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  • Writer's pictureSimon Conyers

Brexit is going to completely screw the UK restaurant industry

But long term - it could prove to be a good thing for chefs

Credit: George Hoden

If the UK leaves Europe on 29th March it's going to create a perfect storm of challenging conditions for our already beleaguered industry

It's no secret that these are already tough times for our hospitality industry. Numerous high profile closures, particularly in the once booming fast casual sector, have highlighted how precarious business is. Most restaurants run on tight margins, and changing consumer tastes and trends such as the rise of the take-away app have already pushed some over the edge.

If the UK leaves the European Union as planned on the 29th March (just over 4 weeks away at the time of writing), with or without a deal, things are going to get a lot worse.

3 main factors are going to create extremely hostile operating conditions for restaurants - and will push many more into closure in the coming years.

1. Food costs are going to go up. Way up.

Expect the cost of any food we import from Europe to go up significantly. Without a trade deal any food imports will be subject to tax and tariffs, and the EU is likely to make these extremely punitive, to discourage other countries from wanting to leave.

All that incredible fresh fruit, veg, meat and fish that we currently source in Rungis (Europe's biggest food market, just outside Paris - where many UK restaurant suppliers source most of their produce) - that's going to get a lot more expensive and a lot harder to get hold of. All those beautiful cured meats from Spain and Italy, the cheeses from France, the olives, the oils... the ingredients we prize as chefs and that our customers love - they're going to get A LOT more expensive.

But we'll use more home-grown produce! It will be a boon for UK farms and farmers!

Maybe not - aside from the fact that we just don't produce most of those ingredients ourselves, and can't - most UK farm labour is done by immigrant EU workers, and those are about to get pretty scarce (more on that in a minute). So we'll have to pay British people to do those back-breaking jobs in the fields picking and sorting produce. But those people aren't going to do that for minimum wage (or they'd already be doing it) so that's going to get more expensive too... and that will be reflected in the price of our home grown produce.

Whichever way you look at it, ingredient costs are going up. All of them.

2. We already have a staffing crisis - it's about to get a lot worse.

I've worked in quite a lot of kitchens. As a British chef, I've almost always been in the minority. The vast majority of chefs in those kitchens have been EU migrants; Italians, Spanish, French, Polish, Romanian... these people are the lifeblood of the UK hospitality industry. But these are the people Brexit is going to prevent from coming here to work.

As for KPs - I've met one English KP in my whole career. Kitchen Porter is a hard, unpleasant job involving long hours of highly physical toil for low pay. I've almost never seen a British person even apply for it. That's unlikely to change with Brexit. Which means the skilled and dedicated staff that restaurants have already been struggling to find are going to get a lot more scarce.

In a scarce market, things get more expensive, and that applies to labour as well as commodities. So while food costs rise, staffing costs will too.

3. Our customers are going to have a lot less money to spend on eating out

Pretty much every economist, forecaster and financial expert agrees on this - there's a recession coming. Big businesses are already pulling out of the UK in droves leaving thousands out of work, and that trend is likely to continue. Those who are in work are going to find the cost of everything from groceries to holidays goes up while their salaries stagnate. House price collapse, spiralling interest rates and credit crisis lurk on the horizon. In those conditions, people just don't spend money going to restaurants. It's a low priority.

So in an environment where our produce is costing more, and we're struggling to find staff - we're also going to find we have a lot more empty tables out front.

The perfect storm

For many restaurants, these 3 conditions together will spell the end. Any one of them - a sudden increase in cost across all ingredients, a problem getting staff, or customers just not spending money - would be bad enough. Combine all 3 - you're looking at all your major costs going up at the same time as your income dramatically falls. Few businesses in any sector could survive that.

Brexit will mean failure and closure for hundreds of British restaurants, big and small.

Long term - good for chefs?

If we can find anything positive in this, it's that over the long term it may bring about some of the changes that the industry desperately needs to make with regards to how chefs are treated.

Chef is a highly skilled profession that takes a huge amount of training and a lifetime of dedication and practice. It's a craft - and yet its practitioners are often treated like unskilled manual labour.

Pay and conditions in the majority of restaurants are awful. Tips (or tronc) are used to make up wages, not given as a bonus. 60, 70 and even 80 hour working weeks are considered the norm. It's seen as weakness to complain or even to take your holiday days. Old-school bullies still think it's acceptable to yell at and humiliate younger, less experienced brigade members. We give up weekends, evenings, and holidays, and miss important family occasions - yet often struggle to make ends meet because the pay is so low. In an industry blighted by mental health problems, addiction issues and burn-out, none of this is acceptable.

A staffing crisis of the level brought on by Brexit might force a change.

When there are no more waves of European immigrants coming in to staff our kitchens, those of us who are left may have a bit more power in demanding better pay, better hours, better conditions - because restaurants that cant' provide that will find themselves without cooks. That can't happen straight away though - for the reasons I've already outlined, the money simply won't be there to pay for it.

Perhaps, a few years down the road, when the dust has settled, in those restaurants still left standing, the remaining British chefs will have things a little better. Maybe.


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