Staffing lottery disrupts season for London's top eateries in Belgravia and Mayfair

Even the elite venues in Britain can't escape fallout from pandemic and Brexit

Mauro Sanna at Olivino, his restaurant and deli in central London. Mark Chilvers / The National
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Mauro Sanna shakes his head, ruefully. He knows someone, he says, who last week applied for an office job in London. It was paying £10.50 ($13.80) an hour and there were 700 applicants.

When he advertises for staff at his four high-end restaurants, plus deli and ice cream parlour, he regularly receives no replies, and he is offering substantially more than £10.50.

Such is the regard Britons hold for working in his industry. Such is the crisis engulfing Britain’s hospitality, sector, bars and restaurants.

Even the best-regarded names have been hit by a cocktail of pandemic and Brexit effects that has sapped confidence in the future while leaving owners to juggle the fallout from a woeful shortage of staff.

Sanna needs little introduction to those familiar with London fine dining. A Sardinian by birth, he opened his first restaurant, Olivo, in Belgravia, more than 30 years ago. It’s still going strong, offering authentic Sardinian fish, meat and pasta dishes. It’s since been joined by Olivocarne, Olivomare and Oliveto, all offering variations on the same Sardinian theme, and Olivino and Olivogelo.

They’re located in three smart streets off Chester Square and cater to a well-heeled, frequently local crowd (average spend is £70 a head). Sanna knows many of the diners personally and counts them as friends.

Mauro Sanna has 89 employees but is 15 down across a range of jobs. Mark Chilvers / The National
I shut two restaurants for two days each and move the staff around

He’s a perfectionist. He orders the muggine alla griglia con pomodorini (grilled grey mullet with fricasse of tomatoes) because he’s made some minor alterations to the recipe and wants to try them. “Quality control,” he explains. He wants me to try the sepia alla griglia (grilled cuttlefish with a black ink and chilli dressing) and the signature spaghetti alla bottarga (spaghetti with Sardinian grey mullet roe). Both are delicious, as is, Sanna says, his mullet.

Business is good, although he admits to being worried about the short-term impact of the new Covid-19 variant – on customers and staff. Overall, though, he pronounces himself well-placed. He’s got a loyal, mostly neighbourhood following and so far, he’s suffered few cancellations.

He’s doing fine, he says, except for one thing: he is desperately short of staff, so much so that he is having to close two of his restaurants for part of the week to enable him to rotate workers between his other restaurants and keep them open.

Currently, he has 89 employees. He’s 15 down, in a range of jobs in the kitchens and front of house. He can’t see any prospect of plugging the vacancies, not in the short term.

“I shut two restaurants for two days each and move the staff around. That’s all I can do,” he says. “They’re closed on Sundays, which is a big day, especially for lunch, but I can’t open them because I don’t have enough staff.”

He lost staff when Covid first hit, before furlough was launched and there was great uncertainty. They went back to their homes in Sardinia and Italy (only a handful of his workers are British). They have not returned.

Sign-on bonuses for new staff

The furlough scheme allowed Mr Sanna to keep the bulk of his workforce, although it covered only basic pay. Mark Chilvers / The National

Sanna cannot fault the UK government for its Covid emergency financial response. “They’ve been good to us, I can’t believe how much help restaurants here got, compared to restaurants in Italy, for example.”

The furlough scheme allowed him to keep the bulk of his workforce, although it covered only basic pay – the substantial portion his staff received from tips was not included. Still, that was not the problem.

The issue was, and is, that those who left because they did not know how long Covid would last and wished to return to their families have not been replaced. He can’t attract recruits from Italy because, post-Brexit, they struggle to get visas.

You don’t expect to be served by an Indian or Chinese in an Italian restaurant

At the same time, he cannot find any suitable British waiters and kitchen staff. It’s a situation repeated right across the industry: wherever you look there is a complete dearth of employees in the hospitality trade.

Some have resorted to trying to poach staff from rival restaurants. Sanna had to ask a restaurateur to leave because he watched him sit at a quiet table in Olivo and attempt to woo a waitress.

Others are offering sign-on fees of £1,000 or more.

Entrepreneur Richard Caring, owner of Harry’s Bar and The Ivy group, is said to be paying £2,000. One specialist agency is reporting a more than five-fold increase since the early summer in the number of businesses dangling signing-on bonuses.

Sanna prides himself on paying his staff well, relative to the sector, and he maintains they have genuine career prospects. He points to Chiara, the efficient, charming Olivomare manager. “She was a waiter, then behind the bar, now she runs the whole restaurant. I believe in growing and developing in-house.”

Still, he cannot find people to join. Ideally, he would like Italians. As he says, “You don’t expect to be served by an Indian or Chinese in an Italian restaurant.”

A question of perception

He was a lukewarm Brexiteer. “I agreed with aspects of Brexit, I could not abide the growing EU bureaucracy.”

Now, though, thanks to the points system applied by the UK to immigrant workers, he cannot get Italians to come. The UK will accept the highly skilled but, by and large, restaurant staff do not qualify.

“When Brexit came in, I was expecting it would be better, that we would be able to sponsor our own staff. It would be good for the business and good for them. But that hasn’t happened.”

Instead, he says, the government wants businesses to hire and train local people. But they don’t want to work in an industry that does not enjoy the same status as others.

We keep being told it will get better, but how and when?

“Ministers wanted to get Brexit done and they did it but without thinking things through properly, without thinking about the consequences. They expect us to recruit local people but there are not enough local people, it’s very simple.”

At present, there are 200,000 positions going begging across UK hospitality. British people do not want to know; they would rather work in an office than in a kitchen or as a waiter. “Being a waiter is not seen as a glamorous job,” says Sanna.

Partly, it is a question of perception. They regard bars and restaurants as low-paid because the advertised rates appear low. That, says Sanna, is because the advertised pay is the basic, it does not include tips which can pump it up much higher. “Our staff are well-paid, some have been here more than 25 years, they’re long-standing, they like how they’re treated.”

It’s also a sector seen as requiring long hours and at periods when people would rather be going out themselves, in the evenings and at weekends.

It may be true that some bar and restaurant employers demand long hours but not Sanna – he says his staff work seven-hour shifts, no more than 35 hours a week. Nevertheless, folks cannot be persuaded.

And there is always the fallback of the benefits system. “They should turn the tap off benefits,” he says. “The other day I said to a beggar he could come and wash dishes in my restaurants. He swore at me, told me to get lost. It was like I’d insulted him.”

For now, he says, “everybody is stuck. We keep being told it will get better, but how and when? They should have delayed Brexit. This government did no planning, there should have been forward-planning. We feel abandoned. We could raise wages but then we would have to raise prices and then people would not come to eat.”

He shrugs. “It’s hard not to feel demoralised. I admit to sometimes thinking 'you know what, just take it, I will close and go, it’s so frustrating'. Imagine, we’ve got the demand but we can’t supply it.”

A smartly dressed young woman enters the restaurant. She’s reserved a table. “For a second there, I thought she was asking about becoming a waiter. I wish.” He allows himself a smile. He’s not going anywhere, but that’s not to say it’s not difficult.

Published: December 15, 2021, 2:27 PM