With the English government’s roadmap out of lockdown allowing the re-opening of indoor dining on Monday 17 May, Nick Mosley talks to local restaurateurs about the challenges and opportunities faced at this critical time for the industry. [This article first appeared in the Brighton Argus on Saturday 15 May 2021].
Across the wider hospitality industry – including restaurants, pubs and hotels – the national trade body UKHospitality recently revealed that 600,000 jobs had been lost and 12,000 businesses had failed. The estimated total of lost sales is a staggering £68 billion.
Over the past year, many hospitality businesses have benefited from government grants and loans, alongside the ability to furlough some staff. Those business who are light-on-their-feet have been able to adapt their models to include take-out and home delivery, and the re-opening of outdoor dining has been warmly welcomed by most. However none of this has made up for their inability to operate as normal for over a year.
One of the key challenges is rebuilding kitchen teams and front-of-house staff. Recruitment has always been one of the biggest historical headaches for operators – whether independents or multiples – but no-one ever envisaged the industry would be faced with the existential challenge of Covid, compounded by a change in the workforce ecosystem prompted by Brexit.
There’s been an exodus of employees from the industry, not helped by many dedicated and talented EU workers heading back to their home countries and either unable or unwilling to return to the UK. On the flip-side, through financial necessity, significant numbers of British hospitality workers have moved to new careers that provide more stable wages and – in some cases – may be less stressful than working in a high pressure hospitality environment.
It’s also a cold and hard fact that many young Brits – often pigeon-holed as late Millennials and Generation Z – simply see hospitality and associated jobs as a stop-gap role rather a long-term career option.
In Hove, Neil Mannifield runs Market Restaurant & Bar on Western Road and is one of the longest-established and most well-respected restaurateurs in the city.
“With the natural wastage in a high turnover industry like ours we have lost a few staff”, said Neil. “With Brexit now a reality we are already struggling to recruit new staff with any experience at all”.
“Simply put, there don’t seem to any newcomers to Brighton who want to work in restaurants”.
Masterchef: The Professionals winner, chef-proprietor Steven Edwards of Etch on Church Road has been preparing for the reopening of indoor dining for several months.
“We’re literally starting from scratch”, said Steve. “Being closed for five months means that we have no rolling start, so we’ve had to get the team working the week before 17 May so that we are ready to meet the demand”.
Although the lights are still off at many restaurants and pubs – and in some cases may never be switched back on again –, there is a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel, with a slew of new openings led by the launch of Shelter Hall on Brighton seafront.
“As a new opening with a completely different concept and kitchen partners, Shelter Hall faced the normal challenges of opening”, said Shelter Hall’s food director Olivia Reid. “In some ways, the limitations of Covid outdoor dining was in fact a blessing and allowed us to test our operations and systems ahead of full opening”.
“Recruitment in the sector is a huge nationwide issue, due to a combination of furlough and Brexit”, continued Olivia. “Shelter Hall is constantly recruiting to ensure we have a strong developing team; focusing on training and creating opportunity for the next cohort of hospitality stars, offering a new rewarding environment for them to learn from and enjoy”.
In terms of the expectation of diners, Olivia expects that consumers will be demanding more hybrid choices when they choose where they want to enjoy a hospitality experience.
“43% of our outdoor-only guests have booked indoor tables for the next few months. This is hugely reassuring but we all must be prepared for a new combination of dining experience expectation; customers will continue to expect choice and we must provide it”.
Joining the line-up of new restaurants in the city, Raz Helalat – owner of The Salt Room and The Coal Shed restaurants in Brighton – is launching his new concept, Burnt Orange, on Middle Street at the start of June. As an established independent operator, Raz has over a decade of experience of the city’s food scene and says he’s seen a gap in the market for a new-style of informal dining and drinking.
“Over the past couple of years, I’ve had countless conversations with friends and loyal customers about the need for a totally new space”, said Raz. “Something different - not quite a restaurant, not quite a bar - but somewhere that bridges the gap with the right music, of course. So, after the 18 months we've all had, it felt like the perfect time to open our doors.”
Outside of the cosmopolitan hub of Brighton & Hove, elsewhere in Sussex restaurateurs are also finding new opportunities for growth in adversity. Chef Kenny Tutt who launched Pitch in Worthing following his Masterchef: The Professionals win in 2018, has recently opened the Ox-Block kitchen at Brighton’s Shelter Hall and will be launching Bayside Social – a new beachside café-restaurant on Worthing seafront.
As a true-champion of Sussex food and drink, Kenny says: “I’ll continue to work with more and more local suppliers and look forward to hosting a welcoming, warm space for everyone to enjoy”.
Meanwhile in Lewes, business partners chef Richard Falk and Stephen Yeomans, are opening their new restaurant Fork on Station Street on 1 June. Richard previously worked at The Ledbury in Notting Hill and The Dairy in Clapham.
“Lewes is a small, fiercely independent town”, said Richard. “There was a definite opportunity for an independently owned and run neighbourhood restaurant”
“As with a lot of things, judging the perfect time to commit is difficult, but I would argue that the present is the moment to be opening; after over a year of cooking at home customers' expectations will be high, and the desire for our guests to reconnect in person is greater than ever. As an accessible, neighbourhood restaurant, we can satisfy a lot of these criteria”.
Despite the reassuring news of new openings, the city and county will unfortunately see a lot of established hospitality businesses of all shapes and sizes – for a multitude of reasons of staffing, finances and adaptability – either not re-opening or struggling to get through the winter off-peak shoulder period. The reboot of an entire industry, has brought to the fore significant structural issues with staff recruitment and retention, and whether employment in hospitality at all levels can be seen as valid – and valued – career options.
For hospitality operators, a new normal of consumer expectations will need to be met. Local and national government policy – that impacts education and vocational training, gastronomic tourism promotion, high street business rates – around hospitality and wider food and drink will rapidly need to update and adapt to the challenges that lay ahead.