Not only did the proportion of EU workers plummet ahead of Covid, but the pandemic made the industry seem “fragile and unstable,” says Nicholls, which will have made thousands of young people cross it off as a potential career option. Many domestic workers also left after furloughs and repeated lockdowns.
One boss recalls how some employees bluntly explained why they would never return to his kitchen: “Chef, we’ve been laying on a beach, staying with mum and dad, the British taxpayer has been pumping money into our account. We can cook and get cash in hand.”
Convincing those workers to come back, pay lots of rent and work grueling hours is a hard sell. Staff who earned £26,000 before Covid, for instance, have emerged demanding £38,000 and saying they won’t work weekends or Friday nights. With extra bargaining power and a fresh perspective post-lockdowns, workers still in the industry want to force change.
“People saw a bud on a tree turn into a leaf and fall off. We now have a generation who don’t want to commit,” says Galvin, reflecting on the uncertainty as restaurants were forced to slam shut.
“I’ll never forget creating a Plan A, Plan B, Plan C and Plan D. Screwing plans up in the bin then pulling them out of the bin and saying ‘actually, this might work’. [Post-pandemic] it’s a lunar landscape. It’s so different – Mondays and Fridays I feel like the aliens have landed as there’s no one around.”
Balfe, who relocated from London to open Holm last year, says restaurants are adapting as shortages shape up to be the reality for the next few years. Considering those with different experience, offering more training and sponsoring chefs from overseas – something that wouldn’t have been considered a few years ago due to the sheer amount of red tape involved – are some ways he and others are dealing with the “sucker punch” of Brexit and Covid.
Harneet Baweja, the co-founder of Indian restaurant brand Gunpowder, says it feels like “challenges coming from all angles”. While there are plenty of options for the longer term, such as extra training, he stresses that there is no “magic bullet for the short-term” when it comes to staff shortages.
But competing for workers by offering more perks is not sustainable when the whole sector is under pressure.
Scott Collins, the co-founder of burger chain MEATliquor, believes the “horrible period where people were running around poaching staff from other restaurants” by offering “silly amounts of money” was never going to last and for him feels like history. The cavalry might not be coming over the hill, but the sector is adapting after a period of once unthinkable challenges.
“My biggest problem used to be managing the queues. Those were good times,” he reminisces.