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Long Read: Daring to dream of a Golden Era of hospitality

Published:  16 September, 2021

Hugh Jones fell into the drinks industry 14 years ago while trying to become a rock star and never left, learning his trade at Majestic Wine, Pernod Ricard, and Mentzendorff. After a locked-down winter teaching strangers how to make cocktails over Zoom, he is now sales manager at Colwith Farm Distillery.

Here, he considers what a best-case scenario looks like for the on-trade as it recovers from Covid, taking into account the jobs crisis and how government can help the industry achieve the much talked about goal of ‘building back better’.

We could be on the brink of something amazing. Bear with me, here. I know it’s a stretch considering the huge amount of upheaval and firefighting that has been forced on businesses over the past 18 months. But with gargantuan levels of optimism, it’s not so far-fetched to imagine that a new golden age of hospitality could be around the corner with the right support from the government and our industry. Now that the trade has opened up again, challenges aplenty loom. But it has also opened doors and ignited conversations around positive change.

Tim Etherington-Judge, founder of Healthy Hospo and co-founder of Avallen, is among many who believe that appointing a Hospitality Minister is the first step the government could take to show it is serious about recovery and growth.

“Pre-covid, hospitality employed 3.4 million people in the UK and it’s estimated that up to 80% of the UK population have at some point in their lives worked in hospitality, so it’s absurd that one of the biggest industries in the UK doesn’t have representation in government,” Etherington-Judge said.

Strangely enough, the wheels are actually in motion for this for this to happen – though at an admittedly slow pace. After a successful petition that garnered 209,984 signatures, the proposal was debated in parliament in November 2020, to which the government responded: “Responsibility for the hospitality sector is shared by ministers in the Departments for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy, and Digital, Culture, Media & Sport.”

It seems bizarre that hospitality in part comes under the remit of the departments for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy. It’s something that Etherington-Judge picks up on: “If I’m really dreaming, I’d love to see the government put an end to subsidising destructive industries such as fossil fuels and provide subsidies to the hospitality industry to raise wages.”

The wage issue is a big one. Having malingered in bars and restaurants for many years now, notoriously low wages for front of house and kitchen staff has been made worse by the use of TRONC during the pandemic – a practice which has been particularly damaging during the furlough period, where many were forced from restaurants to the streets as a direct result. One hospitality worker confided in me recently that use of TRONC and minimum wage pay based on age meant they had a talented 19-year-old bar supervisor leave the business because a 35-year-old part time bartender was taking home more money. We need to recognise and nurture young talent if the industry is to change for the better, not scare it away.

Elliot Ball, co-owner of the Cocktail Trading Co has always tried to ensure a positive culture in his bars for staff, knowing that a happy team translates to happy customers. He hopes more will adopt a similar approach.

“Current circumstances are going to force operators to value their staff more. Even Brexit chopping a rung off the hospitality ladder could force various awful pub chains to pay enough to get locals interested in work. It’s going to be utterly turbulent, and while it will likely be a pretty tough time for yours truly also, I will take solace in the likely-significant correlation between how hard it is for operators and how regressive their previous choices were as an employer,” Ball said.

Many of us in the trade fell into it and just never left. Like me, Jen Baernreuther, commercial director of Speciality Drinks, is another accidental lifer. She suggests that, “In recovery, we need to bring back fun – bartender perks, parties, trips – to remind the people at the front line why they want to be in the industry. This will then naturally filter to guests to deliver good results and sustainable businesses. It is then down to the operators to treat their staff well – develop and nurture them as their most important asset. Operators need to work toward improved work-life balance for their employees.”

Perhaps now is the time for Boris Johnson to fully atone for his university heyday at the Bullingdon Club where he, along with Cameron and Osborne, were prone to trashing restaurants and paying for damage on the spot. A hospitality minister and more subsidies would be a good start. As for the rest, it’s up to operators to value their staff, nurture young talent, and most importantly of all, bring back the fun.

Top photo shows the team at the Cocktail Trading Co on a recent night out