The restaurateur Stuart Gillies is running an unusual cocktail of the week: a delicious-looking Monte Cassino. But what’s that got to do with the price of fish?
Everything, as it turns out. Gillies, who ran Gordon Ramsay’s restaurant empire for seven years, is using less popular spirits to create something special on a creative menu aimed at saving him and his diners some money. And the same applies to the food. Soaring fish prices have meant he has taken salmon, cod and sea bream off the menu and replaced them with mackerel and hake.
He is one of hundreds of chefs and restaurateurs up and down the country who, faced with crippling increases in the price of ingredients and staff shortages, are being forced to rethink their menus and take other cost-saving measures before the summer holiday season. Celebrated chefs including Tom Kerridge, Mitch Tonks and Razak Helalat have told the Observer They are having to either shut their doors a few days a week, trim staff hours or swap key ingredients in their dishes.
“Our costs had gone up 20% so we were putting up prices,” Gillies said. “It was crazy. We can’t just keep going up. So I decided to drop prices, and do a zero waste policy.”
The bar at his restaurant, Bank House in Chislehurst, Kent, is creating a new cocktail every week with spirits that people rarely drink: in the case of the Monte Cassino, benedictine and yellow chartreuse. Wine from opened bottles is used for a taste selection. Trimmings go in soups, sauces and pies. And while lobster and chateaubriand are still on the menu, other ingredients have been substituted, and prices are back at 2019 levels.
“Salmon was crazy money,” Gillies said. A smoked salmon salad has become a smoked mackerel salad. “It’s still a premium product. Cod and sea bream portions have gone up a lot. So we use hake instead at the moment.”
Gillies is not the only one. Kerridge has cut his menu at the Hand and Flowers in Marlow, Buckinghamshire, a pub with two Michelin stars, from six starters, mains and desserts to four of each, while the Coach, his other outlet in Marlow, which has one star, is now shut on Mondays and Tuesdays because of staff shortages.
Hospitality is at the intersection of all the crises affecting the UK – food shortages, fraying supply chains, fuel-led inflation, uncapped energy prices, a lack of workers, debt from Covid loans and a post-lockdown hangover of customers who don’t go out as much as they used to.
So holidaymakers in the UK will need to keep their expectations in check. Chip shops and gastropubs in Devon and Cornwall are dropping cod from their menus, as are pricier restaurants such as Mitch Tonks’s Rockfish chain. About 40% of the UK’s cod is caught by Russian boats, and sanctions applying a 35% tariff to Russian fish are also driving up the cost of Norwegian supplies, Tonks said. “A plate of cod and chips was going to be £24,” he said. “I don’t think it’s right for consumers to bear that cost. It’s temporary, but in the meantime we have some amazing fish in Britain.”
Flour has doubled in price for restaurateurs, due to grain shortages from Ukraine, and a lack of animal feed has forced beef and dairy prices up, while salmon is now at its highest ever price. Bird flu outbreaks have hit poultry and even supplies of olive oil and other cooking oils have been interrupted.
Nearly everyone is affected – for example, Helalat’s Coal Shed restaurants are adding chicken to the Sunday roast menu because beef is so expensive. Even McDonald’s has warned customers for months to expect missing ingredients, while Wetherspoon’s had shortages last year but has since recovered.
Amid warnings that the UK is heading for recession while being hit with 9% inflation, hotels and restaurants are hampered by red tape as well, according to Kate Nicholls, the chief executive of UK Hospitality. With 174,000 vacancies, a rise of 83% since 2019, the UK is losing £22bn a year.
“About one in 10 jobs are unfilled in the sector,” she said. “A quarter of businesses are cutting hours, closing on certain days or not selling full capacity. Hotels are turning away bookings. It’s about £7bn of money for the exchequer. If you’re looking to grow your way out of a challenging economic environment, not being able to access staff is a constraint we can ill afford.”
Kerridge’s flagship pub, the Hand and Flowers, is a 24-hour operation needing 75 staff to run the restaurant and bedrooms, he told the Observer.
“Everyone is working extra or overtime,” he said. Recruitment is very difficult, despite paying higher than average wages. “The kitchen is hitting the hardest, but we can’t just make a decision to close some days, so we have a reduced menu. We have to hit the same standard – it’s a two-Michelin-starred restaurant – but you have to lower the workload.”
Down the road, the Coach is shutting on Monday and Tuesday to make sure staff get a proper break. “They were still quite strong days,” Kerridge said. “We’re losing two days of revenue.” Restaurateurs face increased VAT and still need to pay off loans taken out to stay afloat during Covid, he added.
The lack of staff is partly because thousands of older people took early retirement during the pandemic. But the lack of students coming through catering schools and the absence of young European workers since Brexit hit in 2021 are bigger problems.
Mark Selby, the co-founder of Wahaca, a Mexican-themed chain, said signs of growth before last Christmas had been stalled by Omicron, and they were still about 25% below 2019 levels.
“I can guarantee you my sales would be 20% higher if we had more people to work,” he said. “We have restaurants, but we can’t fill them. The government has to acknowledge that there is a labor crisis, and put Brexit aside and accept we’re near full employment. Somewhere – whether it’s Europe or India or South Africa – we’ve got to allow a labor force to be here, and welcome them.
“It feels like every week it gets worse and the government has their head in the sand. This is a nationwide problem. In 12 years of operating, I’ve never had a problem where we’ve run out of anything. Now we’re getting calls on a daily basis.”
UK Hospitality has argued for a working holiday visa for students, which Nicholls said could be done by extending the EU trade agreement and pressing ahead with proposals for agreements with Australia, New Zealand, India and Canada. “First and foremost, cut the red tape and costs associated with the immigration regime, which mean that it’s beyond the reach of most of our hospitality businesses,” she said.
Liam Nelson, the co-founder of Pastaio in London, sponsored a chef from the US. The process took several months and cost £2,000. “She probably did about six weeks with us before deciding it wasn’t the right role for her, which isn’t that unusual for a chef but it makes it significantly more frustrating when you’ve gone through that process,” he said.
“Hospitality is an international industry, and people do it because they love it. It used to be an incredibly appealing stopgap that turned into an unbelievable career for many people. Without that flexibility, it’s unsustainable. Eating out is a huge part of British culture and we’re not going to have enough places to do it.”