher proportion of foreign chefs means it is in a worse position with regards to recruiting kitchen staff.

"We're perceived as a high-risk sector at the moment because if a new variant or something else were to happen, hospitality would be the first to be closed down again, so why would they do that to themselves is probably what they're thinking.

"Whereas what I'm thinking is, 'please reconsider, the industry needs you, we're back open again, there's so many opportunities, great wage packets, people like me doing four-day weeks and all sorts of incentives now to come back and get stuck in. Let's get the show on the road again,' that's what I'm trying to say." 

Commendable as Paul's efforts are, the likelihood is that this is a time when the differences between employers and the standards they hold themselves to are going put into stark contrast. 

"If the industry doesn't show that we're prepared to look after people - not just in terms of pay and time off but in their own development and advancement," he said, those differences would indeed be put under a spotlight.

"We've got to put back into the industry. I know lots of people do, but as an industry in general, a lot more of that is needed from a greater number of people." 

A perfect storm

Paul calls the current conditions for hospitality "a perfect storm," because of rising wages "at a time when cashflow is at its lowest and staffing is at its lowest," not least because of the 600,000 workers lost to Europe.

"Whichever way you go it seems there's a massive issue there to sort. It's the sum of many parts. Until each one of those is analysed and ticked off, I think we'll continue to have real issues for a good year or so, which is not great news on the back of the year we've just had." 

Rent arrears

Thanks to a high volume of custom when they have been open, as well government loans and successful rent negotiations, the Art School is safe. But from working with fellow operators, Paul knows that not everyone has been so fortunate as to reach an agreement with their landlords.

"The biggest problem in the industry at the moment is rent debt," he said, and legislation isn't really a viable option.

"Landlords have very different ideas: some are very aggressive, and some aren't. It's not a one rule fits all, because each lease is very different. "

But that doesn't mean the issue is any less prevalent, or urgent. If, when the moratorium is up at the end of June landlords decide to pursue legal action, the industry will be in a very tight spot.

"It will be absolute carnage," Paul said, "and I can't see why landlords would do that when it's highly unlikely that there's a queue of people waiting to take the building over, because there won't be."

"I think we really need to get together, landlords and hospitality businesses need support and sensible payment plans to come out of this.

"There's a spirit required here that is about 'we're all in this together and we need to find a solution together.'"

The sun'll come out, tomorrow

After eighteen months of devastatingly difficult times for the industry, there is some hope to be drawn from where we are now.

"The next two or three months are looking really positive as long as we don't have any more setbacks," Paul said. 

"The big question is at the end of September when furlough finishes, will we see a dip in the economy and lots of people ending up on the dole, or will we see an economy that can bounce back, not have a recession, get through Christmas and into 2022?"

"We really need to be positive, keep smiling, roll with the punches, all of those cliches. It's our chance now to help with the recovery, start back and get the economy going. But we need some help to do it."

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Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Deputy Editor 24th May 2021

'It's just going to paper over the cracks for a month or two until everything comes to a head'