Not only did the proportion of EU workers drop before Covid, but the pandemic made the industry “fragile and unstable”, says Nicholls, which will have forced thousands of young people to write it off as a potential career option. Many domestic workers have also left after repeated furloughs and closures.
One boss recalls some employees bluntly explaining why they would never return to his kitchen: “Chief, we lay down on a beach, at mum and dad’s, the British taxpayer put money into our account. We can cook and have money on hand”.
Convincing these workers to come back, pay high rent and work grueling hours is a tough sell. Staff who earned £26,000 before Covid, for example, appeared demanding £38,000 and saying they would not be working weekends or Friday evenings. With added bargaining power and a new perspective after the lockdowns, workers still in the industry want to force change.
“People have seen a bud on a tree turn into a leaf and fall off. We now have a generation that does not want to engage,” says Galvin, reflecting on the uncertainty as restaurants have been forced to close.
“I’ll never forget to create Plan A, Plan B, Plan C and Plan D. Screwing plans into the tray and then taking them out of the tray and saying ‘actually, this might work’. [Post-pandemic] it is a lunar landscape. It’s so different – on Mondays and Fridays I feel like the aliens have landed because there’s no one around.”
Balfe, who moved from London to open Holm last year, says restaurants are adapting as shortages become the reality for the next few years. Considering those with different experience, offering more training and sponsoring foreign chefs – something that would not have been considered a few years ago due to the amount of paperwork involved – are ways he and others manage the “punch”. of Brexit and Covid.
Harneet Baweja, the co-founder of Indian restaurant brand Gunpowder, says it feels like “challenges coming from all angles”. While there are plenty of longer-term options, such as additional training, he stresses that there is no “short-term silver bullet” when it comes to staff shortages.
But competition for workers by offering more benefits is not sustainable when the entire sector is under pressure.
Scott Collins, the co-founder of the burger chain MEATliquor, believes the ‘horrible days of people running around poaching staff from other restaurants’ offering ‘silly sums of money’ were never going to last and to him, it feels like history. The cavalry may not get over the hill, but the sector is adapting after a period of once unthinkable challenges.
“My biggest problem was managing queues. Those were good times,” he recalls.