UK restaurants hit with chef shortage as indoor dining resumes

Reset button: A restaurant in Covent Garden, London. Chefs, waiters and bartenders are in short supply after Brexit and three lockdowns. — Bloomberg

LONDON: Britain’s restaurants and bars can serve indoors again for the first time in five months today. Many of them are struggling to find enough staff after Brexit and three lockdowns in a year drove workers out of the industry.

Chefs, waiters and bartenders needed for everything from fast-food restaurants to fine dining are in short supply, with industry executives and recruiters saying that many of their most experienced people have left for other jobs.

“The people just aren’t there anymore, ” said David Moore, owner of Pied à Terre, London’s longest-standing independent Michelin-starred restaurant. The industry is facing a “fairly massive, very serious skills shortage.”

It’s a sign of scars on the UK economy that may hold back a rebound from the worst recession in three centuries – or a spark for inflation that’s already starting to concern investors. It’s a trend that already hit the United States, prompting McDonald’s Corp and Chipolte Mexican Grill Inc to raise wages for staff.

In Britain, hospitality companies were among the hardest hit by rules that closed leisure venues and pushed workers onto the government’s furlough wage subsidy program.

Despite that lifeline, the industry shed 330,000 workers through the pandemic, said Kate Nicholls, chief executive officer of the lobby group UKHospitality. About 20% of all restaurants and 10% of hotels closed shut for good, and many workers are looking at the long hours, low pay and shaky prospects of hospitality and looking elsewhere for work.

“People people are still nervous about committing to hospitality, fearful that the government may still impose restrictions, businesses unable to offer full-time posts, ” Nicholls said.

“The single biggest driver is uncertainty.”

Pub and restaurant stocks have rallied hard this year, with Restaurant Group more than doubling to the top performance of the FTSE 350 Index. But despite the UK’s speedy vaccination rollout, most hospitality companies are still trading below pre-Covid levels and hope to get a lift from the return of consumers ready to spend their savings.

Staffing is one of the industry’s biggest uncertainties. Online job advertisements for “catering and hospitality” rose above pre-pandemic levels in the first week of May, the jobs search engine Adzuna said.

A survey of 1,000 companies by the CIPD, a group representing human resources workers, showed two-thirds of hospitality companies plan to recruit in the second quarter, up from 36% in the first.

Pizza Express in April set out plans to recruit more than 1,000 new roles, reversing cuts made over the past year. D&D, with more than 40 high-end restaurants based primarily in London, is seeking to fill 400 jobs but so far managed to recruit just half that number.

“We’re having people working much longer hours to be able to run the restaurants, ” D&D CEO Des Gunewardena said. “We’re going to be fine, but it is a challenge.” — Bloomberg L.P.

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