Pub boss struggling to recruit ahead of lockdown lifting

The Commodore in Oulton Broad. Picture: Danielle Booden

The Commodore in Oulton Broad where customers have been out in force - even before indoor dining and drinking is allowed - Credit: Danielle Booden

Business is booming at an East Anglian pub chain — even before a nationwide ban on indoor service is lifted on May 17.

But bosses at Moss & Co still face a major headache recruiting and retaining staff — particularly in the kitchen.

Brexit and coronavirus have led to a tightening of the labour market and even though owner and managing director David Moss and operations boss Adam Vass recruit their staff locally and have kept the workforce on through furlough and flexi-furlough, their business is not immune from the trend.

Head chef Stewart Battrick and sous chef Damien Cabanagh preparing food at The Commodore in Oulton B

Head chef Stewart Battrick and sous chef Damien Cabanagh preparing food at The Commodore in Oulton Broad - Credit: Danielle Booden

Chefs and sous-chefs are suddenly very hard to find — at a time when hospitality businesses everywhere are looking to recoup their lockdown losses as a version of normality returns.

Mr Moss’s pub chain operates six pubs and pub-restaurants —  The Commodore and The Waveney in Oulton Broad, The Bell Inn at Carlton Colville, The Jolly Sailor at Pakefield, The Village Maid at Lound and The Angel Inn at Wangford.

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It is hoping for a post-pandemic boom, boosted by staycationers and lockdown-weary locals. 

The group has kept on its entire 140-strong workforce and not made any lay-offs — but lost about 10 workers through natural wastage over the past year.

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Early signs on the trading side are promising. Mr Vass said customers flocked back as soon as restrictions on outdoor drinking and dining were lifted. He’s even seen some sitting in the rain while enjoying their pint. It’s a welcome sight after spending just five of the past 15 months open.

David Moss, managing director, and Adam Vass, operations manager, at The Commodore in Oulton Broad.

Left, Pub chain Moss & Co owner and managing director David Moss and Adam Vass his operations manager, who face a recruitment headache as the labour market tightens up - Credit: Danielle Booden

“We have had a phenomenal opening since April 12 and it’s blown us away how busy it has been,” he admitted.

But in spite of lay-offs from many industries hit hard by Covid, he has noticed a marked drop in job applicants — particularly among older and more experienced workers.

“You only have to look at the adverts — I don’t think there’s a restaurant that’s not looking at the moment,” he said. “It’s the summer season and it’s obvious people aren’t going to go on holiday.”

He has kept an ad on one job recruitment site for about six weeks and from that realistically had five serious applications for chef roles. All were offered jobs, but just two have come through. Others accepted a post only to be offered major inducements to stay in their old post. 

“That’s the challenge because no one wants to lose anyone. If you are a good chef, the ball is in your court at the moment,” he said.

He believes that the difficulty in recruiting chefs may be partly down to people re-evaluating their priorities in lockdown and a reluctance to put strains on family life.

He acknowledged that hospitality staff work unsocial hours and — particularly in the kitchen — work in a pressured environment. As a result, the company is adopting a flexible approach, offering the possibility of four day weeks to help balance work and family life. It is also trying to ensure that workers feel valued so that they won’t be lured away by other businesses desperate for staff.

“We have got to look after who we have got now more than ever,” he said. 

“Furlough has been brilliant and furlough has saved a lot of worry for people but I think it’s just made people realise at the same time there are other things in life than just work,” he said.

He added that his chefs have returned and were “buzzing and ready”.

Bookings for future weeks are already looking very strong. Front of house the business has taken on six new people who were trialled over the weekend.

“All of them have actually been really, really good so that’s actually calmed my nerves down for front of house,” he said.

But everyone he has spoken to in the industry is concerned about the staffing issue.

“They are worried and they are looking for staff — whether it’s a cleaner to a chef or night porters and the applications don’t seem to be coming through.”

Mr Moss added:  "At Moss & Co we are well aware that our business is only as good as the people within it, so that’s why we invest to ensure we offer a decent package through structured training, a good work life balance and competitive salaries.

"Hospitality is a wonderful and fun sector to work within, so we’re hoping that once the furlough schemes have fizzled out and it’s back to business as usual, chefs and front of house will be looking for new positions to kickstart their careers again." 

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