Are split shifts a nuisance or a necessity?

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 31st October 2014
The split shift is often seen as the bane of the restaurant industry. Although many top chefs will say that they work 15 hour days, nationwide and worldwide chefs of all levels and waiting staff too, will be working ‘flexible shift patterns’ – dealing with the lunchtime rush, then having a four hour break before returning for the evening shift. SWhilst this greatly benefits the owners, who get the advantage of two shifts worked by the same staff without having to pay them for the hours in between, for the workers it is often a much abhorred practice for a number of reasons. Working a day split 9am to 2pm and 6pm to 11pm ends up looking very unsociable – a 14 hour day with just ten hours of paid work. For those who live close to the establishment it is one thing, but for others it may require two commutes per day, increasing transport costs and fatigue. There might be time for a nap, a bite to eat or to collect the kids from school before returning to work and coming home once they are already tucked up in bed. Restaurant owners aim to keep their costs down yet retain the same level of service for customers. Whilst there is no specific evidence to certify where or when the phenomenon of split shifts started, it seems likely that ever since restaurants have had busy peaks and quieter periods staff will have worked to match this. Andrew Turner, executive chef at Hotel Café Royal, said: "My split shifts when I first started cooking 26 years ago consisted of  being able to go to the loo, wash your hands, mop your brow down, change your jacket and get back onto the service. That's how I grew up." Hotel Café Royal runs a 24 hour operation with a variety of shift patterns, Andrew believes that the Working Time Directive, pioneered in the early 1990s by the European Union, had much to do with the current state of affairs. He said: “The Working Time Directive changed everything. Although hotels said they followed the Working Time Directive, it was non-viable because the amount of money that you’d need to charge to afford the staffing underneath it was just ridiculous. If you have an early shift and a late shift, and your minimum staffing per service is say six per kitchen, and if you then have to have ten people over a seven day rota, how would you make any money?” The role of a head chef has also diversified, from dealing with food matters to having to manage every detail of your work force. Hotel Cafe Royal - Chef Andrew Turner2 Andrew explained: “As executive chef you treat them with respect and you understand their values, their family life, their aspirations, their weaknesses. You need to understand them fully. This is no longer employing a person to do a job. You have to be responsible for the whole thing and the more you put in the more you get out.” Building a close sense of affinity within a team is vital in order to retain staff and keep them contented with their working hours, something Andrew understands. He said: “We are fortunate enough to be right in the centre of town so there is nothing that they couldn't occupy themselves with on a three hour split, whether that be going bowling, going to a museum, going to a cafe, going to watch a film, have a massage. We make sure they have the opportunity to visit the gym which is nearby and we offer them a very cheap membership to encourage them to stay healthy. So in their split shifts you tend to find that three times a week the guys are going to the gym as a team.” To hear of such an evolution from the days when chefs had five minutes to cool off is quite something. Changes in a few hotels are one thing; nevertheless, as many chefs will attest, revolutionising an entire industry is another matter. One of the most noticeable developments in the fine dining industry is everything has become simpler. Andrew explained: “What has particularly changed in the last ten years is that everybody has simplified things. Everyone says ‘yeah we’re returning back to nature, we’re going back to the product, look at this it’s just got two steps in it, this is the way forward, none of that fancy stuff’. What they’re saying to you is, ‘we can’t afford to do that because it’s not effective, because we have to manage our staffing levels.’” Hotel Cafe Royal - Chef Andrew Turner1Andrew explains how after the recession in the 1980s the Americans, who provided much of the trade in hotels and restaurants in London, were hit in the pocket and business across the capital slumped. “A lot of the big hotels decided to close big areas of their hotels down and refurb in the down time,” said Andrew. “When I was younger I was on the meat section which had nine different chefs. Today that same section would have three. We used to come in and we used to make four different types of soup, all the stocks daily, it was proper old school cooking, and when I came back after the recession and things were put back in place, we realised that this was the opportunity to change; this was the opportunity to charge the F&B outlets to make money within the operation, each individual department charged with being its own profit centre.” As a result, he noted big changes and said: “Do you need to have five soups just because you’ve always done it? If you look back at all the old menus, even before Trompetto, look at the size of the menus. They were 20 times larger than they are today, so when you might have seven starters, seven mains, and seven desserts, you would have had 30 starters, 30 mains, an egg section in there, a pasta section in there and 15 desserts plus probably an ice sorbet trolley. So that all changed and the new way of thinking was: how many starters, how many mains, how many desserts? How many staff do you need to do that, how many covers do you need to do to sell that, and so on and so forth.”13029_1406754760_1223537 With fewer staff and hours in the kitchen, the need for simplicity and efficiency is paramount. But as Andrew emphasises strongly, there needs to be balance. “That’s the beauty of everything,” he explained. “Finding the right balance between what is enough to keep a chef interested about food which is exciting, but at the same time it’s not a cost of labour that has an effect on the business. And that takes experience.” Some larger establishments and hotels are slowly bucking the trend.  A quick search online for chef jobs will reveal job descriptions proudly advertising in capital letters “chef de partie – NO SPLIT SHIFTS!” The styling of such offers shows that employers realise the situation, and in a time when they are having to become more responsive to their workers’ needs, witnessing changes in attitudes is a positive step. In this vein, Andrew is proud to proclaim how seriously the Hotel Café Royal takes staff welfare. He said: "Here at the Café Royal we have 14 cubicles for toilets for males and 14 for females with shower facilities, which is unheard of. We very much care that the food that the staff consume is freshly cooked, appealing, that they are also a part of the journey that produces the ideas that go into the food, that there is not that attitude from us that it’s just staff food, but we really do take it seriously that people get something really good to eat. We very much produce cooking of fine food and things like that; it’s very much about fresh. All of these anomalies make a working environment a good working practice environment. The more that you focus on those things, the more you look after someone.” stock-footage-time-lapse-clip-of-a-busy-team-of-chefs-working-hard-and-preparing-food-in-a-commercial-orStaff shortages and increasing numbers of competitors has led to employers needing to be more attentive to their personnel. “There are so many opportunities and so much choice and there are so many agencies out there now that it’s rough with agencies across London,” added Andrew. “Whereas before you had a queue of staff waiting at your door to want to come and work at these fine venues, you tend to find the queues have dropped off because there’s so much choice. So what you need to do is to make sure that what you offer is very attractive.” The obstacle is not necessarily attitudes but rather a lack of concrete alternatives, especially for smaller business with limited funds. So, can employers run an efficient and profitable business with staff not on split shifts? Maybe you can suggest some alternatives? Join the debate on Twitter and Facebook By Mark Savile

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 31st October 2014

Are split shifts a nuisance or a necessity?