OPINION: Hospitality industry needs to appeal as a great career choice

Chef Richard Hughes

Chef Richard Hughes - Credit: Submitted

The hotel and restaurant trade has always been a challenge - that’s one of the reasons why we love it so much. 

Fast-paced, pressurised, hard work, unsociable hours -  the phrase "never a dull moment" could have been coined for the hospitality industry.   

After 45 years at the hotplate, I thought I’d seen it all, but the last two years have felt like a rollercoaster ride, hanging on for dear life as we churn up and down, seemingly with no one at the controls.

As we approached the finishing line of our best-ever trading year in 2019/20, the shutters came down with a jolt as Covid-19 closed the business almost overnight. 

What we thought would be a hiatus for a matter of weeks turned into months. 

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We worried if the business would survive, made plans for events that never materialised, were thankful for the jackpot of the Eat Out to Help Out scheme and VAT cuts, faced closure again, reopened with mystifying regulations and then hoped the summer of 2021 signalled the finish line.  

Our biggest worry of whether the customers would return proved unfounded. They returned in droves.

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What we didn’t factor in was the problem as to who would cook or serve the starving masses. It's estimated that one in five workers have left the hospitality sector leaving more than 120,000 vacancies in the industry.

Daily stories are emerging of businesses closing, either because of track and trace, infections or, more likely, a dearth of candidates available to fill positions in the kitchen and front of house. 

One of the grandest hotels in the West End, The Langham, hit the nail succinctly on the head: ‘’We can serve Champagne faster than we can open it, the issue is, who is going to pour it?’’ 

The Norfolk coast looked set for its busiest summer on record, but there’s no room at the inn for the disorganised visiting the county: many businesses are having to stop their lunch trade, restrict customer numbers or offer picnics for the beach in lieu of breakfast.

The Assembly House is lucky as we have a solid backbone of excellent, loyal staff members, many of whom have worked for the business for decades. 

We were proud to be chosen as one of the top 30 hospitality employers in the UK (as voted by staff) earlier this summer and we’ve always put the emphasis on staff retention rather than relentless recruitment.  

Although exacerbated by the sudden demand on a dwindling pool of workers, this isn’t a new problem for our industry.  

The perception is that hospitality isn’t a “proper” job: it’s a peculiarly British attitude, although one propped up by the Government which only recently categorised our industry as “low-skilled”, making our Eastern European workmates feel unwelcome.

On the continent, waiting staff are all-powerful and the chef regarded on a par with dentists, doctors or teachers. In the UK we love to eat in restaurants but sadly, not many of us would encourage our offspring to work in one.

I remain, however, relentlessly optimistic. 

This is a terrific industry to be involved in: exciting, fun, challenging and the rewards can be immense. 

To be a chef or waiting staff means guaranteed employment and a skill that is transferable across the globe: wherever you go there will be a job waiting for you, giving you a freedom and lifestyle that is liberating and a set of work colleagues who will be friends for life. 

And ultimately you have a job description like no other - your job is to make people happy, the greatest gift of all, a skill you can't learn easily and which can’t be taught in classrooms.

We are so good at selling our food, our restaurants and hotels, our holidays and our county. Now is the time that, as an industry, we must concentrate on selling ourselves as great places to work that offer great careers.

But until we get our act together, as the saying goes, the whole world is short-staffed, so please be kind to those who turned up!

Richard Hughes is Chef Director of The Assembly House Norwich and The Richard Hughes Cookery School

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