With the government’s roadmap out of lockdown allowing the reopening of indoor dining on Monday, Nick Mosley talks to restaurateurs about the challenges and opportunities at this critical time for the industry.

The hospitality industry has lost £68 billion in sales and 600,000 jobs since Covid struck, according to the national trade body UKHospitality, and 12,000 businesses have failed.

Many hospitality businesses have benefited from government grants and loans, alongside the ability to furlough some staff. Those business who are light on their feet have adapted to include take-out and home delivery and the re-opening of outdoor dining has been warmly welcomed by most.

However none of this has made up for their inability to operate as normal for over a year.

Kenny Tutt

Kenny Tutt

A key challenge is rebuilding kitchen teams and front-of-house staff. Recruitment has always been one of the biggest headaches but no one ever envisaged the industry would be faced with the challenge of Covid, compounded by a change in the workforce ecosystem prompted by Brexit.

There has been an exodus of employees from the industry, not helped by many EU workers heading back to their home countries and either unable or unwilling to return to the UK. On the flip-side, through financial necessity, significant numbers of British hospitality workers have moved to new careers that provide more stable wages and – in some cases – may be less stressful than working in a high pressure hospitality environment.

It’s also a fact that many young Brits simply see hospitality and associated jobs as a stop-gap role rather a long-term career option.

Neil Mannifield runs Market Restaurant and Bar in Western Road, Hove, and is one of the longest-established restaurateurs in the city.

“With the natural wastage in a high turnover industry like ours we have lost a few staff,” he said.

“With Brexit now a reality we are already struggling to recruit new staff with any experience at all.

“Simply put, there don’t seem to any newcomers to Brighton who want to work in restaurants.”

Masterchef: The Professionals winner, chef-proprietor Steven Edwards of Etch in Church Road, Hove, has been preparing for the reopening of indoor dining for months.

“We’re literally starting from scratch,” said Steve. “Being closed for five months means that we have no rolling start, so we’ve had to get the team working the week before May 17 so that we are ready to meet the demand.”

Although the lights are still off at many restaurants and pubs – and in some cases may never be switched back on again – there is a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel, with a slew of new openings led by the launch of Shelter Hall on Brighton seafront.

Olivia Reid at Shelter Hall

Olivia Reid at Shelter Hall

Its food director Olivia Reid said: “As a new opening with a completely different concept and kitchen partners, Shelter Hall faced the normal challenges of opening. In some ways, the limitations of Covid outdoor dining was a blessing and allowed us to test our operations and systems ahead of full opening.

“Recruitment is a huge nationwide issue, due to a combination of furlough and Brexit.

“Shelter Hall is constantly recruiting to ensure we have a strong developing team, focusing on training and creating opportunity for the next cohort of hospitality stars, offering a new rewarding environment for them to learn from and enjoy.

“Forty three per cent of our outdoor-only guests have booked indoor tables for the next few months. This is hugely reassuring but we all must be prepared for a new combination of dining experience expectation, customers will continue to expect choice and we must provide it.”

Joining the line-up of new restaurants in the city, Raz Helalat – owner of The Salt Room and The Coal Shed restaurants in Brighton – is launching his new concept, Burnt Orange, in Middle Street next month.

Raz has more than a decade of experience of the city’s food scene and says he has seen a gap in the market for a new style of informal dining and drinking.

He said: “I’ve had countless conversations with friends and loyal customers about the need for a totally new space. Something different, not quite a restaurant, not quite a bar but somewhere that bridges the gap with the right music, of course. So, after the 18 months we’ve all had, it felt like the perfect time to open our doors.”

Outside Brighton, Sussex restaurateurs are also finding new opportunities for growth in adversity. Chef Kenny Tutt who launched Pitch in Worthing following his Masterchef: The Professionals win in 2018, recently opened the Ox-Block kitchen at Shelter Hall and will be launching Bayside Social, a new beachside café-restaurant on Worthing seafront.

He said: “I’ll continue to work with more and more local suppliers and look forward to hosting a welcoming, warm space for everyone to enjoy,”

In Lewes, business partners chef Richard Falk and Stephen Yeomans are opening their new restaurant Fork on Station Street on June 1. Richard previously worked at The Ledbury in Notting Hill and The Dairy in Clapham.

He said: “Lewes is a small, fiercely independent town. There was a definite opportunity for an independently owned and run neighbourhood restaurant.

“I would argue that the present is the moment to be opening. After over a year of cooking at home customers’ expectations will be high, and the desire for our guests to reconnect in person is greater than ever. As an accessible, neighbourhood restaurant, we can satisfy a lot of these criteria.”

Despite the reassuring news of new openings, a lot of established hospitality businesses of all shapes and sizes will not reopen or will struggle through the winter off-peak period – for many reasons including staffing, finances and adaptability. The reboot of an entire industry, has brought to the fore significant structural issues with staff recruitment and retention, and whether employment in hospitality at all levels can be seen as valid – and valued – career options.

Local and national government policy around hospitality and wider food and drink will need to update and adapt to the challenges ahead.