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Morning Briefing Strap Line
Fri 11th Jun 2021 - Friday Opinion
Subjects: Shortages lead to price hikes, gastronomic and scenic joys, tech can help mitigate labour shortages
Authors: Glynn Davis, Ann Elliott, Prask Sutton
 

Shortages lead to price hikes by Glynn Davis

Sat near the entrance to the New Forest Inn, near Lyndhurst, enjoying an early evening pint of local beer and an expected quiet read of my newspaper, I was continuously interrupted by visitors popping their heads around the door enquiring about a table for dinner and being told the place was fully booked. This process was repeated via the pub’s phone.
 
Clearly this attractive-looking venue was very popular with both locals and tourists, and therefore tough to get into, so the following night we chose to instead dine at the nearby, much larger pub The White Swan, which did not look too packed on our arrival. Everything was fine apart from having to wait almost 90 minutes for our food.
 
It transpired that the New Forest Inn was not actually that busy but had halved the number of bookings it was willing to take because of the chronic shortage of staff. Meanwhile, The White Swan had seemingly been more relaxed about its service levels and not limited the bookings it was willing to take even though the kitchen was clearly going to struggle with even a half busy pub. 
 
This staff drought has led to drastic measures by some operators who do not want to overwork their teams nor do they want to reduce the level of experience for customers. Le Gavroche has cancelled all lunch services from mid-June for the foreseeable future and St Austell Brewery has initiated a temporary decrease in its food service hours and opening hours in some of its managed pubs.
 
If finding staff was the only problem, it would be bad enough, but it seems there are shortages of pretty much everything. Whether it is computer chips, commodities, cars, utilities, food stuffs or any other materials you care to think of, there are shortages on the back of an incredible uptick in global demand. As the world moves out of lockdowns, supply chains, which in some cases have merely been ticking along for the past 18 months, now have to attempt to deal with an incredible surge in demand.
 
Needless to say, this is going to have a meaningful impact on the food and drink industries. For starters, costs have clearly shot up as result of this pressure on supply chains. The price of edible oil, from oil palm trees, has jumped 135% during the past year to record levels, soybeans have hit prices last seen a decade ago, sugar is up 58%, corn futures hit their highest level for eight years, and wheat futures moved up to their highest point since 2013.
 
This has led to menu price increases at many restaurants, with 30 out of 50 venues analysed on the Internet Archive found to have bumped up prices since they closed for lockdown last autumn. Cote Brasserie, for instance, has increased the price of its moules frites from £12.95 to £13.95 and its chips have jumped 27% from £2.95 to £3.75. 
 
For many restaurants such price increases will no doubt have to be undertaken alongside more creative activity such as adapting their menus. Kevin Georgel, chief executive of St Austell Brewery, says the company has reduced the size of its menus compared with 2019 and rationalised its supplier base while Starbucks has announced it is to cut 25 menu items and ingredients. Meanwhile, renowned chefs Richard Corrigan and Chris Galvin have also talked of the benefit of leaner, more conservative, smaller menus with the resultant fewer ingredients to purchase and prep. 
 
The creation of dishes in restaurants is clearly based on multiple factors including the chefs’ creativity and price-points but, with supply chains upended, we might be in an era when it is as much about producing goods based on what parts are available rather than on any other predilection or metric. Buying more locally and seasonally will undoubtedly come to the fore. 
 
Even though things are opening up (let’s see what happens with 21 June) there are clearly still many challenges ahead but, thankfully, the foodservice industry has been tested to the limits of its creativity over the past year or so and it has certainly not been found wanting in any department whatsoever. It’s easier said than done I know, but there just needs to be a little bit more of the same to see out these final obstacles.
Glynn Davis is a leading commentator on retail trends
 

Gastronomic and scenic joys by Ann Elliott

When I think of Northumberland, where I have just spent the past few days on holiday, I remember long unbroken beaches, wild skies, impressive castles and awe-inspiring houses and gardens like Cragside and Alnwick. Etched in my memory from this week, to save for dark winter mornings, will be a wonderful walk along the edge of the sea in the sunshine with no one in sight, Lindisfarne and a long stretch of clear sandy beach in front of me and Bamburgh Castle behind. It is the most magical county.
 
These memories of sea, sand and sunshine will stay with me, our dining-out experiences probably less so on the whole but with two notable exceptions. Unlike our major cities, customers were there in their droves, swarming around National Trust tea shops and village cafes like the proverbial bees round a honey pot. Covid processes though were making life difficult for those who ran them – and those who visited. Customer messages were bossy, plentiful and random, worn-out floor arrows never seem to lead where anyone wanted to go and track and trace compliance was patchy at best.
 
The National Trust did have its act together on the whole but why it continues to have round picnic tables that seat eight when most of its customers arrive in twos is baffling. It still doesn’t have “pay at table” in place and its service style could be described as quaint rather than efficient. It is an amazing institution though and I am always grateful it exists even if a little grumpy that it could work, certainly in food and beverage, better in both difficult and easy times. As it has other more strategic issues to resolve at the moment, I suspect F&B might be bottom of its action list for some time to come.
 
So while both “corporate” and independent cafes struggled somewhat to cope with the visiting hordes with restrictions in place, two pubs stood out for me like lighthouses on a craggy and inaccessible outcrop. Those were The Craster Arms in Beadnell and The Jolly Fisherman in Craster.
 
They both reminded me of what it’s like to read a menu and spend ages choosing, not because the menu is baffling but because it’s so compelling and every dish sounds appealing – only then to change your mind when the waiter is in front of you urging you to stop dithering. One menu had six starters, the other had 12. One had 16 mains, the other had 20. So no more than 32 dishes to choose from in total, all laid out clearly (Starters, From the Sea, From the Land and From the Field in the case of The Jolly Fisherman).
 
The menu descriptors were on-point too: “Giant beer battered North Sea cod. £16. Beadnell Blonde ale batter, chips, mushy peas and house tartar” or “Thick-cut cod fillet. £18.50. Pommes Anna, tenderstem broccoli, minted pea and carrot puree”. No floury adjectives on these menus.
 
Prices were surprisingly toppy at The Craster Arms at £32 for an 8oz fillet steak and generally cheaper at The Jolly Fisherman but we compensated at the latter by drinking more, spending £45 a head in the end. Not your average pub, pub food or pub pricing but worth it, especially for the sea and harbour views.
 
It was the food presentation that stood out for me in both places. The giant battered cod hung over the edges of the plate and looked stunning carried aloft into the garden or into the restaurant. It generated numerous orders as it ceremonially passed through. The pie and mash had a similar impact. The Jolly Fishboard with crab, prawns, salmon, pate, smoked salmon, herring, salad and artisan brand was a total “wow” when put in front of us. We seemed to stare at it for an age. It was a thing of beauty. Such care had been taken in both pubs to present food in its best possible light – from being carried through the restaurant to be being placed on the table. Not a new tactic but good to be reminded of it now and then.
 
The food in both pubs was beautiful too – under promising and over delivering in every dish.
 
Both pubs could serve 500-plus covers a day so table turn and speed of service were key in both. It’s tricky to have friendly and swift service in tourist-orientated pubs but did both well. The owner was very friendly at Beadnell where he has a cafe, rooms and a new site by the sea too, whereas Ben, our server at The Jolly Fisherman, was just the right side of being familiar.
 
It was great to discover (and rediscover) the gastronomic, as well as the scenic, joys of the UK if only for a few days.
Ann Elliott is a hospitality strategist, connector and adviser
 

Tech can help mitigate labour shortages by Prask Sutton 

No, it’s not back to normal just yet and no one is 100% sure what 21 June will bring, but through the gradual phased return of hospitality we’re starting to see the shoots of recovery. Personally, I’ve made it my mission to get out as much as possible, supporting pubs and restaurants. And to be out in the real world once more, in among the buzz of hospitality, has been oh-so welcome.
 
This is why reports of staff shortages come as a bitter blow as the hospitality industry starts to get back on its feet. Recent research shows 90% of operators are predicting issues with recruitment over the coming year – another setback during a period crucial to our industry’s recovery. 
 
I read earlier this week that venues in Liverpool are facing a perfect storm of issues arising from Brexit and covid. In fact, operators have entered into a bidding war for staff, poaching employees from one another by offering as much as £10,000 extra per year. 
 
Irrespective of whether these – to some, astronomical – rising staff costs are justified and/or deserved, when combined with increased business rates and rents, and high-commission models from delivery aggregators, how are hospitality operators expected to find the extra funds required to somehow manage this labour shortage?
 
A recent study shows 45% of hospitality businesses believe consumers want an enhanced experience when out eating and drinking post-pandemic. Which, on one hand, represents a great opportunity but, on the other, seems impossible to deliver given the number of reduced teams that are already overstretched and rushed off their feet.
 
Hospitality is an industry built on customer service and human interaction, and it should remain so. Months of staying at home during lockdown have shown that, as human beings, the vast majority of us really do crave personal contact. But perhaps now, when faced with another setback, it’s time for a rethink. Maybe now is the time to look at how technology can complement and enhance the customer experience while making it possible to continue trading even with reduced team sizes.
 
Take, for instance, the facilitation of payments and the manual taking of orders. It might not seem like a lot, but entrusting these aspects of the customer journey to software can see an increase in the productivity of the average member of front-of-house staff equivalent to adding an additional three hours to their shift. This means those businesses with a reduced headcount can continue to offer excellent service, and those with a burgeoning team can free up staff to focus on aspects benefiting from a human touch.
 
And as more and more operators are realising every day, incorporating tech into the customer journey only improves the guest experience. Often, this is because staff members’ attention becomes laser-focused on customers’ happiness. They actually have the time to stop and engage with customers, be hospitable and make sure guests are getting the most out of their visit. It’s much easier to concentrate when one no longer has to worry about the admin and transactional elements of the role. 
 
Across social media and within some mainstream press, the hospitality industry has come under scrutiny during the recent reopening. Customers have vented frustration, alleging poor customer service, rude staff and long wait times. We, in the industry, know this is hardly fair, given the pressures staff are under. But equally, as customers ourselves, we can all place ourselves in their shoes. We’ve probably all been on the receiving end of bad service. And the bottom line is, it makes or breaks a business. And whether we like it or not, we have to accept customers don’t want excuses. They want a great experience. Surely, therefore, looking for solutions to alleviate the pressures teams are under should be the number one priority right now. Freeing up staff to show customers a good time equals happy customers. More importantly, at a time when finding and recruiting good staff is more challenging than it has ever been, staff retention is crucial. If your team feels supported and equipped to do their jobs well, their satisfaction will increase. It’s win-win for both staff and customers.
 
In terms of technology hindering the customer experience, something that comes up repeatedly, this argument now feels antiquated. Customers who have experienced excellent technology are well and truly embracing it. After all, they’ve been benefiting from it for years in the retail space. Just look at how easy it is to make one-click payments on Amazon. The same is now being demanded from hospitality. Our research shows 64% of people plan to continue to use mobile order and pay as their primary payment channel in pubs and restaurants post-pandemic. And when you equate that to the UK population, that becomes a mind-blowing 42 million people. That’s a lot of people who want a different way of doing things. That's 42 million reasons to embrace technology.
Prask Sutton is chief executive and founder of Onvi

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