Time is running out for Pascal Aussignac, chef patron of the Michelin-starred Club Gascon, as he counts down to the crucial Christmas holiday season.
“We are not complete at the moment. We obviously hope that will increase. We’ve booked a few Christmas parties but that’s down from previous years,” the 55-year-old said.
“I still have a few tables available on a Saturday in December which should be full. We’ve never had this before – for November and December it would be full in previous years.
“I think right now, because of the economic situation, people are waiting to see if they have enough money before committing.”
Staffing issues have forced Aussignac to close Comptoir Gascon, its French bistro near Smithfield Market in central London, and its workforce at its five remaining restaurants has dropped to 60 people from the 160 it employed before the pandemic. He is “very afraid” that many restaurants will collapse in the months after Christmas.
Aussignac’s fears are echoing in towns and villages across Britain – a pattern of closures many fear is set to accelerate as recession, rising rents and household spending squeeze combine with the fraying of public transport and rail strikes.
Members surveyed by UKHospitality, the British Beer and Pub Association and the British Institute of Innkeeping and Hospitality Ulster predicted a vacancy rate of 17% this Christmas, up from 11% currently. This means that 33% will reduce the opening hours of places and 29% will simplify their menus this Christmas.
Aussignac said there was “nothing” in Chancellor Jeremy Hunt’s autumn statement to address the staffing crisis in the industry.
“I don’t think there’s anything in there that addresses the biggest problem facing hospitality that means we can’t keep places open or operating at full capacity,” a- he declared.
Since January, Aussignac had a vacancy for a full-time pastry chef, but was only able to fill it in recent weeks, a situation he had never experienced before. Shortage of staff, which he blames on people returning to Europe during lockdown and since Brexit, means Club Gascon no longer opens for lunch and only serves dinner.
“Brexit is the main reason we have these staffing issues. It used to be easy for Europeans to come here and work, but that’s not the case anymore, so now they choose other cities like Paris or Madrid.
More than a third of hotel businesses are at risk of bankruptcy by the start of 2023 due to rising costs, according to the UKHospitality survey. Figures from the Insolvency Service showed the number of restaurants and food shops across the UK going into liquidation rose by 46% in the three months to September.
While Hunt’s autumn statement included a £13.6billion package to support business rate payers, industry experts criticized the lack of focus on economic growth.
“It’s absolutely heartbreaking, we’ve worked so hard and left with nothing to show after almost three years,” said Arwen Beaton, publican at The Digger’s Rest in East Devon after closing for the last time. The thatched-roof pub tucked away in the picturesque village of Woodbury Salterton was taken over by Beaton, 48, and his partner Daniel Kelly, 42, in April 2020 at the start of the pandemic.
The couple offered free food delivery to vulnerable people and opened a shop selling essentials to locals, before reopening after the lockdown.
“At the start of this year we were in a good place, we had kind of gotten over Covid and everything looked positive, and then we were hit with massive cost increases,” Beaton said.
Pub energy costs have ‘tripled’, food prices have skyrocketed with key items such as cooking oil more than doubling and the pub operator who owns the premises has hiked rent by 10% .
Beaton said for the first time customers were “talking about their finances at the bar” and attendance began to drop as they went from seeing regulars once a week to less than once a month.
In August, The Digger’s Rest was down 30% from the previous year, forcing it to close permanently on November 7.
Beaton said three other pubs within a five mile radius have also closed shop in recent weeks, adding that rural pubs in particular are ‘part of the community’ and once gone ‘you will have a hard time getting them back’ .
Emma McClarkin, chief executive of the British Beer and Pub Association, said the industry remained on a “razor’s edge” and was “very disappointed” that a 12.5% VAT rate had not not been applied.
Kate Nicholls, chief executive of UKHospitality, welcomed support for commercial rates but said the Chancellor had presented ‘no plan for economic growth’ and there was ‘nothing to give businesses confidence , let alone invest”.
The problems facing hospitality have been described as the ‘five horsemen of the apocalypse’ by James Chiavarini, owner of Il Portico, an Italian restaurant which was opened and run by his family on Kensington High Street in London during 55 years.
He said soaring staff, supply, food and energy prices, the impact of the cost of living on his customers and discouragement over the economic situation had all affected the industry.
Chiavarini said this “economic headwind” forced him to close Il Portico’s partner restaurant Pino, also in Kensington, in June this year.
He added: ‘After the lockdown ended, people believed in this idea that everything would look like the Roaring Twenties and the economy would fly, but that just didn’t happen.
Imogen Davis, co-founder of Native, in Mayfair, west London, said it had always been difficult to recruit staff, but “then Covid and Brexit happened and it became so much more difficult to recruit”, which led the company to abandon its plans to open. an extra day.
Rising energy costs caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine are the biggest problem for Alex Greig, owner of Fuggles Beer Cafe, which has premises in the western towns of Tonbridge and Tunbridge Wells of Kent.
The 37-year-old – who also owns a bottle shop in Tunbridge Wells – saw his energy bills rise by £10,000, but warned that without the government rebate costs would have been £40,000 and would have made the companies “unviable”.
Greig said the government’s announcement on business tariffs was “something” for the industry, but called on the government to clarify exactly what energy support would be available to hotel businesses next year.
“Our customers will have less money and our costs will be much higher. This is why we need certainty to motivate us to want to invest in our businesses and encourage us to grow,” he added.
Greig said ‘reducing VAT’ would be a ‘massive boost’ for the industry and ‘give us the confidence we need to keep investing’.
Kenny Atkinson, owner of Michelin-starred restaurant House of Tides and Solstice, both in Newcastle, said his energy bills had “tripled” and was struggling to find suitable staff, with seven positions currently vacant.
“There is no direction, no trust from the government. We are not asking for help, but a reduction in VAT can help us to develop our activities,” he said.
A spokesperson for the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy said it had ‘delivered an unprecedented package of support measures including VAT cuts, business rate holidays and loans guaranteed by the government worth around £400bn”.