‘People say they won’t work for the weekend. They’ll wait until the weather changes’ – restaurateurs tell of staff shortage crisis

What restaurateur Mike Ryan wants are skilled staff, and he’s prepared to pay more than wages to get them.

He has been forking out deposits to landlords so staff at his Cornstore and CoqBull restaurants have somewhere to rent in Cork and, importantly, remain part of his team.

“It’s skills that we’re lacking,” he said.

“Traditionally, what you have at this time of year are students or people working for the summer, bolstering up what you’d normally have – whether it’s someone extra to polish cutlery or carry plates, not running the operation, but an integral part of it.”

There are a lot of part-timers around but not a lot of skilled people directing them, he said. “A lot of businesses are suffering from a lack of experience,” he added. “The service may suffer, the quality, and it’s the same with chefs.

“You can’t expect someone coming from college to operate a reservation system, a till system, or the credit card machine or make sure the money goes through the bank and trace where the problems are. That knowledge and skill-set is gone.”

He said staff shortages are still affecting the hours that restaurants open.

Many are trying to open longer, but the effect is stretching the business, and ultimately the business is thinner, Mr Ryan said. This can lead to worn-out workers.

“You have to try and maintain who you have because it’s an employees’ market,” he said.

He said colleges produce about 1,500 chefs a year, when 5,000 are required. Immigrants used to make up the numbers, but a lot went home and didn’t come back after the pandemic.

“One of the major stumbling blocks is accommodation,” he said. “A former head chef of mine who is a good friend bought a house in the suburbs. He and his wife were asked fewer questions about getting a mortgage than they were about renting. They were shocked.

“They were being asked for their bank account details, the last six months’ bank records. They wanted to see their work contracts.”

One of the first questions he gets asked by potential job candidates is whether he can supply housing. He works with a local auctioneering firm to access homes around Cork city that are also rented to multinationals.

He’s done it for workers from all over the country, and outside. Currently, he has up to 13 vacancies that he says he could “fill in the morning”. They include supervisor and managerial roles. Supervisors earn around €35,000, he said, while head chefs could expect €55,000, plus bonuses. Tips can make up a large portion of earnings, he added.

Help is also wanted at Sligo’s Eala Bhán restaurant, where owner Anthony Gray serves up locally sourced seafood and prime steaks.

Mr Gray said the staffing situation is not as bad as last year, but it’s still bad.

When the Leaving Cert ends, he expects a boost in numbers, but the tightness of the labour market is obvious as he speaks.

“The weather doesn’t help,” he said. “You have people saying, ‘I won’t work for the weekend. I’ll wait till the weather changes’.

“We’ve tons of work in roles, from front-of-house to kitchen porter. Chefs are like hen’s teeth.

“We’re offering very good money. They get all their holidays and breaks at work.

“This business used to be a very hard career that you would go into and work 14 or 15 hours a day. That day is gone.”

He’s moving fast to promote people if they show potential or an interest in food.

“I’d take anything, especially front-of-house, and we’ll train them,” he said.

“It’s very difficult to get anybody with experience.

“We need people and the busy months are coming.”

He said there were more chefs “floating around” recently when a lot of Ukrainians were housed in hotels, and there wasn’t a need for as many. He’s concerned that a lack of hotel beds will have a snowball effect on towns.

“If there are fewer people coming into a village – whether getting taxis, going to the pub, going to buy the local newspaper – the effect it’s going to have on tourism is going to be long term,” he said.

He wants the Government to take a different approach and increase the amount of modular homes available.

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