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As Restaurants Cut Service Because of Staff Shortage, Workers Consider Their Future

Restaurants across the city are cutting hours for now, but the labour crisis caused by Brexit and COVID-19 will not be temporary

Mitshel Ibrahim pulls down the grey metal shutters at Ombra in Hackney
Mitshel Ibrahim pulls down the shutters at Ombra, which he has had to close for three days out of seven because of staff shortages
Michaël Protin/Eater London

The London restaurant staffing crisis occasioned by the novel coronavirus pandemic and Brexit is forcing restaurants to reduce hours, cut out lunch, and in some cases close entirely on days they would otherwise be open. The two crises have converged since restaurant dining rooms reopened on 17 May, and there are currently too few staff available to enable restaurants to operate, even at reduced capacity.

Mitshel Ibrahim, chef-owner and pivoter-in-chief at of one of the city’s standout restaurants through the COVID-19 crisis told Eater London that Ombra, his Hackney restaurant, had been forced to close on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.

“There’s just so much demand [for staff] and it’s really hard to attract them,” Ibrahim told Eater. “Everyone is hiring. Unless you’re Italian and you get it, it’s hard to get people to come and work at Ombra.” Despite the restaurant’s popularity and longstanding proximity to east London’s avant-garde restaurant and low-intervention wine scene, Ombra deliberately remains something of an Italian-in-joke. Ibrahim feels that if the likes of Bright, Brawn, and others are hiring, then Ombra is down the pecking order.

Earlier this month, he pointed to two major factors and a supplementary local headache causing the staff shortage. “Due to a major shortage of staff both on the floor and in the kitchen caused by the brutal trifecta of the pandemic, brexit and a wasteman poaching some of our team, from next week and until further notice we will be closed all day Tuesdays & Wednesdays,” Ibrahim wrote via the Ombra account on Instagram. He later told Eater that “loads of people left [the industry and the country] during lockdown — they changed career. And they haven’t been replaced with a new influx of candidates.” He is now considering becoming a sponsor for workers who are looking to apply for a visa from Italy.

Further west, another Italian restaurant is struggling. Luca, the Clerkenwell restaurant owned by the trio behind Michelin-starred the Clove Club, has closed all day Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday. Pre-pandemic, the restaurant was open six days a week.

Co-owner Daniel Willis said, “the staffing crisis is out of control. Never known anything like it. Simply did not have enough people in the kitchen to do six days.”

Willis believes that given time, workers have considered the sacrifices they had been making — they begun to wonder whether the money they made for the hours they worked and the stress that came with it is worth it, particularly during a pandemic caused by a disease known to spread indoors, at close quarters. Many decided it is not, and changed careers.

“Hopefully all restaurant groups re-think the whole compensation package they offer to employees,” Willis said. “More need to look at offering training, learning, and career progression. It’s not always just about money. [...] We’re looking at a regional recruitment drive — try and engage with cooking schools and catering colleges outside London. Putting an emphasis on people who would like to relocate to London. Offering people travel expenses, help people with finding a flat.”

This has been a long time coming. Since restaurants were first forced to close in March 2020, a combination of the pivot to delivery and takeaway services and the apparent comparative security of the 80 percent wages paid by furlough have obscured reality: Hospitality employment bottomed out. Many front-of-house roles became operationally redundant when businesses were only operating for takeaway, while kitchen work continued but less of it was required. And with furlough not including service charges or tips, the feted 80 percent figure often ended up more like 50 percent of already insufficient salaries.

Furlough’s relationship with capacity restrictions on restaurants is also a contributing factor. With dining rooms not fully open and so-called “wet-led” operators unable to do bar service, there are still many workers on furlough — 21 percent of “accommodation and food service” workers in the weeks 17 — 31 May, according to Office of National Statistics figures. If restaurants were to let them go, they could apply for vacancies they are not certain to get — and come full reopening, likely on 19 July, those restaurants would in turn have vacancies needing to be filled. This uncertainty for workers and businesses alike, combined with the prevalence of the Delta variant of coronavirus in younger age groups that are yet to be fully vaccinated, leaves staff in a fraught position that from the outside often gets presented as cushy.

What’s more, the true reality of Brexit and its impact on the ability of Europeans to freely enter the U.K. hospitality industry and been delayed by the pandemic. For years, high-profile restaurateurs had voiced their concerns about the impact of Brexit not just on European citizens living in the U.K., but the knock-on effect of Brexit ideology on nationalist immigration policy. The disruption caused by the pandemic merely hastened the inevitable return home for many. Their time had come, just a little sooner than they might previously have thought — and now some of Brexit’s biggest supporters like Wetherspoons’ Tim Martin want to have their gateaux and eat it, by relaxing the freedom of movement restrictions they championed.

The scale and seriousness of the staffing crisis has compelled Mayor of London Sadiq Khan to press ministers to make it easier for workers to come to the U.K. and secure employment in hospitality roles.

“I’m urging ministers to review their damaging changes to visa rules and give cities like London the devolved powers to fill vacancies in sectors where there are such acute shortages,” Khan said. The mayor’s comments were followed by a 12-point plan from trade body U.K. Hospitality, which included short-term measures designed to facilitate and incentivise workers and longer-term plans to address a structural and cultural deficit in the ability to encourage and develop talent into hospitality roles.

“I hope something is going to change, I hope this all settles down,” Willis said. “We’ve just got to get through this traumatic work-heavy period where we’re all on the floor.”