As the end of the year approaches I normally like to look back over the articles I’ve written in the past year. Somehow, at the end of 2017, this feels inappropriate. There is so much uncertainty about what is ahead of us, and our thinking is now, more than ever, geared towards the future. The triggering of Article 50 has far-reaching consequences, many of which have yet to even take shape, and now seems an apt time to share my thoughts on what its effects will be on my industry as we move into 2018.
Something I love about the hospitality sector is the diversity of the people that work within it. We, and many companies like us, employ people from across Europe not to mention the rest of the world – according to a KPMG report, roughly a quarter of workers in hospitality in the UK are from other EU countries, including 75% of waiting staff and 25% of chefs. The doubts and speculation over the outcome of Brexit talks potentially leaves the industry in a precarious position and a deal of uncertainty for these individuals regarding their status. With the current skills shortage, it can take as long as six months to successfully fill a vacancy. We are already seeing some repatriation of EU workers in the industry. This could be driven by the current political climate together with the general cost of living. The differential for many is that the UK currently isn’t as attractive to warrant leaving friends and family behind. This, however, leaves a basic shortfall in workers with a skilled workforce leaving and a new workforce not yet trained to take its place. While there will be an increase in opportunities in hospitality, there will also be a consequent gap between demand for workers and the level of training they need to possess. It does not surprise me that the British Hospitality Association (BHA) expects it to take 10 years to fill this gap. For employers, retention will become even more critical and one that must be a priority for the foreseeable future.
Another topic which may impact as a result of the geopolitical change is the potential for GM crops and other additives to be introduced into our food chain. One reason would be because of imports coming from further afield and the limitations set by the EU no longer having to apply. As recently as October 2016, Agriculture Minister George Eustice suggested that the government would need to loosen regulations on the production of genetically modified organisms. With the price of imported food set to increase, together with world food shortages, it seems likely that there will be more pressure to introduce GM crops which are designed to withstand pests and disease.
Whilst I am no bioscientist, a number of the schools we cater for currently feel strongly enough to have organic foods on the menu, whether fully or partially. Many of our independent school parents lean towards wanting a diet for their children that is seen to be more ‘natural’. Of course, we reflect these values in many ways, including keeping traditional cooking methods at the heart of our food offer. Reports suggest GM crops have no short-term effects on health. But I am sure I am not alone in remaining concerned about the long-term effects that have yet to be studied fully, simply because the products have not been around long enough to do so. In addition, there are myriad environmental concerns about GM foods. Whereas the organic/non-organic debate has not been such a minefield I can see that GM produce is much more contentious. And it will become an increasingly difficult one if food prices continue to rise at their current rate.
Probably like a lot of people, I would like to see the whole Brexit issue concluded quickly. We are seeing far too many negative effects of uncertainty. However, I am buoyed by the knowledge that the UK catering industry is renowned for its resilience and innovation, and I am confident that, despite some bumps in the road, we will meet and overcome these challenges.
Sue Parfett is founding partner of Brookwood, independent school caterer, part of CH&Co Group. For further info please visit: brookwoodpartnership.com