Under these conditions talent will leave hospitality – Brexit will make them even harder to replace, says Edmund Weil
The three months since I last put pen to paper for CLASS have been even more torrid than I could have expected. Many of us – myself included – dared to hope that our industry would follow a painfully slow but steady upward curve toward recovery. Perhaps we should have known from the start, but over the summer it gradually became clear that this pandemic isn’t finished with us yet. As schools and universities returned and restrictions loosened, the virus crept back into the population and hospitality – this government’s favourite whipping boy – was going to pay. The 10pm curfew and subsequent tier 2 restrictions ripped the belly out of most bar businesses. We soldiered on, but no amount of innovation, ingenuity and determination can make up for reductions of at least 20% in covers and 40% in trading hours, especially when the whole raison d’etre of visiting a bar – to meet up and socialise with your friends – is forbidden (in tiers 2 and 3).
Despite the more punitive tier system, the extension of the furlough scheme until the spring has made it feel like a chance to take a pause, reflect, and regroup, and subsequent positive reports on the efficacy of Covid-19 vaccines from various pharma developers have provided us with the faintest of chinks of light at the end of the tunnel. What with the other centrist dad wins of recent weeks (au revoir Cummings, adios Trump), I’ve felt my withered optimism stir to the extent that I can begin to imagine a bar industry post-Covid.
There are many positives to take from our industry’s response to such extreme adversity. With so much pressure on the hours they are allowed to open, bars across the UK have upped their game spectacularly in terms of offering, and in response guests have tended to double-down on investment in their experience, spending more in a shorter time. Bottled cocktails are here to stay, and could prove a valuable additional stream of revenue to those who can conquer the logistical challenges of getting their drinks out to the nation at scale. If we can reharness the creativity, entrepreneurship and resolve that have pulled us through this far, perhaps a brighter future awaits.
One thing is for certain: hospitality is the ultimate people-focused business, and we’re going to be leaning hard on its talent pool in the months and years to come if we want to recover. Herein lies our greatest challenge, because the tea leaves tell me we’re headed for a serious supply problem. At first glance this might appear a ridiculous proposition.
After all, we're currently in the exact opposite situation. Anyone with the unlikely privilege to be hiring right now would have the pick of some of the brightest and best bartenders, servers, chefs and ops people in the industry who’ve fallen victim variously to independents going out of business or the sharp knife being wielded in certain hotel consortia and restaurant groups.
Look a few months down the line though and a different picture emerges. Having struggled and strained as a business owner through this crisis, I’ve never lost sight of quite how hard it has been to be a hospitality employee in this moment. The starvation wages provided by the furlough scheme (with the exclusion of tronc); the gnawing uncertainty through this lockdown and the last as to whether they’ll have a job to return to; wearing a mask for hour upon gruelling hour; struggling nobly to give guests a great experience while upholding myriad new and onerous Covid-secure regulations to keep people safe; the dubious benefit of flexible furlough, whereby working hard in tough conditions brings only a small uplift in take-home pay; I could go on, but you get the picture.
My fear is that, under these circumstances, even among those lucky enough to keep their jobs, the love affair with hospitality may be wearing off. I’m beginning to see some career hospitality people – my own staff included – drift away from the industry. Coupled with the impending end to free movement – cutting off our traditionally most reliable source of motivated, knowledgeable staff – this could tip us into a different sort of hospitality crisis, whereby we simply don’t have the people to maintain the level of excellence that has come to characterise the UK bar scene. The long-term solution to this particular conundrum is anyone’s guess. Perhaps the UK scene will slide slowly but inexorably into Vodka Red Bull purgatory. Perhaps as an industry we’ll be forced finally to solve the perception problem once and for all, and become an aspirational industry for our own young people as well as for those of our European neighbours.
Who knows what the future holds? The eye of a monumental storm is hardly the ideal place from which to be making confident predictions. I do have one piece of advice for anyone with a hospitality business: however tough things get, keep your people close. Look after them. Look out for them. Make them feel valued. If you’re going to see the other side of this, they’ll be your most valuable asset of all.