'A huge source of angst': Cork hospitality sector still short of staff post-lockdown

Business and restaurant owners speak to Breda Graham about the trials and trials and tribulations of rehiring staff and how the issue can be tackled to inject confidence back into the industry to make it attractive employment.
'A huge source of angst': Cork hospitality sector still short of staff post-lockdown

Many business owners struggled to hire staff after lockdowns of long periods as people found work in different industries during what was an uncertain time for the hospitality industry.

RESTAURATEURS and publicans have raised concerns about how staffing issues have affected the industry since the lifting of Covid-19 restrictions.

Many business owners struggled to hire staff after lockdowns of long periods as people found work in different industries during what was an uncertain time for the hospitality industry.

Cork city and county chairperson of the Vintners’ Federation of Ireland (VFI) and owner of The Castle Inn in Cork city Michael O’Donovan said that staffing is an issue that is brought up by publicans every day.

Mr O’Donovan said that hospitality took “a major hit” during Covid when they closed and ultimately many establishments lost their experienced staff.

“Staff that had been in our establishments for years found alternative employment and they didn’t really return to hospitality when we reopened. That’s been a major challenge because a lot of the workforce has become younger and less experienced. We’ve been asking the public to be patient with them because they’re learning how to do this as well - so it has been a difficult couple of months staffing wise,” he said.

He said that publicans hit “a critical point” in May when exams kicked in and third-level students went abroad and left for their J1s after what he said was a slight improvement in the months of March and April when students were in search of part-time jobs.

MANY HAVE LEFT THE INDUSTRY 

Mr O’Donovan said that the biggest issue across the sector is hiring chefs, many of whom he said moved to other industries such as pharmaceutical industries where they were guaranteed work in on-site canteens.

He said there were many foreign national chefs, particularly Eastern Europeans, who also left the industry to return home during the pandemic.

“Chefs have been a huge source of angst and worry for owners and trying to provide food during the tourist season which is the mainstay of their business has been particularly challenging.

“Kitchens have dictated the opening hours of establishments which I can certainly say I’ve never seen before. A chef works 40 hours a week so they’re working five days and then the restaurant or pub sometimes closes Tuesday and Wednesday because they’re using the hours for the busier periods when they need the kitchen open,” he said.

Michael O’Donovan, The Castle Inn, South Main Street and chairperson of the Vintners’ Federation of Ireland Cork branch.	Picture: Eddie O’Hare        
Michael O’Donovan, The Castle Inn, South Main Street and chairperson of the Vintners’ Federation of Ireland Cork branch. Picture: Eddie O’Hare        

Mr O’Donovan said that one of the biggest challenges in attracting people to work within the industry is the anti-social hours and that owners are doing what they can to meet their staff members’ needs by tailoring rosters to suit staff which he said is also “very challenging” for publicans.

Echoing Mr O’Donovans comments, the owner of the SpitJack on Washington Street Richard Gavin said that the situation in hospitality even pre-Covid was challenging, specifically finding chefs and people to work in the kitchen.

“That hasn’t improved since Covid, it’s probably got a little bit worse so that is an ongoing challenge.

“Our solution to that pre-Covid, and now, is recruiting from overseas and hiring people from further afield.

“The other challenge there is the situation with the housing crisis. The biggest challenge is not just finding and relocating but trying to find accommodation for them when they arrive.

“That is really starting to become an impossible situation which doesn’t help.

“Pre-Covid, front-of-house was reasonably okay to hire. We would have depended a lot on students and we would have grown a lot of our managers through the team.

“I think when we came back from the first lockdown more or less all the team had returned and there would have been a lot more caution and people didn’t know what to expect so a lot of the management team returned.

“It was very difficult to get students while the PUP was still in place, it made it actually impossible to try to hire students. We saw once that PUP was pulled for students, a lot more people started applying.

“The second lockdown was a real wipeout for our front-of-house managers. We would have had some really talented managers but we lost almost all of them during that second lockdown.

“A lot of them understandably either went abroad or changed industries and that’s still a real ongoing problem because it’s done an awful lot of damage to the industry. People don’t see a career in hospitality as a secure future and that has really destroyed us.

“We would depend very much on hiring people and upskilling them and developing them ourselves. That’s how we would succeed in what is a labour crisis for the industry.

“We’re slowly getting back on track now,” he said.

'NOT THE EASIEST INDUSTRY TO ATTRACT PEOPLE'

Speaking about why hospitality has not been the easiest industry to attract people to, he said: “Because of its nature, working evenings, working bank holidays, the rate of pay. Hospitality was not always the easiest industry to attract people to so we have to try be a good employer and offer opportunities in order to attract people.”

He said that there is a means to attract people as “Ireland is in a good economic situation in comparison to some of our EU neighbours and further afield” but that the most important thing is to “try to solve the housing crisis to some extent and have more availability in city centres”.

“For example, our restaurants are city centre locations and if we look at Cork, it’s difficult to have somebody too far away from the city because we need people to come in the morning and we have people finishing late at night.

“The transport links aren’t good enough in Cork and Limerick to allow people to live further away so there has to be availability in the city.

“If we can solve the housing situation and have more affordable rooms available in the city centre, we will be able to attract people from abroad.

“Probably you will see a lot fewer Irish people working in the industry and we have a high turnover in hospitality because we are that first step so if someone is coming from abroad. It’s easier to get into a hospitality role initially before then maybe developing their English or skills or looking for a role in their profession, it tends to be a good stepping stone for that,” he said.

Noreen Gannon of Gallaghers on MacCurtain Street said that for the most part, she is “very grateful” that most of her staff returned following the various lockdowns during the pandemic.

Noreen Gannon, Gallagher’s, MacCurtain Street: Very grateful that most of her staff returned after lockdowns.	Picture: Jim Coughlan
Noreen Gannon, Gallagher’s, MacCurtain Street: Very grateful that most of her staff returned after lockdowns. Picture: Jim Coughlan

“We have a great core in the team and we are very grateful for that,” she said.

She said that while there was some training involved with new starts that most of her experienced staff stayed on in the gastro pub.

Reiterating Michael O’Donovan and Richard Gavin’s comments in relation to shortages of chefs, she said: “The chef side of things have been difficult but that’s coming back now as well. They’re just brilliant to keep the show on the road.”

Owner of Nana’s on Douglas Street Steven Hackett said that he also had most of his full-time staff come back when the pub reopened, describing his staff as “very loyal” people who wanted to stay in the industry.

“But that is very far and few between because I’ve heard other publicans who have lost the full-time staff they’ve had for many years and moved industry - these are people who have spent 10,15, 20 years of their life in the industry.

“Some part-timers also changed industries as well.

“I was very lucky but a lot of people have lost a lot of good people and if Covid never happened they would still be there probably but Covid opened their eyes to different things. It has had a knock-on effect across the board with all publicans across the industry.”

Mr Hackett said that much of the new staff are less experienced or have no previous experience in the industry and have to be trained to the standard of those who are experienced.

He reminded the public to realise this and be respectful and patient with staff during what is a difficult time for the industry.

“Customers need to be mindful that speaking negatively of establishments will have a knock-on effect because word of mouth could close any business,” he warned.

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