Staff Matter. They Need our Help and Our Care

In an exclusive piece for The Chefs’ Forum restaurateur Mike Robinson shares his thoughts on the problems facing both staff and owner operators.

I’m a restaurateur. I used to be a chef but now I’m much more involved with the creating, running and setting up of restaurants. I currently own and run three restaurants: The Woodsman in Stratford upon Avon, The Elder in Bath and The Forge in Chester. I also own a share of The Harwood Arms in London.

The Covid pandemic was a seismic event for all our restaurants and coupled Brexit a large number of our foreign staff have not returned. We miss them terribly but we have to keep going with the amazing staff we have left.

Along with everybody else in hospitality we are struggling to top up our staff at a time when record numbers of customers are returning to our restaurants expecting everything to be as fantastic as it was. This has presented us with a real problem: unless our staff work longer and longer hours something has to give, or, as a result of putting too much pressure on our staff – our service and food standards drop. That will result in customer frustration and before we know it we’ll be in a hole we can’t out of.

Soon after restaurants reopened after the lockdown Michel Roux Jnr announced that he was not opening Le Gavroche for weekday lunches due to a shortage of staff. I was inspired by that decision. It showed real foresight.

At The Harwood, we agreed to close Monday to Thursday lunch going forward, to both reduce hours and focus staff on quality and service in the remaining services. It became clear pretty quickly that this was going to work well and reduced  chef and front of house hours.

After two weeks I replicated this, with local variations, in my other restaurants. The change is noticeable. Weekday lunchtimes post pandemic were busyish, but very little business trade was happening, so average spends were low.

I looked at spends per head and saw that the actual cost on staff welfare and morale, for the business we were doing, was not worth it. It was costing us in ways that were not visible on the ledger. Now, the opposite is true. Spends are up, staff hours are down. As a result we are more profitable on the services we do.

The bad old days need to be gone for good. It’s that simple. We need (and I speak for my own operations here) to keep hours to a level that staff want to work. We find that works to about 48 hours for front of house, and 52-57 for kitchen. If staff want to work less hours, we make that work. A restaurant or hotel is a big family, and whilst there are always tensions, I cannot stand walking into an unhappy restaurant. Happy staff want to give of their best to the customers and they will help us make a profit in doing so. Closing weekday lunches and offering flexible working hours works for us, maybe it could work for others too.

The long term solution is surely to make the industry shine, and make a it a viable career choice that allows staff to combine a healthy home life with a productive work life. I don’t have all the answers – I’m just figuring it out as I go, but I love and care about my staff, and want them to be happy. Walking into laughter and bad jokes is a terrific way to come to work.

The only cure for the staff crisis in the immediate term, however, is make us a really attractive place for our foreign friends to come and work. This Government is, so far, lacking in support for our great industry that employs a huge percentage of our workforce. We need a simple system to offer jobs to non UK workers and have them allowed and welcomed to the UK to work in our industry.

Priti and Boris – if you somehow read this, please help – 3 million voters are looking for your support. Without an entry scheme in the immediate future, I can see the shocking reality of excellent restaurants closing their doors due to a chronic lack of staff. The amazing move by Claire Bosi, of Chef magazine, to drive for a Minister for Hospitality has really raised awareness and done great things, hopefully it will happen. The power of the vote is huge, and I am sure if nothing else the prospect of losing those votes will have an effect.

Long term we need to support initiatives to tempt UK nationals into hospitality as a career, and a great career at that. Truly, hospitality is one of the great meritocracies – it does not care about what a member of staff or recruit has done in the past or how many A levels theyhave. Hospitality only cares about how staff feel, how ambitious they are, how caring and talented. We owners need to look after our staff and nurture and help them with their careers. In return, they will look after us.