This week, after what feels like the longest of winters, restaurant dining rooms across London capital reopened. To be precise, it had been one hundred and fifty-two days since they’d closed for the last time.
Ahead of time, restaurateurs and chefs expressed great hope that once they’d opened, they’d be able to remain so; with a stack of reservations and no small amount of relief, dine-in came back.
Now, as well as rent debt, which hangs over the restaurant industry like the rain clouds have over reopening, business owners are contending with recruitment — and ensuring staff safety. While the furlough scheme has enabled many to retain workers, and for those staff to retain a portion of their income, many hospitality workers have either left the industry or left the country. The pandemic, lest it be forgotten, has merely delayed the staffing crisis in-waiting that will arrive as a result of Brexit.
Following on from their experiences of those reopenings and lockdowns, this is the second of three looks at how a number of London’s restaurateurs feel about recruitment, staff safety, and motivation. Eater London spoke to Iré Hassan-Odukale, owner of Ikoyi, the West African-inspired fine dining restaurant in central London; Ellen Chew, the restaurateur behind Singaporean restaurant Rasa Sayang in Chinatown and Covent Garden bakery Arome; Ashik Ali, of Delhi Grill in Islington; Modern European cafe-bakery-restaurant group owner Jeremie Cometto-Lingenheim; Holloway Road Malayasian laksa bar owner Mandy Yin; Queensway’s Normah Abd Hamid of Normah’s; and Ferhat Dirik of Turkish restaurant Mangal 2.
The below interviews have been edited for clarity.
How difficult has it been to re-recruit? What’s the story with staff lost and staff gained?
Iré Hassan-Odukale, Ikoyi: Really difficult; there is a limited supply for us, which is more down to Brexit than the virus. We lost a few staff members over the past year due to that and the pandemic and have now recruited three to the kitchen and three to front of house. We’re still looking to add one more to the team.
Ellen Chew, Chew On This Restaurants: We’ve been very lucky to be able to retain most of our workforce, either through the furlough scheme or just by staying active and operational during the lockdown.
Normah Abd Hamid, Normah’s: We have no issues there since this a family run business.
Jeremie Cometto-Lingenheim, Brut Restaurants: Concerns are always staff. Finding them, paying them and keeping them. It’s been amazing to see our team interacting with our guests again and restore some sanity and purpose in all our lives.
Ashik Ali, Delhi Grill: I have a fantastic team who has been with me from the start and they all have been very supportive and understanding.
Mandy Yin, Sambal Shiok: Pre-Covid I had nearly 30 members of staff across my two sites and was ready to really expand. When it hit, I had to lose all of the brand new staff I’d just taken on for Nasi Economy Rice as they joined the payroll too late. I then lose half of the rest of the team (mostly front-of-house) when I had to start contributing towards the 80 percent from original furlough scheme last August. Since March this year I have felt a lot more confident, confident enough to really start to hire again to replace the team members I lost, starting with a new general manager to help me rebuild the team.
Ferhat Dirik, Mangal 2: Like most restaurants, we had to rehire a lot of people as a few staff members left for various reasons. Whilst this has its own challenges, and a majority of our ex-staff were absolute gold, it always creates excitement to restart with a new team — one which hopefully will be here for the long-term.
How do you motivate and inspire those who’ve either been furloughed and / or doing quite different work for the past year?
Jeremy King, Corbin and King: All this week I have been talking to the re-congregating staff about how they feel about returning to full service and there is indubitable excitement but it is tempered by apprehension. Many haven’t lifted a kitchen knife or dining plate for six months and inevitably are not going to be “match-fit” — but they have been working very hard this week to improve their “fitness” and what has impressed me has been their positivity and determination to succeed.
MY: I’ve been in the trenches with those who have come back to work between June to December last year or been on furlough. They have seen me at my lowest points and we have battled through it together. Overall I think it has made us stronger. Whatever comes next must be easier than what we’ve had to do over the last year, constantly pivoting, adapting, testing, reopening.
I H-O: We started a bit early and got the team in from the beginning of May. They came back on full salary rather than flexible furlough to begin training in preparation for the reopening.
It’s been good to have them coming in daily, getting a sense of “team” again and everyone working together, which has helped.
How have you ensured they all feel safe coming to work?
MY: They have all been receptive to our new Covid staff policy and understand that we have to do our best to protect each other.
EC: We have a safe and clean environment, and we are extremely diligent in keeping it that way, not just for our customers but also for our staff to feel confident when they are on shift.
I H-O: Not been difficult. We’ve kept the same protocols from when we were last open.
FD: We have been stringent in our approach to ensure all staff feel safe and unexposed to risk at work. In-house test kits, masks, sanitisers and social distancing has been consistent all lockdown.
J C-L: Most are not of age to qualify for the vaccine yet so we remain vigilant.