East End cafés forced to scale back services due to staff shortages

How East London hospitality venues are adapting their businesses to survive the industry’s recruitment crisis.

Venues in East London have said they are struggling to recruit enough staff to deal with post-pandemic demand, with vacancies in cafés, pubs and restaurants across the hospitality sector at an all-time high.

In January 2022 vacancies across the UK job market reached a record high of 1.2 million, with hospitality one of the worst affected industries. A sector beleaguered by Covid, hospitality venues are now under pressure to raise wages while not having had the chance to recover from repeated lockdowns. 

One business owner affected is Draga Milahn, manager at the HUB Café in Victoria Park. The café has been recruiting for a kitchen porter and an assistant chef for over a month.

Like other East End cafés, Milahn says she has received far fewer job applications for vacancies compared with pre-Brexit and pre-pandemic levels. 

Milahn explains: ‘Before Covid we would trial four or five applicants per day for a position at the HUB but now we have just one or sometimes two, so there’s been a big difference.’  

According to Milahn, ‘the combination of Covid and Brexit happening so close to each other hit hospitality particularly badly … before you had so many people in hospitality and suddenly they disappeared which was very odd.’

A number of those from the EU who went home during lockdown couldn’t return to the UK because of Brexit, and Milhan says that she has noticed the drop in applicants from the EU. She says she would love to hire East Londoners who live around the park who could walk or cycle to work but hasn’t received many applications from the local area. 

With the added pressure of staff being absent with Covid, the HUB recently had to drop some items from their weekend menu in order to remain open. ‘That’s the first time that has ever happened and we hope we don’t have to do it again but sometimes you need to take steps to survive,’ says Millahn. 

‘All of our menu is homemade and a lot of effort and skill goes into making our cakes and falafels and things like that so we don’t want to compromise on food quality and taste,’ she explains.  

One of the hardest-hit industries by the pandemic, hospitality venues were just beginning to feel the benefits of the easing of Covid restrictions, but now many are struggling to recruit enough staff to deal with demand. 

Alex Camara, manager at Loafing café on the Roman Road is currently recruiting for seven different positions including a night baker and a pastry chef. 

‘Before it would just take one or two days to find someone, now it takes weeks or months to recruit new staff,’ she says. As well as a fall in the volume of applications, Camara says the experience levels of recent applicants has also been lower. 

‘At the moment we do have a lot of new staff but many of them have very little experience or are in their first job so it’s requiring more training, more dedication, more staff and more time to do that,’ she explains. 

Loafing has had to cut down the window of time they serve their signature savoury crêpes so the café isn’t overwhelmed by the level of work per staff member. 

Chloe Bailey-Williams, owner and general manager of the Breakhouse Café in Hackney Wick had to close the café for two-weeks due to staff shortages as well as the rising cost of produce and VAT for the sector. 

Bailey-Williams explains that staff shortages have pushed wages up in the hospitality industry. ‘Of course I want to pay my staff a fair price, but as a small business owner there’s a limit on this, especially with other prices going up so much recently.’ 

‘Sadly the combination of all these costs meant that I have had to let my kitchen staff go and strip back the menu,’ says Bailey-Williams. After reopening on Monday 11 April, Breakhouse Café now offers a less labour-intensive menu of toasties, soups, ciabattas, and other grab-and-go items, many of which Bailey-Williams makes herself in advance. 

She also hopes to diversify the space, using it to host community events and supper clubs in the evenings when the café is closed. 

As well as the pandemic forcing many foreign workers to return to their country of origin, it also changed the working habits of hospitality workers from the UK. 

As Bailey-Williams explains: ‘A lot of hospitality closed during Covid and so people found other jobs … people’s working habits also changed and hospitality is very tough – it might not be rocket science but physically and mentally it’s really tiring.’

‘During lockdown we were at high risk of catching Covid and bringing it back to our families, so I think a lot of people have just had enough of the industry,’ says Bailey-Williams.

‘Unfortunately for us it’s going to get tougher before it gets better, and that’s why I’ve had to make these drastic changes before it’s too late,’ says Bailey-Williams.

The Department for Work and Pensions said they have created schemes to help fill vacancies in the sector.

Speaking to the BBC two weeks ago, a spokesperson said: ‘As part of the Government’s Hospitality Strategy, and our effort to get 500,000 jobseekers into roles, we’re working with UKHospitality, and leading employers to better promote jobs in the sector and fill vacancies faster.’

For Milahn though, the solution is far simpler: ‘It used to be programmers and IT technicians but now chefs and kitchen staff are becoming the most sought after staff,’ she laughs, ‘I guess they just need to put their wages up and that would fix it.’

If you enjoyed reading this article, you might like our piece on the best vegan cafes around the Roman Road.

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