Maggie Ritchie: What’s gone wrong with our restaurants?

EATING out is one of the great pleasures of living in a city like Glasgow with its hundreds of restaurants and bars – or it used to be.

Like many people fed up with cooking every meal at home, I was eager to get back around a restaurant table with friends and family when restrictions were lifted. But after several disappointing experiences I’ll be sticking to Chez Ritchie.

I have every sympathy for the hard-pressed people trying their best to serve up food and drinks after months of lockdown while dealing with staff shortages, but I’ve had enough of shelling out my hard-earned crust for meals that have been at best indifferent and at worst inedible.

Recently, a restaurant in the Merchant City served up tepid tapas that included a claggy excuse for paella. We’d waited so long that we didn’t send the food back as we would have done pre-pandemic, only too aware that restaurants are struggling.

READ MORE MAGGIE: Shopping mecca?

Er, not quite Since restrictions have been lifted again I haven’t the heart to complain about the food or poor service to the harried waiting staff. There was a meal in Ayr that was so awful my hungry 6ft 3in nephew couldn’t eat it. But we smiled at the friendly waiter and tipped the extortionate bill. And the bills seem much bigger these days.

Things are no better at some London restaurants. A friend reported that at one of the most fashionable hotels where she was at a birthday bash, they waited nearly an hour for sharing pizzas that were dumped on the table without cutlery or individual plates. She had to hunt down a member of staff to ask for them and fresh glasses, only to be told there were no more clean glasses.

On the way home to Scotland in the airport she stopped at a celebrity chef’s restaurant for a small bowl of curry with under-seasoned rice and half a papadum and a coffee, which cost her £45 including a 20 per cent service charge and a £1.50 cover charge – was that for the demi-papadum?

These places were rammed, as were all the restaurants I’ve been to or not been able to get into since they opened. Until now, I’ve cheerfully waited in queues in the street for a table and then even longer for food to arrive, knowing that the hospitality sector that is so vital to our service economy has been one of the hardest hit by lockdowns and restrictions and is still floundering, despite returning customers’ appetite for eating out.

READ MORE MAGGIE: Glasgow’s grotty

They simply don’t have enough staff either front of house or in the kitchen. Staff shortages in areas including hospitality and care have led to calls for a relaxation of post-Brexit rules, to no avail. This week the BBC reported that the temporary visa scheme being brought in for haulage drivers and poultry workers will not be extended to the hospitality sector, with government sources saying firms should improve pay and conditions.

Kate Nicholls from UK Hospitality warned that without such measures, the recovery from the pandemic would “falter”, even though the sector is helping people into apprenticeships, offering training schemes and wages have risen by 19 per cent over the last five years.

“A chronic shortage of staff is a significant barrier to the hospitality industry’s recovery,” she said, urging the government to consider “all reasonable measures”

Earlier this week, the Financial Times published a letter from more than 65 hospitality leaders to the prime minister demanding the immigration requirements for hospitality workers be urgently loosened.

But should the sector be looking to the government to turn the supply of cheap foreign labour back on? According to hospitality bodies, one in five workers left the sector during the coronavirus pandemic, with Covid and Brexit often cited as exacerbating the problem. For staff that returned to their roles, the so-called “pingdemic” led to further shortages due to workers being told to isolate.

But long working hours and low pay were also cited as putting applicants off, leading some food chains like Itsu and Prezzo to offer pay rises and other incentives to attract more workers.

A government spokesperson said they were “closely monitoring labour supply” but “the government encourages all sectors to make employment more attractive to UK domestic workers through offering training, careers options, wage increases and investment.”

Figures from the Office for National Statistics published in the summer revealed that job vacancies in the industry were already consistently at high levels before the first lockdown in March 2020. There were 102,000 vacancies in the UK’s hospitality sector from April to June 2021 – a rise of 12 per cent compared with 91,000 for the same period in 2019. However, since 2017, vacancies have been consistently at 90,000 or more.

Ms Nicholls puts the staff shortages even higher: “We are having to recruit more people than we thought. We have a vacancy rate of about 10 per cent. We are short of around 200,000 staff.”

Some in the hospitality sector say the problem has been brewing for years and that it has become a crushingly difficult place to work over the last 20 years with minimum pay and zero-hours contracts as standard.

I don’t blame those who left their jobs in hospitality during lockdown to take more stable posts that pay better for fewer hours, and I have nothing but admiration for the survivors doing their best to meet our demand to eat well in a convivial restaurant. But I don’t think the customer should pay the price for the sector’s problems and I for one will be reluctantly voting with my feet.

Our columns are a platform for writers to express their opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of The Herald.

The Herald Scotland

The Herald Scotland

The Herald is a Scottish broadsheet newspaper founded in 1783. The Herald is the longest running national newspaper in the world and is the eighth oldest daily paper in the world. The title was simplified from The Glasgow Herald in 1992