'It's proof that humans need to be paid well, but more than that, they need to have a life'

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Deputy Editor

Earlier this year, we spoke to restaurateur Hannah Springham about her plans to raise the price of food across  at The Dial House and Farmyard Restaurant in Norfolk in the hope that it would allow the improvement of working conditions for her teams. 

This involved paying them more and switching to a four day work week, a move which, at the time, Hannah - who runs both businesses alongside her husband, chef patron Andrew Jones, as well as their recently-launched home-bistro meal venture, Farmyard Frozen - knew was high-risk.

Four and a half months later, she's delighted to say that it has exceeded all expectations.

"By the end of August, we'd hired ten chefs," she said. 

"Bearing in mind that you cannot hire a chef for love nor money at the moment, we hired ten chefs in ten weeks," to the point of even turning applicants away.  

Not limiting themselves to the four-day week to attract new recruits, she continued, "when we meet them, we're talking to them about what they want, what's important to them - is it a job title, flexibility in the role, what is it?"

What they found in their new approach to recruitment was that what they wanted varied wildly, but by simply inquiring as to what that was, they were able to make it work. Across their three businesses - two restaurants and one food manufacturing site, they were able to allocate the chefs out according to their needs. 

With Farmyard Frozen, Hannah said, "I like to say we sent some of the chefs out to pasture" - those who need to work sociable hours to manage alongside childcare duties, "or some of them are dealing with things in their life and they need to focus on their own wellbeing."

There, chefs can work 9-5 Monday to Friday, but, she said, "we allow them to flex that, so they might do 8-4, or school pickup, finish early one day and do hours the next." 

A remarkable change

Alongside this, Farmyard Restaurant is only open Wednesday through Saturday, "so no matter if we've got a nightmare with staffing, if people are off sick, no-one can do a six or seven day week. You cannot physically do more than four days in a week." 

"We recognise that they work really hard on those days, but they know they can plan and see their families Sunday-Monday-Tuesday every single week.

The change within the team, she said,  "it remarkable - we've got chefs who looked ill, before" who, three months in, not only look well but "they're good looking; they've got rosie cheeks and hobbies."   

Not only that, but the atmosphere in the kitchen is like night and day. "They're all working in harmony and looking after each other," she laughed.

"I do look back and I go, 'were all those head chefs bullies, or were they just not seeing their family and really depressed?'"

"It's proof that humans need to be paid well, but more than that, they need to have a life - and that's what we were banging on about. It's not just money, you can't say, 'here's a load of money, please don't see your family.' 

"Actually, you have to say, 'we want you to see your family, but here's some nice money.'" 

it takes extra effort to make a sustainable business profitable

That having been said, Hannah cannot stress enough that "this is an expensive way to run a business." 

Already, as immune systems having had to ward off any common colds for years, "we're already seeing people off sick, obviously people go on holiday so we have to cover that, and essentially, to make all our chefs to a four-day week," as the hotel is open five days a week, "that means inevitably hiring more chefs to cover that so that nobody feels stretched." 

"Not letting them be burnt out is expensive, much more expensive than it was previously."

This cost was inevitably going to be passed on somewhere - and they weren't able to absorb it all.

"When we started this in May, we thought, 'oh, we'll put our prices up by 50p.' But essentially, we have moved our cost per head up £5, so customers pay £5 more for the experience." 

And even with that, the business is bringing in less money than it was before - but for Hannah, the advantages still outweigh the losses.

"Looking back, we were on paper profitable, but we were constantly running around like headless chickens with recruitment, always on a knife edge. Now, we don't feel like that.

"We feel like the business and the jobs are sustainable, the chefs don't want to go anywhere and they're smiling, which takes a lot of pressure and time - which is money - out of us worrying about that."

"However, we're now at the point where we've moved from on paper profitability to breaking even, we've taken a step back, and now we've realised we really need to push those covers through."

Part of what makes this way of functioning work for them, is continuously reminding guests that it is part of the package when they dine with them.

"This model works for busy restaurants with reputations. We know that people are knocking on the door to come to Farmyard - thank God - and we will keep pushing people through and we will keep talking to our customers about how we are supporting the team. It's about 'free-range chefs' as much as it's about the 'free-range meat'.

"You are paying to have happy sustainable chefs cooking your dinner. We keep talking about that because I think restaurants that follow suit with this - and I think lots are, which is brilliant - will be putting prices up. And that is the reality of it." 

And indeed, that is the bottom line: quality costs money.

"We're not Michelin-starred, we don't have the crazy overheads and the chefs that they have, but we still need to charge enough to have enough money at the end of the day, because otherwise what are we doing." 

Popularity and loyalty are key

Hannah is eager for other businesses to follow suit, with the caveat that for start-ups, there will be extra hurdles.

"We are fortunate to have a brand with a great reputation, she said.

What's more, "we've always overdelivered - we've always had reviews saying, 'gosh, they're really good bang for their buck,' so by moving it up £5, I guess we haven't seen any hit from that.

"If we move it up £10, £15, where is that spot where we need to move it to make sure that we're in profit? We know that we can pay our bills, but we need to do more than that, we need to make some money, obviously, to be able to invest in the business.

"I do worry that if we were in our first year or two, would we have got through that? Because running on four days, you really do need bums on seats.

"At the end of the day, that's what's important: having a customer base that understands that they need to support restaurants by spending the money and by repeat custom. That's what the sweet spot here." 


Now that it is in place, the improvements aren't just obvious within their businesses - they also extend to their competitors. 

"We had a competitor trying to poach our pastry chef - and brilliantly, he offered them the same package," Hannah said. 

"That's brilliant, because it shows that if people are to compete with us and try and employ similar level chefs locally, they're going to have to offer the same deal and there'll be a ripple effect throughout the industry."

Hannah believes that what has happened to hospitality in the past two years when it comes to working conditions and pay is here to stay - and she's glad.

"Before the lockdown, there was a snobishness about that wasn't there. 'Oh these youngsters coming in that want a life, how dare they,' now it's like, 'oh they want a life and they'd like to see their partner occasionally, that's fine, we all want that.'" 

And indeed, she and her husband have had to be strict thith themselves to make sure they too are keeping some time for themselves to rest, socialise and nurture their own health.

"I'm not saying that we weren't the last people to try and instill a four day week into ourselves, of course you have to put your team first, they do the four day week while we slog, but we've now ringfenced it. 

"We have a weekend day with the kids, on a Monday we go to this place and do our admin together, and on a Tuesday, we will not book a meeting in. We do meditation on a Tuesday together." 

"We're really proud of it and I do think it's the way the industry has got to turn. I'm excited by that because it was not an acceptable place to work. Hospitality was not looking after its teams - now it has no choice, because if you don't, you're going to be left behind."

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Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Deputy Editor 13th October 2021

'It's proof that humans need to be paid well, but more than that, they need to have a life'