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Staffing For Success

Published:  22 April, 2021

For the second of our Building Back webinars in collaboration with Trade Hospitality App, Andrew Catchpole invited on-trade leaders to examine the growing issue of attracting and retaining talent.

The Panel:

Robin Hutson, CEO and chairman, Home Grown Hotels (The Pig and Lime Wood groups)

Chantelle Nicholson, chef-patron, Tredwells and All’s Well

Xavier Rousset MS, restaurateur and Trade Hospitality App founder

Andrew Catchpole, moderator and editor, Harpers Wine & Spirit 


With quality staff the lifeblood of customer-facing food and drink businesses, we brought together leading trade figures to consider the scale of the staffing crisis in hospitality and examine ways in which this can be turned around to attract and retain the best people – not least to enhance service and much-needed profitability as the trade reopens.

During this collaborative event with Trade Hospitality App, an insightful discussion ensued, driving home quite how Brexit and Covid had exacerbated an already difficult situation.

“Finding that career chef or career waiter, with five years experience, a solid background, that’s what’s really difficult and it was bad before and no doubt it’ll be worse now,” said Robin Hutson, setting the scene.

“We upped our apprenticeship scheme in 2019 in anticipation of the Brexit debacle, and we have a lot of apprentices coming through, but you’re just having to put more and more effort into getting the right people now.”

One of the biggest problems identified is that, where impending Brexit had led to reduced impetus for Europeans to come and work in the UK, coupled with a slow exodus of EU nationals from the trade, the pandemic has vastly accelerated that trend.

Currently, said Hutson, with an “enormously helpful” furlough scheme still in place and a gradual reopening of hospitality about to play out, it should be possible for many operators to maintain an “equilibrium, until we get much more into our stride at the end of June”.

However, he added that this would be a period when it would be incredibly difficult to judge staffing requirements, “a dangerous halfway house”, which it would be easy to get wrong.

Xavier Rousset also picked up on the uncertainty, both of the past 12 months and potentially for much of the rest of this year, as one of the biggest challenges facing operators when it comes to staffing requirements.

“We’ve lost a few people and we’re basically going to be starting on half the team, using furlough to be as flexible as possible, not knowing if we are going to be extremely quiet, extremely busy,” he said. “The staff have been incredible, flexible, resilient, understanding, but they are asking for guidance and I haven’t got a clue. There is no guidance.”

Ongoing challenges

The immediate challenges are of concern. But assuming a real thirst for hospitality returns, the issue is also one of attracting and retaining quality staff, not just quantity, in the medium-to-longer term.

Would Brits not fill the gap with unemployment rising? And does the reliance on foreign workers from the EU and elsewhere suggest a deeper structural flaw in the industry?

Not so, rejoined the panellist, pointing out that the cosmopolitan nature of London and the UK’s restaurant and bar sectors had benefited immensely from global input, both back and front of house, making it the vibrant, world-class scene it had become. The challenge now is to stop this bleeding away, while attracting a new wave of both home-grown and overseas people. And this should involve better communicating the attractions of the career paths and opportunities it opens up.

“I came to London 17 years ago and started working in kitchens, and we’ve come a long way in those 17 years,” said New Zealand-born chef Chantelle Nicholson.

“We can’t change the hours we work, when people have dinner, but there are some things we can change and if you look at the last 12 months, I can’t think of any other industry that has been as creative, as innovative,” she added.

“We need to shout more about what [the industry offers]. I don’t think that’s been done enough, there’s a huge amount more that needs to be done to attract people. And we need to say it’s so multifaceted, you can have a 360 degree education, development, growth, in so many directions – it’s about interaction with people, management, operational, financial, it’s the whole works.”

Pay, of course, is an issue, especially across the lower ranks of hospitality, often coupled with challenging hours. Again, Nicholson drew general agreement that the pressures of high rates and rent, plus high food and drink costs for the operator (especially in central London) meant that remuneration is not what it could be.

“Until the consumer is actually willing to pay the true value of what it costs, there is going to be that discourse, that until [eating and drinking out] is recognised and truly valued, it will be a difficult balancing act.”

The panel was hopeful, though, that a trend before and during the course of the pandemic, which saw customers more often seeking real value – not cheapness – in food and drink experiences would continue, better supporting quality operators.

The Catch 22 was keeping up such high standards moving ahead, better enabling the trade to attract bright entrants from the UK too.

Both Rousset and Hutson raised the spectre of “the elephant in the room”, that the UK still has not quite shaken off its snobbery – despite the economic clout and dazzling brilliance of the hospitality sector – towards the idea of a career in restaurants and bars.

“If you are going full-time into the catering industry in France, or Italy or Spain, or even the US, it is accepted, but in the UK there is a cultural difference,” said Rousset.

Over his 21 years of working up from waiter to Master Sommelier to successful restaurateur, Rousset did allow that attitudes are changing, though particularly for kitchen staff, down to the “Jamie Oliver effect”.

This, all agreed, needed to be transferred to front of house, with more government support and a further roll out (or take up) of apprentice schemes, to introduce UK people to this dynamic world.

“There used to be this huge knowledge bank, experienced people, and many of those people have dried up – we’re working with some great youngsters, but they may just be passing through, not making this a career choice, so we all have to work harder and adapt,” said Rousset.

Another aspect of the industry that should add to its appeal, suggested the panel, is that diversity is already quite deeply engrained in the sector, and while there is always room for improvement, it’s also already quite a multi-cultural world, where entrants can rise on merit, rather than qualifications or connections alone.

Greater mentoring was also signalled as a key approach, one that could help retain those ‘passing through’. So making clear, both internally and beyond, that this world offers serious and rewarding career options, with clear paths for progression.

A full version of this webinar can be watched on Harpers’ YouTube channel.