Customers desperate to get back in pubs, but staff staying away

Many of Britain’s small businesses that managed to survive the pandemic are now facing another threat: a shortage of staff. 

While business owners are desperate to make up for months of lost trading due to lockdown restrictions, a lack of available staff means many are having to operate their companies under reduced hours – such as remaining closed on Mondays or shutting early at weekends. 

The hospitality industry has been particularly hard hit, with a ‘perfect storm’ of Brexit, Covid-19 and people not returning to work after furlough resulting in many jobs going unfilled.

Raising a glass: Getting sufficient staff to provide the right level of service is a challenge

Brian Keeley Whiting, managing director of WH Pubs, runs four pubs with beer gardens in Kent. He has been delighted with the public’s response to his pubs reopening – ‘customers were queuing up in the cold, the rain and even the snow,’ he says. But getting sufficient staff to provide the right level of service is a challenge. 

‘We’ve lost good people we had on our books for a long time,’ says Brian. ‘They went to second jobs, which they took while being furloughed working for us. When it was time to reopen, some workers just didn’t want to come back.’ 

One of Brian’s top chefs is now working as a gardener while one of his barmen, who took a job loading lorries for Sainsbury’s while on furlough, is now working for the food retailer full-time. 

Brian is not happy. He says: ‘I had to pay National Insurance, pension contributions and holiday entitlement while the barman got 80 per cent of his salary with us as well as his Sainsbury’s salary. When asked to come back, he said he didn’t want to as his other job was less pressure and had better hours.’ 

He adds: ‘I can’t blame people for moving on if that’s what they want to do, but we currently need to recruit another ten chefs and 20 front-of-house staff. 

‘So we’re having to rethink how we do things. Should I buy a £5,000 burger machine rather than having our chefs make them from scratch, for example?

‘If I increase salaries then I’ll have to increase our prices as we work on the tightest of margins. We don’t want our remaining staff to burn out and then leave – especially given the summer will be really busy if people can’t go abroad.’

Justin Gilchrist runs corporate catering company South Catering and WellBox, a business to business gift supplier. He says it is becoming more difficult to recruit new staff, particularly for seasonal jobs. 

‘There is just a small pool of people available,’ he says. ‘People we would have previously used as seasonal or temporary labour from other parts of Europe have gone back home to be with their families because of coronavirus and haven’t returned.

‘Others have got permanent jobs working in supermarkets or at places such as Amazon. We’re having to stretch our existing staff further and they’ve been great in working more hours, but it’s not a long-term solution.’ 

Justin has been investing in automation and technology to try to improve the operational efficiency of his businesses. In time this will result in him needing fewer staff. He says: ‘Such an approach works in terms of our long-term recruitment objectives, but we haven’t solved the short-term problems and we don’t know what the solution is.’ 

Keith Bott is managing director of Titanic Brewery in Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire. During lockdown, he furloughed all his staff and went ‘back to the floor’, driving the company’s forklift truck himself while his brother packed home delivery brewing kits. But now, the brewery’s 12 pubs are open again and he’s keen to get back to full capacity. 

‘We need more staff just to keep up with demand and stick to the Covid-19 guidelines,’ he says. ‘But there’s a shortage of people being trained to work in kitchens and retail management. Some staff have decided that while they love the industry, it’s time for a change, or they just want to spend more time with their families.’ 

Keith has 30 vacancies and says he’s had to reduce opening hours and close some pubs on Mondays. He says: ‘That feels very strange to us. But we’ve got people working additional hours and we can’t ask them to do that forever. The industry needs the Government to reduce the high costs of tax and alcohol duties so we can invest in staff and training.’ 

Kate Nicholls, chief executive of trade body UKHospitality, says the hospitality industry was facing labour shortages even before the pandemic. She says that once lockdown restrictions began to be lifted, ‘we didn’t know these shortages would hit so early and so hard. There’s an acute shortage of people.’ 

The industry’s vacancy rate is running at 10 per cent, double pre-pandemic levels, which amounts to 180,000 unfilled jobs across the hospitality sector.

‘We know that 85 per cent of staff who were furloughed have returned to work, which means 15 per cent haven’t and in areas such as London it’s probably double that,’ she says. ‘I think many small business owners thought that when the call came to restart business, the answer from staff would be: ‘Thanks, I’m coming back to work.’ I don’t think they expected 15 per cent to not return.’ 

Around 1.3million people left the UK during the pandemic, half of whom were based in London. This has hit London’s hospitality sector hard. Nicholls says: ‘London’s hospitality industry has been impacted by many factors – Brexit, Covid travel restrictions, people leaving the city to return home, and workers looking to change careers. 

‘There’s also a lot of uncertainty around. Will hospitality venues remain open? Will businesses survive? After the past year we’ve had when the Government closed businesses down, I don’t really blame people for questioning whether hospitality represents a stable career choice.’ 

Lee Morris, a director of Goldstar Recruitment – a specialist catering and hospitality recruitment company – says that it’s very much an employee’s market. He adds: ‘There’s a huge worry about filling vacancies and a lot of companies are just throwing money at the problem. 

‘We’ve seen salaries increase by 15 to 20 per cent since March last year and companies are also offering improved employee benefits such as extra holidays, better paid overtime, days off in lieu and four-day working weeks rather than split shifts. 

‘It’s all about retaining and attracting crucial staff.’


Tim Foster, of the Yummy Pub Company, agrees that the biggest challenge for many small businesses is finding staff. But he says it’s possible if businesses are prepared to go the extra mile. He says: ‘We kept all our staff during lockdown and we’ve just recruited a further 23 team members.’ 

Tim’s approach is to have one-to-one talks with each employee about their career goals and what they want out of their time with the company. 

He says: ‘We asked everyone what they wanted to do with their lives and put a career road map together for each of them. We also cross-train all our staff so they can develop their career skills. Hospitality is a brilliant sector to work in and there are lots of jobs available, but some companies don’t see that they have to change. 

‘We see other pubs saying employees will only get one Sunday off a month. Staff are not going to put up with that any more.’ 

He adds: ‘We pay at the top end of the scale and we look after our staff. We make sure they have a work-life balance by having sufficient time off. 

‘It’s difficult turning customers away or reducing our opening hours, but if we push our teams too hard by making them work all hours and then they leave, we’re in trouble.’ 

Recruitment specialist Lee Morris says businesses can keep staff by promoting from within rather then hiring people over the heads of employees. 

Staff retention can also be boosted by offering better working hours and changing business practices. 

‘Many food-led venues are stripping down their menus so it’s easier for staff,’ he says. ‘Others are closing on Mondays and Sunday evenings so staff don’t feel overrun.’ 

He has one final message to small businesses looking to protect their companies from acute staff shortages: ‘Review salaries, see what rival companies are paying locally and look at employee hours and benefits.’