EU citizens make up a quarter of the 3 million workers in hospitality. That includes 75% of waiting staff and 25% of chefs. As the clock ticks down to Britain’s departure from the EU, senior figures in Britain’s hospitality sector are warning that staff shortages brought about by an exodus of European workers, and a dearth of new arrivals post-Brexit, is a crisis in the making for an industry that is Britain’s fourth-biggest employer.
The squeeze is being felt all over the country, from booming northern “destination towns” such as York and Harrogate to London, at a time when consumer demand shows no sign of dropping off, notwithstanding Brexit-related anxieties.
“There’s a feeling that the party has ended,” said David Strauss, general manager of Goodman Restaurants group, which runs a string of steakhouses and eateries including Burger and Lobster. Five of its senior managers from EU backgrounds are in the process of leaving to go to Canada and Australia.
“There’s been a boom in the last 10 years in restaurants and it’s still carrying on, but we’re seeing people now look at the future and thinking ‘it’s not going to get much better here’.
“We rely on young people really in central London – mainly from the EU – and a lot have never really been in love with the way of life, weather and the expense, so if they can move they would and other countries are opening up to them now. They’re looking, for example, at Paris, where it looks like the labor laws might change and where the culture of one-dimensional restaurants is ripe for change.”
Some outlets are already closing on certain days due to staff shortages. Others are pulling down shutters, choosing to take a hit on continuing to pay rental costs. Factors such as property price inflation, a weak pound and the upward cost of ingredients which are traded on the international market – butter is a case in point – are backing many in the hospitality sector into a corner.
Britain’s sophisticated mid-market restaurant chain scene is likely to have the flexibility to weather the storm, but some independents may fall by the wayside.
The alarm bells are also being sounded by companies ranging from the sandwich chain Pret A Manger, which says it would find it virtually impossible to find enough staff if it were forced to turn its back on EU nationals after Brexit, through to the pizza chain Franco Manca, which warned this summer that it is already becoming harder to recruit staff.
There is also concern among companies that have made positive noises about Brexit. While arguing that Brexit was bringing a “greater sense of accountability and self-responsibility in the UK” Leon’s chief executive, John Vincent, has also expressed concerns about being able to hire and retain staff and admitted that many of them were upset by the referendum result.
As the Brexit process grinds along, the hospitality sector’s representatives have warned that government plans for the introduction of new qualifications in 2022, as part of efforts to create an army of British-born waiters, chefs and baristas, will come far too late. The result, according to the British Hospitality Association (BHA), could be that hotels, restaurants, bars and cafes across the UK go to the wall.