Turning down party reservations over the Christmas period is the last thing a restaurant owner wants to do. But that’s the harsh reality of Rattle Owl, an independent restaurant featured in the Michelin Guidewhich, like the vast majority of hotel businesses, suffers from a lack of staff and has to make compromises.
“We used to be able to do 26 (people for a Christmas party booking) but we absolutely can’t do that now. The maximum we can do now is 10,” York restaurant owner Clarrie O said. ‘Callaghan.
The shortage means anyone who called to make a reservation for a larger number of people was turned away.
“Independent restaurants are all in the same boat: we have to limit the number of people to guarantee the best service to customers.”
The restaurant has five chefs and six waiters, but needs one or two more chefs and two more waiters. He’s not the only one suffering from what’s been called an ‘existential threat’ to the hospitality industry.
Celebrity London chef Jason Atherton said last month that he will have to close restaurants in the new year because a third of his restaurant positions are vacant. Tom Kerridge, Rick Stein, Angela Hartnett and Raymond Blanc also all raised their voices in support of training and recruiting more hospitality workers.
Other restaurants compromise on the people they hire. A restaurateur said he trains reception staff in kitchen work, which is not ideal, and hires international students, who are allowed to work 20 hours a week.
Last month a group of hospitality organizations wrote to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions asking for ‘urgent intervention’ in what was becoming a ‘perfect storm’ that would force businesses to close.
In the joint letter to MP Mel Stride, UKHospitality, the British Beer and Pub Association (BBPA), the British Institute of Innkeeping (BII), the Institute of Hospitality and the charity Springboard, wrote that the recruitment crisis was causing “an existential threat to our industry”.
“It’s not a problem faced by just one type of venue or hospitality business, it’s a universal problem, and it’s critical because bright, passionate people are the lifeblood of hospitality,” says the letter.
Emma McClarkin, chief executive of the BBPA, said the vacancy rate in the hospitality sector stands at 11%, compared to a UK average of 4%, and it is costing the industry £22billion per year.
“It is striking that hospitality is struggling to attract the people we need,” she said. “Obviously, we have always struggled to recruit enough chefs in the kitchen. This was the case even before the pandemic, but now we are struggling to get people to come in front of the house; it’s never been a problem before. And this is going to have an impact on Christmas.
McClarkin said that during the pandemic many overseas employees have left and have not returned, this was particularly the case for EU workers, who no longer have freedom of movement to the UK.
She said the uncertainty caused by the various lockdowns, where businesses have been forced to close at short notice, has also seen staff leave the industry.
“We see people who have also walked away (from the industry) because they were worried about long-term safety. So they went to work for, maybe, Amazon or a delivery company, or maybe work in a supermarket or a retail environment, where they felt they were able to sustain an income.
The organization estimates that pubs are losing 16% of their sales due to lack of staff.
“It’s the difference between a successful and unsuccessful business. It’s so difficult. We are in a “cost of doing business” crisis, as well as a cost of living crisis.
Pubs are now closing at the rate of 50 per month, up from 30 per month at the start of the year. Last month it was revealed that restaurant closures had increased by 60% after the pandemic, with 1,567 bankruptcies in 2021-22, compared to 984 in 2020-21, according to a study by consulting firm Mazars. The figure includes 453 in the last three months, compared to 395 in the previous quarter.
McClarkin said: “We expect it to get worse over the next few months, so we really need to have a great Christmas.”
The hospitality industry is running a joint campaign called Hospitality Rising to encourage people to take jobs in pubs, bars, restaurants and cafes. McClarkin said: ‘A pub job is not just a stopgap, it’s an opportunity to progress quickly into a long career where you have a lot of fun. There is never a dull moment in hospitality.