By Catherine Franks
Times are getting tougher for most of us, things that used to be taken for granted are now seen as treats and if feels like we are all waiting, breaths drawn, to see what the coming winter is going to hold.
We all know the dreaded C (which must not be mentioned) is still lurking in the background figuring out if a new variant is going to be better or worse than the last. It feels like we have all studiously ignored it through the summer, throwing ourselves into the sunshine - relishing events and travelling and meeting people like never before, desperately trying to make up for the lost last two years. We know some unpleasant things are around the corner - fuel increases, inflation and the continual chat about the cost of living crisis has many of us metaphorically putting our fingers in our ears and humming. Anything to distract ourselves from the looming reality which will no doubt hit round about October.
So what does this have to do with your local coffee shop? This week, as those of you who follow us on Instagram will know, I had a last straw moment and answered back at some comments left in online reviews.
I want to follow up to more fully explain the context of what is happening in hospitality, why so many of us have been having last straw moments recently and why thousands have left the hospitality industry over the past two years.
Why the mass exodus from hospitality?
The massive number of vacancies that the hospitality sector currently faces has gotten some media coverage but honestly if you don’t work in the sector the impacts of this may well have passed you by. The economic landscape in which we are running our wee coffee shop today is vastly different from what it was 5 or even 3 years ago. Did you know that there were 174,000 unfilled hospitality vacancies (ONS stats) at the start of this summer? Nearly half of operators have either cut opening times or decreased capacity in order to deal with the shortfall. Anecdotally, I can tell you I do not know of a single coffee business which is not currently looking for staff and running at close to the bone staffing levels. Many specialty coffee shops no longer offer food and just focus on coffee and cake.
This is of course massively frustrating for customers who are keen to get back out and enjoy ‘normal’ life again and are finding that their favourite restaurants, bars and cafes may have greatly reduced menus, may be open less or may not have the quality of service that they used to. It is also really frustrating for businesses who want to get back to running after months of closure and who see queues of customers wanting to come in but just cannot serve them due to lack of staffing.
Comments that imply that businesses and their workers are lazy or not interested in doing a good job are simply hurtful and do not help. If anything I would argue they further undermine the industry and make people even less likely to look there for a career.
When I had my last straw moment a week ago, I had just finished Fringe by the Sea which was a fantastic fun event but it involved frankly stupid hours of work. Sitting down writing this (on 21 August) I realise that I have only had two days off in the entire month of August… I’m not mentioning that in a ‘feel sorry for me’ kind of way, this pattern is replicated by countless others in hospitality, it is the norm rather than the exception. You can be certain, whichever coffee shop you are going into nowadays to enjoy your flat white, there will be many overworked and stressed out people behind the scenes.
So having a wee glance at Google in the Monday morning I was immediately hit by three reviews in quick succession, the first complaining about prices and the others commenting on how our business was not using its space properly and we were 'missing an opportunity' by not offering more choice to customers.
As I explained in my replies we are very clear on our website about what we currently offer and I have even written blog posts about why we only offer coffee (see In praise of Specialisation).
Nevertheless, the timing of facing those comments after so much hard work led me to reply much more abruptly than I would normally have done and it really set the cat amongst the pigeons, even getting shared on an Edinburgh news site. Although the vast majority of comments were supportive, there were a few who really felt that businesses had no right to reply this way. I think they are wrong and that people need to know what is happening in the hospitality sector.
Review sites give people a false sense of power, that their comments are going to effect a change and somehow give everyone a better hospitality experience. That is giving them a lot of credit. At their worst, they give people a chance to hit back or take out their frustrations in an anonymous way at a place or people who have annoyed them that day.
Why are we facing such a staffing crisis in the sector? Well … speak to anyone who has worked in hospitality and they can tell you the downsides: long hours, exhausting work, unpredictable work patterns, poor pay, difficult customers, toxic work environments, job insecurity, low status and lack of respect for their skills.
In a place like North Berwick the unavailability of places to live at anything resembling a reasonable rent compounds the problem. This town is full of properties that are used as holiday homes and sit empty much of the year. Long term lets are hard to come by and rents are way out of step with service sector wages. How can you find people to work in all the customer facing tourist industries when there are no places to live in the tourist town? There needs to be a balance.
People left the hospitality sector in droves during the pandemic and in the UK, Brexit has worsened the situation by driving away European workers who it could be argued did serve to prop up a fundamentally flawed industry. As long as there is a steady stream of temporary staff (whether its workers from Europe or a workforce of young people entering their first jobs) an industry who mistreats it workers can continue indefinitely.
There have been some positives which have come out of the labour shortage. Wages have gone up across the board and many employers are offering better working conditions to their teams. I’m loving seeing the labour force organisation which is happening in the UK and abroad at the moment pushing for workers rights. In the US the past few years have seen some really interesting developments with the unionising of hospitality workers. It is a slow and painful process though and the big companies are fighting back hard. Follow The Pourover Blog for excellent news roundups of what is happening in the industry.
I think that Covid has greatly accelerated these trends as it highlighted just how necessary and yet at the same time disposable hospitality workers are. When the pandemic hit, a lot of people in the sector lost their jobs suddenly, many others were furloughed for long periods and many of course continued to work in hazardous public facing roles. People took advantage of an unexpected break in work to rethink, to retrain and in many cases change career tack.
Skilled vs 'Unskilled' work
Hospitality positions are not viewed as a worthy and highly skilled career choices here in the UK as they are in other some other countries. That is why the top specialty coffee houses that serve equally incredible food that are well known in Melbourne are not found here. To run such a business you need skilled people who have years of experience and are masters of their trades, people who are following a lifelong passion and career. It is so sad to see how many people, as they attain this level of skill and experience here in the UK, leave to get much better paid and higher status work in other fields. By the age of 30, after 10+ years in the industry you either start your own business (if you are not completely burnt out and done with the sector) or you leave. That is a pattern I have witnessed over and over again.
That leaves the bulk of staffing now to new and relatively untrained people. A cafe full of inexperienced newbies cannot produce consistently excellent food, drink and customer service - no matter how well meaning or hard working those people may be. Our jobs are highly skilled and cannot be learned overnight.
Monumental amounts of multitasking are required as you prep orders and interact with customers simultaneously. One person may be ordering while someone else is asking about milk alternatives, a third is looking for a glass of water and at the same time someone else’s child has just poured their babyccino over their dog. Meanwhile you are taking an order of six different drinks with all of the possible permutations of type of milk, caf vs decaf and extra hotness. Then 100 litres of milk arrives from the dairy as the beeper for croissants rings and the first trainload of day-trippers walks onto the terrace. The coffee grinder starts making a funny noise and you run out of latte cups as you have been so busy for the first hour nobody has had a chance to wash any.*
(*It is at precisely this moment that someone standing in the queue is thinking, ‘Surely it can’t be that hard to knock out a few sandwiches…’)
If you have years of experience you can deal with these things much more easily. You make drinks by muscle memory, you know the most efficient workflow to keep things moving, you know what the grinder noise means and what you will need to do to fix it that evening at close. You can chat to customers about their day and keep the queue happy without looking harassed or bursting into tears. The calm exterior belies the stressfulness of the job. The level of stress that hospitality workers deal with on a daily basis is simply not sustainable - it has negative impacts on our health and our mental wellbeing. It is not ok that you cannot go to the toilet all day because there is a massive queue waiting to be served or that you don’t eat lunch until 4pm because it will make customers wait too long for their latte.
It is a shame because there are so many things to love about this industry. I genuinely look forward to coming in to work in the mornings - I love the people I work with, I adore our regulars and meeting interesting people from all over the world. I relish the challenge of serving great coffees, exploring new origins, holding fun events and constantly reinventing and changing what our business looks like. I feel I am one of the lucky ones.
People enter this industry hoping for a rewarding job. Barista, baker, chef, roaster, green coffee buyer, wholesale relationships manager, front of house cafe positions - these are all roles which could be rewarding and enjoyable and they should be treated as worthwhile and worthy career paths rather than as short term jobs. Sadly, in the UK, we tend to look at hospitality as just a stop gap and the workers who do these jobs as unskilled and disposable and as long as we do this we will continue to be served up a sector that is less than extraordinary.
What can we do?
So what can you do, as a customer and a supporter of your local coffee shop? If there is something you don’t like in a cafe don’t just jump online and leave a review, have a conversation with the team, find out why there has been a change and try to understand how they are coping with the new reality. If you get a cup of coffee that isn't as good as usual, ask for a remake. Good cafes will always be happy to do this and it gives us the chance to put things right straight away. If you love a local business, tell your friends about them. Support businesses when they are trying something new - it might be a desperate effort to keep afloat in hard times. Be kind, we are human just like you. Talk to people working in the service industry as you would to your own mother, or your brother or your child. Because we are those things. And finally, support workers (in all industries) when they are fighting collectively to better their pay or working conditions. A fairer and more just society is one which benefits us all.
The people we should be raging against just now are not the minimum wage workers serving us our food and drinks, it is those who are benefitting so much from the way the system is currently stacked in their favour. If you have had to wait too long for your coffee or don’t like the reduced offering it isn’t the barista you should blame, it is the factors that stop people from following that career path.
Look to those who have continued to rake in huge profits over the past few years and their political stooges. It is in their direction that your righteous anger should point not towards Trip Advisor.