In December, Eater Talks returned to the 100 Shoreditch hotel in east London. A panel of restaurant owners, chefs, and industry experts discussed what it was like to run a restaurant through the last two years — the so-called “crisis era for restaurants” — in which they withstood the impact of COVID-19, Brexit, and 2022’s energy and cost-of-living crisis.
The panel concluded that while the pandemic was terrible in so many ways, Brexit is undoubtedly the single biggest issue facing the industry. Staff matter more than ever, and although there is a little room for cautious optimism in the new year, boundaries — between staff and customers, and between business owners and their workers — will be more important than ever.
Here are the key takeaways from the event, in the panel’s own words.
Missy Flynn, co-owner, Rita’s.
“My approach to 2023 is to explore boundaries in a productive and meaningful way. It’s not about ‘drawing the line’ or saying ‘no’ but taking stock of what’s possible within the organisation and focusing on that — playing to our strengths instead of chasing every dream. The time for that will come again soon. For now, it’s boundaries and robust forecasting from a financial perspective.”
Michelle Salazar de la Rocha, chef and co-owner, Sonora Taqueria.
“We realised quite early on that staff wellbeing matters when you have no or few employees: we needed to look after ourselves.
“This goes both ways really. It’s part of the staff wellbeing issue that’s often ignored. We found it easier to recognise because the workload was primarily on us most of the time. Looking after ourselves mentally, recognising the limits of our capacity as workers and, to relate to Missy’s point of boundaries, there’s a need to change expectations we have of staff. There should be a respect for people’s lives and no expectation of full devotion or the idea of “family” in the workspace. There should be no valorisation of bad working conditions — long hours and exhausting work — and instead a recognition of what workers need. We are all individuals with lives outside of work and understanding that leads to better environments.”
Listening, purity of purpose, and self-confidence
Joké Bakare, chef-owner, Chishuru.
“For me when I started as a chef in a couple of places, the culture there made me realise [what] the exploitation of labour [looked like]. So I resolved with myself that when I opened a place, I would make sure staff were heard and listened to. We are a team — one that helps and supports each other.
“On the point of the confidence: I think the independents that will overcome this difficult moment and thrive are those able to provide something that’s a niche offering but do it very well.
“No one is doing what we’re doing.”
Staff matter most
John Devitt, co-owner, Koya.
“Staff are the most important part of the equation. I remember sitting in The Electric in the good old days and the staff looked like they were having more fun than the customers. This says so much about staff welfare. We try to make Koya a second home for our team.”
Hussein Ahmad, restaurant accountant, Viewpoint Partners.
“Covid wasn’t armageddon thanks to central government and local council support. The majority of landlords were reasonable and deals were agreed without threat of eviction. Without these measures the majority of hospitality businesses would have gone under.
“We’re now seeing much more difficult trading conditions due to a number of macro economic conditions causing both increased costs and decreased sales — and the financial health of businesses is being caught in a pincer movement between the two.
“The biggest problem the industry faces is Brexit because there are no easy remedies for the impact it has caused. The reduction in EU workers has shrunk the available workforce and the imposition of trading borders have caused the costs to increase for both food and beverage purchases. Any political change will be in the medium term, so expect continued financial pain.
“But there are still a number of good businesses trading well and making money. The commonality between them is that they remain authentic to themselves, they offer value (regardless of price point) and enough of their target audience know about them.”
Stay tuned for details of forthcoming Eater Talks in February and April 2023 in the new year.