'If they don't adapt, they won't survive and it's as simple as that'

The  Staff Canteen

Sally Abé and Emma Underwood have every reason to be excited as they embark on their new adventure together at Conrad London St James’.

Set to open The Pem Restaurant on July 1st with head chef Laetizia Keating at the helm, the plight they share with so many managers and team leaders in hospitality is likely to get in the way of their jubilation if by then they haven't recruited enough staff.

Emma said: "It almost feels like it's marring it all. It's such a struggle." 

With a long wishlist of demi chef de parties, chef de parties, pastry chef de parties, waiters and head waiters still to recruit, the excitement of reopening without restrictions is bound to be somewhat tarnished.

Whilst a lot of people have left the capital (or indeed, the UK), Emma continued, "I think the main thing we've seen is that there's a whole readdressing of the industry underway,"

The argument of 'just pay your staff more' doesn't always pay off

To remedy the problem, some restaurants and agencies are offering very high wages to entice workers, but, Sally said, "it's just not sustainable."

 "The staff costs are already the highest part of running a restaurant as it is and you're just pushing that mark-up even further; it's just making things worse and it's not fair on all the restaurants that literally cannot do that."

So what can be done?

The eternal question of how to change people's attitude towards the industry is crucial here, she continued, as "people think of it as, long hours, get shouted at, but no-one really talks about the good side of it."

"Certain chefs going on TV shouting and screaming at people for the last 20 years hasn't really helped with the image of the industry. What we need to do is promote the good bits: you can learn about food and wine, you get to work in a dynamic, fast-paced environment, which certain people and certainly we thrive on."

"No, it's not for everybody, but sitting in an office isn't for everybody, and the hours can be classed as anti-social but we still have a lovely social life. Everybody focuses on the negatives in the industry but there are so many positives."

"It's such a fulfilling, rewarding career, and you can take so many paths with it as well," not even necessarily staying on the restaurant floor. 

"For me, it's about being part of a team and a family and treating your colleagues as if they are your family. I think that's quite unique in hospitality." 

Working for Hilton, the list of benefits is huge, she explained. A job there will land you a retirement scheme, a dental plan, discounted hotel stays, provision and laundering of uniforms and shoes, access to training programmes like WSET, supplier trips, internal EAPs, "things that small employers wouldn't normally be able to offer." 

"We've got all these amazing things to shout about, but it's just getting lost in all the other noise."

Too many cooks

The fact that everyone is opening at once doesn't help - recruitment websites are teeming with job offers, meaning you really have to stand out to be in with the chance. 

"We're on page 20 of those ads, so even if you're the best restaurant in the world, if you're on page 20, no-one's going to flip through 20 pages of jobs." 

Loyalties are running low these days, as demonstrated by the fact that chefs are applying to work at restaurants owned by chefs who are friends, but, Sally said, "you can't blame anyone for that," as "we're starting again in a whole new world. It's pretty dog eat dog out there." 

As for the chefs who left after their furlough ended, arguably one of the contributing factors to the current scramble to recruit staff, Emma said, "there's so little you can do about that."

Reputational damage

The problem of staff shortages in the industry isn't new, but it is decidedly more problematic now.
"We've always just managed, but it's at a tipping point," Sally said.

The image of the industry has suffered from the coverage it has received in the past eighteen months, which is unlikely to attract more people to work in it.

Emma explained: "The way our guests have identified with us and changed over the last year - they almost see us as being quite heroic. We've sacrificed a lot and worked really hard and I think they really are very aware of that struggle." 

Faced with this, Emma said, "It's going to be a natural re-evaluation. Restaurants are going to have to work hard to give decent working hours and decent pay reflecting of their efforts." 

"Here, we're working on a 39-hour contract. If they work more, they get paid," she said, and Sally added: "they get a proper wage and then they get an equal share of 100% of the service charge on top."

"Across the board," Emma said, "all restaurants are going to have to either pay more or look at their working conditions and their business models will have to adapt." 

"If they don't adapt, they won't survive and it's as simple as that." 

"When you create a business model, the sustainability of staff is so often an afterthought. Now, it needs to be at the forefront. You need to start with 'how can I take care of my staff and how can my business model support them.'"

"It's going to be a year of huge changes, a lot of closures, a lot of emotions, a lot of stress, but I think that out of this a better industry is going to be born." 

Sally agreed, and concluded with a sigh: "We'll see what happens, it's going to be an interesting year again. But we'll make something special here, I can feel it!"

If you'd like to apply for a job at Conrad London St James’, contact Sally @littlechefsally or Emma @underwood_emma.

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 27th May 2021

'If they don't adapt, they won't survive and it's as simple as that'