'Everyone thinks furlough is wonderful and Boris is playing a blinder but he's striking our industry even harder than it already has been with it'

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Deputy Editor

Founder of fine dining restaurant group Crockers, Luke Garnsworthy, is facing the same predicament as hundreds of UK operators, struggling to find enough staff as the hospitality sector begins to reopen.

Whilst they've managed to find enough staff for the Tring restaurant, he said, "Henley is still quite short." 

"I don't get what's going on really. They seem to be hard to find and hard to hold onto at the moment." 

Word on the street is that many hospitality workers are leaving the industry, but Luke doesn't believe this to be entirely true. 

"We lost quite a few of those. They give you a little sob story about how tough the year's been for them and they want to get out of hospitality, then you find out they've moved to the next town down the road and they're still in hospitality. It's a bit insane." 

'We were committed to our team and we never knew when we were going to open'

Luke believes that the cost of the pandemic to employers such as himself has been massively underplayed, and that furlough is not the saviour many have made it out to be.

"Everyone thinks furlough is wonderful and Boris is playing a blinder but he's screwing our industry even harder than it already has been with it." 

"We have to pay national insurance and pension with no revenue. There should be a way of stopping people from doing it, if they've been on furlough they should be with you for another year after." 

That's not accounting for holiday, he said, of which the team that has remained in place have accrued 24 months' worth by the time they get back onto the payroll. 

"We've just started a new holiday year - they've now got two years of holiday and they can carry last year over the next two years." 

"I don't know how I'm supposed to operate with all of my team off for 40 days a year, I can't. We're so tight on staff that we'd almost have to close completely."

"The government really hasn't given this - or us as an industry - very much thought." 

Asked where the solution lies in terms of policy, however, and Luke is at a loss. 

"They can't retrospectively say, 'okay, yeah, you can actually use up their holiday allowance,' because I know that people went on holiday and I know they got 80% of their salary, but for three quarters of the year, that's a bit excessive to sit around doing nothing getting paid."

His business may well be in a better state if he had just acted like the big restaurant owners - the likes of the Gordon Ramsay restaurant group, who came under huge criticism for laying off their staff at the first signs of the pandemic. 

"If I could turn back the clock, I would make everyone redundant. We did do some redundancy, but we were committed to our team and we never knew when we were going to open. With hindsight I would just get rid of the lot and take the risk of having to recruit a whole team to reopen with. It would put us in a better financial position." 

"You've got to give it to Gordon Ramsay, the guy is a clever businessman, being able to detach yourself and think of the business rather than the people in it. But we do actually care about people, so we ploughed on."

'Unskilled, unprofessional, we're just the scum of the earth'

People may be leaving the industry because of the working conditions, Luke concedes, but he argues that this is only because of the public's - and the government's - perception of the industry.

"You can't sugar coat the history of this industry," he said, having left a chef's role at Dinner by Heston before starting his own restaurant business. 

"It absolutely broke me, I even retrained into doing personal training, but I love this industry and that's why I've come back." 

"There's a lot of companies saying that they're changing the way things are done, and we are. We are enforcing 45-hour weeks, we're trying to pay every penny we can to our teams."

"But this is not a Covid problem, this is a decades-old problem. The key issue is that the public do not value hospitality enough to pay us what we're worth." 

"We have a tasting menu that's £100; people scoff at that and say it's expensive but if you've got seven members of staff working for two days to prepare that meal for you, that's £7 a day per member of staff. It's really not that expensive. When you pay electricians £250 a day for labour."

How we go about changing this, Luke says, "starts with the government. They need to change the way that they treat us. If Boris calls us unskilled, when what we do is highly skilled, but because you don't need a degree for it we're also not professional."

Of his 60+ team, he said, just two of them are legally considered to be a professional, as opposed to a worker. 

"Unskilled, unprofessional, we're just the scum of the earth really. That really needs to change: the classification of the industry and the way public figures talk about us, and that will obviously change the public's perception." 

Hammering the point home is useless, he said, "because then you come across as a moaning petulant child. It's hard to get the message across without being like that." 

Asked whether he believes having a hospitality minister would be beneficial, he said: "Not at all. I couldn't think of anything worse than to trust the government with this. Go and ask the teachers and the nurses what they think - that'll sum it up." 

"We need a wider scope of people in this industry to get a platform and talk, not just Tom Kerridge or Paul Ainsworth. We need more people to take the opportunity to speak the truth and tell it exactly how it is and stop being so shiny and pleasant about it - to make people realise that if they don't start respecting the industry it's going to disappear." 

"My staff are going to stop and that's it, I can't operate because my business is 100% down to my team." 

Fully booked until October, the prospect of a good summer is only of some consolation to Luke. 

"I hate sounding so miserable, but I can't count my chickens anymore - I just don't know." 

"It's horrible, but we will come out of it because we have an amazing core team and we'll make sure that we do come out of it; but we're certainly on a fine wire." 

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Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Deputy Editor 14th May 2021

'Everyone thinks furlough is wonderful and Boris is playing a blinder but he's striking our industry even harder than it already has been with it'