Turning down party bookings over the Christmas period is the last thing a restaurant owner wants to do.
However that is the harsh reality hitting restaurants across the whole of the UK like the Rattle Owl, an independent restaurant featured in the Michelin Guide, which, like the vast majority of hospitality businesses, is suffering a shortage of staff and having to make compromises.
“We used to be able to do 26 (people for a Christmas party booking) but we absolutely can’t do that now. The max we can do now is 10,” said the York restaurant’s owner, Clarrie O’Callaghan.
The shortage means that anyone who called to make a reservation for a larger number of people has been turned away.
“Independent restaurants are all in the same boat: we’re having to limit numbers to ensure customers get the best service.”
The restaurant has five chefs and six front-of-house staff, but needs one or two more chefs and two more front-of-house workers. It is not alone in suffering what is being called an “existential threat” to the hospitality industry.
London celebrity chef Jason Atherton last month said he will have to close restaurants in the new year because a third of posts at his restaurants are vacant. Tom Kerridge, Rick Stein, Angela Hartnett and Raymond Blanc have also all raised their voices in support of training and recruiting more hospitality workers.
Other restaurants are making compromises over who they hire. One restaurateur said they were training front-of-house staff to do kitchen work, which is not ideal, as well as hiring international students, who are allowed to work 20 hours a week.
Last month, a group of hospitality organisations wrote to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions calling for “urgent intervention” in what was becoming a “perfect storm” that would force businesses to close.
We’re in a cost-of-doing-business crisis, as well as a cost of living crisis
Emma McClarkin, BBPA
In the joint letter to Mel Stride MP, UKHospitality, the British Beer and Pub Association (BBPA), British Institute of Innkeeping (BII), the Institute of Hospitality and charity Springboard, wrote that the recruitment crisis was causing “an existential threat to our industry”.
“This is not a problem facing just one type of venue or hospitality business, it is a universal issue, and it is critical because brilliant, passionate people are the lifeblood of hospitality,” the letter said.
Emma McClarkin, chief executive of the BBPA, said the vacancy rate in the hospitality sector stands at 11%, compared with the UK average of 4%, and this is costing the industry £22bn a year.
“It is stark that hospitality is struggling to attract the people we need,” she said. “Obviously, we’ve always had a problem getting enough chefs in the kitchen. That was the case even pre-pandemic, but now we’re struggling to even get people to come in to do front of house; it was never a problem before. And this is going to impact on Christmas.”
McClarkin said that during the pandemic many staff from overseas left and had not returned, this was especially the case with EU workers, who no longer have freedom of movement to the UK.
She said the uncertainty caused by the various lockdowns, where businesses were forced to close at short notice, had also seen staff leave the industry.
“We’re seeing people that also moved away (from the industry) because they were worried about long-term security. So they’ve gone off to work for, maybe, Amazon or a delivery company, or maybe work in a supermarket or retail environment, where they felt that they were able to sustain an income.”
The organisation estimates that pubs are losing 16% of sales because of staff shortages.
“It’s the difference between a business making it and not making it. That’s how difficult it is. We’re in a ‘cost of doing business’ crisis, as well as a cost of living crisis.”
Pubs are now closing at a rate of 50 a month, compared with 30 a month at the beginning of the year. Last month, it was revealed that restaurant closures increased by 60% after the pandemic, with 1,567 insolvencies over 2021-22, up from 984 during 2020-21, according to a study by the consultancy Mazars. The figure includes 453 over the past three months, up from 395 in the previous quarter.
McClarkin said: “We’re expecting that to get worse over the coming months, so we really need to have a great Christmas.”
The hospitality industry is running a joint campaign called Hospitality Rising to encourage people to take up jobs in pubs, bars, restaurants and cafes. McClarkin said: “A job in a pub is not just a stopgap, it’s an opportunity to progress fast into a long career where you have a lot of fun. There’s never a boring moment in hospitality.”
Staff shortages see UK restaurants struggle to cope with Christmas season