Hospitality hit hard: addressing the staff shortage problem

Summer hasn't eased the pressure on the UK's embattled small restaurants, bars and cafes. Glynn Davis takes a look at options to bite back in the face of increasing staff shortages.

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Regardless of the weather outside, the hospitality industry remains in the eye of the vicious shortage-of-staff storm that continues to cause havoc for businesses of all sizes in the aftermath of COVID-19 and Brexit.

Summer shortages

According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS) the level of vacancies is still 48% higher than pre-pandemic levels although at the recent sector update in May the number of available roles had fallen by 22% over the past year to stand at 132,000.

Kate Nicholls, chief executive of UK Hospitality, says, “The workforce shortage is creating a serious crisis as we head deeper into the peak summer season. Nearly half of businesses are reducing trading hours per day, and a third are having to close on some days each week.”

This is particularly worrying for the future because many hospitality businesses have traditionally stockpiled their cash during the peak summer season and used this to tide them over as they have limped through the quieter winter periods.

Counting on counters

During the hours they are able to open many businesses are having to adapt their operational practices to overcome the challenge of running with fewer employees. One very simple solution that many restaurants and bars have introduced are serving hatches and counters for take-away orders and for serving customers seated outdoors. 

Many businesses adopted such practices during COVID-19 when take-away only service was enforced and many staff were furloughed. They either installed new hatches or simply served from existing windows and doorways with makeshift counters.

Zoning up

Another common change has involved using the bar area in restaurants as a multi-functional element. They can be used as the reception points for guests arriving for a meal and also for checking into rooms where accommodation is also provided.

Restaurants are also being divided into zones to enable them to be more efficiently run with fewer staff, during quieter times. The idea is to place customers in specific areas during off-peak times. In many cases this involves using a combination of screens, cleverly located booths, and focused lighting in order to create smaller contained spaces that are easier to manage with fewer waiting staff while maintaining service standards.

Paring down

There is also an opportunity to remove some of the more low-key tasks from restaurant teams such as unnecessary cleaning and maintenance chores, according to David Chenery, founder of Object Space Place (OSP), who suggests, “Restaurants can be designed to look after themselves and not involve the use of delicate materials. This makes it easier to turn tables.” 

He has worked with Chantelle Nicholson at the renowned sustainability-focused Apricity restaurant where the crockery has a matte finish that does not need polishing and the space has a more natural, lived-in element, without tablecloths that reduces the processes involved for the front-of-house team.

Leaner menus

This focus on reducing tasks is also being reflected in the back-of-house where there is a trend for cutting the number of items on the menu that has been in evidence over the past few years. Both the chronic shortage of staff as well as the ongoing inflationary pressures on raw materials is driving the move to remove those items from the menu that don’t stack up financially or are creating more work for chefs in both the process of prepping and cooking.

Robots to the rescue?

Technology has also been playing an increasing role in helping hospitality businesses overcome personnel shortages. One outstanding example are self-order kiosks that have become a major feature in the restaurants of the large fast food brands such as McDonald’s, KFC and Burger King. Such as been there impact that they are also being adopted by smaller operators. It’s unlikely they will ever find a place in a fine dining environment but they are proving very beneficial to a growing number of more casual operators such as LEON where 85% of transactions are now processed through them in venues where they have been installed.

The company typically had four to six people working on the tills in its outlets but this has been reduced to two, which has had a dramatic impact on the running costs of each LEON unit. The clear economic and efficiency upsides to kiosks has prompted Itsu to also roll-out the devices. 

The next stage for technology in hospitality involves the rapidly developing field of robotics and automation. Robots have for years been perceived as purely a gimmick whenever deployed front-of-house but the ongoing staff shortages have led to a reappraisal of this and they are now being deployed in meaningful ways at restaurants such as Bella Italia. 

The robots are used to perform repetitive tasks, such as delivering food to tables and clearing plates. By taking over these tasks, they allow the waiting staff to focus on more valuable activities, such as communicating with guests, solving customer problems, and ensuring a positive dining experience. This division of labour not only benefits the restaurant but also leads to an improvement in tips for the waiting staff.

Final thoughts

It is unlikely that small hospitality businesses will be implementing robotic servers any day soon but they are clearly just one of a growing number of solutions that are becoming available for operators to run their businesses more efficiently with less people, which absolutely helps them overcome the ongoing chronic shortage of employees.

Head shot of freelance business journalist Glynn Davis.
Glynn Davis

Glynn Davis is a business journalist specialising in the retail and food and drink sectors. As well as writing for publications including Retail Week, Ecommerce Age, Propel, Caterer and Retail Bulletin, he’s also the founder and editor of Retail Insider and Beer Insider.

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