For users of Twitter, the Twitter spat is unavoidable. In this age of permanent outrage, upsetting people is unavoidable. For instance, I was recently taken to task by several chefs irritated by my suggestion, in The Guardian, that the restaurant staff most likely to get stiffed with working on Christmas Day were bitter divorcees and disengaged seasonal waiting staff. Given that, and the crazy prices that even crap venues charge on 25 December for simple-serve set-menus, I advised people to eat at home.
Apparently, this does “hospitality a massive disservice”. It is “misleading”, if not “insulting”. “It’s not an ideal generalisation of an industry that’s struggling to recruit as it is,” sighed one. “Regardless of what day it is, you put the same effort and care into what you serve,” admonished another.
I found this surprising. Partly because intelligent readers understand generalisation (exceptions exist, they get that), but also because no hospitality insider would eat out on event-days such as Mother’s Day or Valentine’s. Only suckers splash-out on overpriced set-menus when kitchens are so stretched.
Moreover, it is not my job to sell the restaurant sector to the public. I am paid to be honest about it, and its deficiencies. I get why that can be painful. My Twitter critics are probably good guys, passionate grafters who take pride in their work. When the industry is fire-fighting everywhere, a certain prickliness is natural. You take criticism, not aimed at you, personally. But let’s get real: innumerable British restaurants serve mediocre food delivered by overworked, demotivated staff.
A tendency to shoot the messenger rather than acknowledge that is, I think, key to why recruitment remains difficult. Too often the industry’s response to the skills crisis is to frame it as a problem of perception, rather than as a symptom of an industry in dire need of reform. Operators bleat that all the industry needs is another public ambassador, more TV time and better PR, to alert people to the glittering career opportunities it offers.
That is, frankly, delusional. The industry already gets a terrific press. Occasional scandals (for example tipping) barely ruffle the media’s blanket positive coverage of UK food. Yet that has done zip to improve recruitment because, while the UK is home to a growing vanguard of progressive employers, many more lag behind on issues of hours, pay, training and management culture. And people know that.
If you want to understand how (young) people talk about hospitality, visit indeed.co.uk, where most UK chains are rubbished by ex-employees complaining about everything from skeleton staffing and terrible staff meals to the untenable levels of product knowledge required in minimum wage, part-time roles. Those posting online are a self-selecting minority, but we all hear similar complaints informally. No amount of good PR will counteract such bad word-of-mouth.
Fundamentally, at entry-level, the restaurant industry is a far harder gig than competing sectors such as retail, and, at more senior levels, it struggles to match other skilled trades on salaries and hours. In 2015, in-demand plumbers and bricklayers were enjoying reported double-digit wage increases and £50,000 salaries. Meanwhile, an ONS study estimated that, in 2014, 70% of people working in accommodation/food services were earning below the Living Wage Foundation (LWF) recommended hourly rates. A 2017 study for professional services company KPMG found that 86% of bar staff, 83% of waiting staff and 42% of chefs earn below LWF rates.
This is the disgruntled staffing reality that the industry must tackle, rather than indulging in the displacement activity of complaining about media misrepresentation. Otherwise, the skills crisis will become terminal.