Hospitality recruitment crisis: Restaurant bosses in Portsmouth face huge drop in applications for vacancies

USUALLY a sign goes up in the restaurant window and applications come flooding in, but this summer has seen a dearth of people applying for hospitality jobs.

Friday, 27th August 2021, 12:20 pm
Updated Monday, 30th August 2021, 4:28 pm

Restaurant owners across Portsmouth - and indeed the country - say they have been left scratching their heads wondering where all the chefs have gone.

Kevin Bingham who runs Restaurant 27 in Southsea, a top-rated Michelin-guided restaurant, says he has never seen it so bad in his 11 years in business.

He said: ‘It has been an absolute nightmare. Usually we have CVs coming in continuously, just through word of mouth, but this time round with Brexit, Covid and with schools cutting their home economics classes, there has been one just CV in two weeks. We arranged an interview but they never showed.

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Chef and owner of Restaurant 27 Kevin Bingham says there is an acute shortage of chefs Picture: Chris Moorhouse (jpns 250821-20)

‘It’s making things difficult for us. We are incredibly busy with everyone wanting to eat out but because of the limits placed on us due to our staffing ability, we are having to cut back on what we can do.’

Kevin said he has cut back opening hours to a four-and-a-half day week, as well as limiting table numbers, to be able to cope.

He said: ‘Where are all the chefs? With the likes of Marcus Wareing and Gordon Ramsay, it’s never been so cool to be a chef, but we can’t find them. Where are they all?’

And Kevin’s problem is one that’s reflected across the city, with job adverts up in many restaurant windows, such as The Briny and A-Bar.

Chef Rumen Islam at work. The Grill Kitchen, Fratton Rd Picture: Chris Moorhouse (jpns 240821-36)

Garry Disdle has recently taken over Cha Chas, a cafe in Southsea, after its previous owner retired after 20 years.

Garry, who has come from recently running the Sir Loin of Beef and before that the Olive Leaf in Hayling Island, said he’s never seen the rate of applications so low.

He has been advertising for a cook for his cafe online, on social media and with a sign in the window for the past two weeks, but has yet to have one good applicant.

He said: ‘I am lucky that a lot of the original staff have transferred over, so I am just looking for one chef, or an experienced cook, to make our breakfasts and lunches. It’s not difficult chef work, but we just can’t find anyone. It’s amazing. Where have all the chefs gone?’

Business partners Andre Guedeney, left, and Antony Aguado-Navarro are facing a shortage of staff to run their two shops. Andre’s, Osborne Rd, Southsea Picture: Chris Moorhouse (jpns 190821-06)

Garry said he blames the drought on furlough and people changing careers during lockdown.

His theory is backed up by a recent study by Aviva, which found that more than half of UK workers – 53 per cent – plan to make a change to their career in the next 12 months as a direct result of the pandemic.

Figures from the Office for National Statistics also suggest that 355,000 fewer people were employed in hospitality than a year ago - down from 3.2 million pre-pandemic.

And it’s not just chefs that are in demand, even lower level hospitality jobs are crying out for people.

Executive chef Simon Hartnett, Queens Hotel, Southsea Picture: Chris Moorhouse (jpns 250821-34)

On the Caterer.com there were 151 hospitality jobs advertised in Portsmouth alone at the start of this week with chef positions at O’Neills, The Wine Vaults, Bella Italia, The Harvester, Toby Carvery, All Bar One, Chiquito, The Red Lion Hotel, plus more.

There were also plenty of bar staff vacancies at places like the Scarlet Tap, The Liquorist, The Fleet, Popworld, Toby Carvery, All Bar One, plus more.

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Other sites were also advertising vacancies, Find a Job was showing 14 chef vacancies for Portsmouth, whereas Indeed was showing 910 hospitality or similar vacancies.

Andre Guedeney, who runs Andre’s, a baguette business that has two shops in Portsmouth, said they are also in need of staff to make their filled baguettes.

Andre, who runs the business with his cousin Antony Aguado-Navarro, has worked at his family-run business for more than 20 years and he said the current situation is the worst it’s been.

From left, Cosmina Popa, Valentine Knox-Johnston, Annie Martin-Smith, owner Kevin Bingham, Ollie Joell and Tomasz Wardecki at Restaurant 27, South Parade, Southsea Picture: Chris Moorhouse (jpns 250821-26)

Usually the business has two shops, one in Osborne Road and one in Lord Montgomery Way, however the shop in the city centre has not been able to open after lockdown, mainly due to a lack of staff.

Now, with students due to arrive back in the city centre in the coming weeks, the pressure is on to get the shop back open to cater for them.

He said: ‘Furlough has seen people sit at home and now it’s all hands on deck to get back up and running. The work we are doing is not highly skilled, but it’s still hard to get the staff. It’s a difficult situation to be in. We have never been busier as a business, especially with the launch of our new app, and we are really grateful to our customers, but we need to find good, reliable people to work with us. We offer a good rate of pay, regular hours, but need some level of commitment from our staff to work throughout university holidays for example, that’s what is making it so difficult to find anyone.

‘We are trying our hardest to meet demand, but we need staff to do that, and it’s the worst I have ever known.’

The situation has dramatically changed in a short period of time, according to The Grill Kitchen in Fratton.

The business opened in February and saw nearly 1,000 applications for just 11 roles.

Shahriar Uddin, who helps run the restaurant with his cousins as well as his own business Paanchi, said that working in the kitchen can be tough, but that it was all about treating your staff right once you have them to make sure they don’t leave.

He said: ‘Our chef Rumen is a partner in our business. We felt that was important. It can be tough work but it is a passion for all of us. There is a real satisfaction from seeing someone enjoy something you create.’

Hospitality vacancies rise astronomically

A recent report by Caterer.com found that vacancies had grown by 342 per cent since the re-opening of hospitality as employers rushed to rebuild their teams for reopening.

Its report concluded that the shortage of staff had been made worse by Brexit, which forced more than 93,000 EU workers to leave the UK hospitality industry over the past 12 months.

Kathy Dyball, director at Caterer.com, called on the government to do more for the industry.

She said: ‘This is a case of the sector needing more attention from the government to be able to trade profitably. In the longer-term there is work to be done to change perceptions of the industry. Its reputation has suffered due to lockdowns, with job uncertainty added to the list of misconceptions such as low pay and lack of flexibility. Working together as an industry to address these will be paramount to develop future talent pipelines.’

However, like Kevin at Restaurant 27, Clare James, director of human resources at top London hotel Corinthia London, said the problem is rooted much deeper, and can be traced back to a cut in education.

She said: ‘Progress needs to be made in hospitality education, Food Tech simply isn’t sufficient, we need professionally delivered hospitality education across schools and colleges as part of the arts/business curriculums, and for more UK universities to offer hospitality degrees.’

Others blamed the situation on the low pay and poor working conditions that can affect people working in kitchens.

Bryan Simpson, industrial organiser for Unite hospitality, said: ‘For the past 20 years, chefs and kitchen workers have seen their incomes collapse and hours increase as some of the biggest hospitality employers squeeze labour costs even further. Brexit and Covid have merely compounded what was already a downward spiral of conditions. The horrendous stories of abuse coming out of some of the country’s top kitchens show the level of abuse being aimed at junior chefs, that would not be tolerated in any other industry.’

Kerrie Honey, from the JobCentre in Portsmouth, said there are a large number of vacancies in the hospitality sector.

She said the industry usually sees a demand for staff during the summer months, as people enjoy holidays, however this year that usual trend has been made worse by other factors such as Covid requiring more staff so that venues can operate safely, Brexit seeing workers leave the UK and by people on furlough finding other careers during lockdown.

She said: ‘We have seen a lot of jobs arise in the hospitality sector as people staycation this year, for example we had lots of positions arise at Bourne Leisure, and it has been a struggle to fill those roles.

‘Higher up, chefs have to be trained, and many burn out through the hard work and unsocial hours before they reach the top level.

‘Every summer we see places struggle to hire chefs, but this year Covid has had an impact on where people want to work. People are considering whether they want to work in that sort of environment.’

However tough it is, working as a chef is not only a great career, it can be a rewarding way to earn a living, according to Simon Hartnett, the executive chef at the Queens Hotel in Southsea.

He joined the hotel when it reopened following the lockdown after working at a five-star hotel in Southampton.

He said: ‘I love the pressure and the problem solving involved in running a busy kitchen. You are only ever as good as your last service and there is no greater reward than walking into the dining room at the end of the night and seeing people really enjoying the food you and the kitchen team have prepared.

‘We need to do more to raise the profile of becoming a chef as a career. You can progress and travel the world, learning about new cuisines at the same time.’

What can be done?

The Federation of Small Businesses has called for action from the government on the back of its recent tourism and hospitality report ‘A Menu For Recovery’.

Nicola Bailey, FSB development manager for Hampshire, Dorset, Isle of Wight said: ‘In terms of our latest FSB Small Business Index, one in three (33 per cent) of respondents in the south east cited lack of appropriately skilled staff as a major barrier to growth last quarter.

‘We saw a similar proportion in accommodation and food services at around 35 per cent. So yes, a trend definitely reflected in our research.

‘We are calling for the UK government to reduce non-wage employment costs through cutting Employer National Insurance Contributions, to support small businesses by uprating the Employment Allowance, to extend the zero rating of secondary National Insurance Contributions for all Freeport employees and to ensure T Levels work for smaller hospitality and tourism businesses by extending incentive payments.

‘We would also like to see an extension to the Kickstart scheme beyond 2021 to support small hospitality and tourism businesses to employ young people as they recover.’

The city council’s view

Cllr Ben Dowling, cabinet member for culture, leisure and economic development at Portsmouth City Council, said: ‘The hospitality industry has undoubtedly suffered in the last 18 months and the national struggle to recruit hospitality staff is another blow for the sector.

‘We're working closely with hospitality companies across the city to create jobs for 16 to 24-year-olds on universal credit through the government's Kickstart Scheme, there are weekly recruitment fairs at the job centre that employers can attend if they want to, and we've recently held a careers fair in the city. There'll also be another one for university students as they return in the next few months which could be a great opportunity for businesses to recruit bar and waiting staff.

‘The hospitality sector plays a vital role in our community and we are committed to supporting our local businesses in their recovery from the pandemic.’

Advertising for staff

Figures from hospitality industry trade body UKHospitality last month found 85 per cent of venues are looking to hire chefs while 80 per cent need front-of-house staff.

Some within the industry have suggested a shorter working week and increased wages to attract back workers.

With furlough officially ending in September, there will be students looking for jobs that may fill some vacancies. UKHospitality intends to run sessions in conjunction with JobCentre Plus across England, Scotland and Wales to help promote opportunities to job-seekers within the hospitality sector.

JPIMedia’s new support packages are now more cost effective than ever before so if you are in the hospitality business, call them today on 0207 855 7577 quoting ‘hospitality hiring support’.

Cosmina Popa at work in the kitchen at Restaurant 27 in Southsea Picture: Chris Moorhouse (jpns 250821-28)