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Kent restaurant struggles to fill £32k job as hospitality prepares to reopen on May 17


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As the shackles of lockdown prepare to ease later this month and the hospitality industry looks to thrive again, some businesses are struggling to recruit staff weeks before opening.

It comes as staff on furlough in Kent have either found another job in a hunt to be paid in full, or workers have moved away.

The Vittle and Swig in Camden Road, Tunbridge Wells
The Vittle and Swig in Camden Road, Tunbridge Wells

One restaurant owner has been left in shock after nobody applied for a £32,000 job as the venue battles to get enough staff to reopen this month.

The Vittle and Swig in Camden Road, Tunbridge Wells, hasn’t been open since November and was forced to furlough its staff.

Now, six months later many of them have left to return home or take on new work during the pandemic, leaving the restaurant and bar without much-needed support.

Owner Gerry Stevens says it is “unbelievable” and that if she and co-owner/head chef Alex Blaber can’t get the staff before their reopening on May 19 they may be forced to cancel bookings.

She said: “It makes me feel sick. We’ve spent £10,000 on renovating our upstairs space for private dining but without the staff we’ll have to cancel.

Inside The Vittle and Swig in Tunbridge Wells last year before the pandemic
Inside The Vittle and Swig in Tunbridge Wells last year before the pandemic

“We were so busy before the pandemic and even during the Eat Out to Help Out scheme but now we’re left pondering what the long-term impact will be.”

Gerry, 51, explained they have committed to opening on May 19 and she may return to the restaurant floor as the “oldest waitress in the town”.

If no staff are recruited by then the restaurant will consider closing on its quieter days – Wednesdays and Thursdays.

Gerry is looking to hire a new restaurant manager after her previous one left for a job in London during the pandemic, a sous chef and four full-time staff.

“We initially advertised the chef’s job at £20-25k and had a couple of inquiries and one interview but they weren’t right. We thought there’d be more applicants but nothing, so we put the salary up to £32k with tips but literally nobody has responded.

Wetherspoon has said it has not had any staffing problems at its Kent pubs
Wetherspoon has said it has not had any staffing problems at its Kent pubs

“It seems to be a UK-wide thing that people can’t get their staff back after furlough.”

Pub and hotel chain Wetherspoon acknowledged there had been problems getting staff back into the hospitality industry, although this had not proved to be a problem for its 21 pubs in Kent where more than 1,000 staff will be welcomed back later this month.

Spokesman Eddie Gershon said: “We are aware of issues of recruitment within the hospitality industry.

“Fortunately, we do not have any issues with staffing in our Kent pubs.

“At present we have a number of pubs open in Kent, and looking forward to opening them all on May 17, with all staff back to work.”

Owner Danny Pain, centre, with staff from the Queen Phillippa in Queenborough
Owner Danny Pain, centre, with staff from the Queen Phillippa in Queenborough

On the other side of the spectrum Sheppey-based hotel the Queen Phillippa has not had any problem retaining staff and has seen a massive increase in bookings following the May 17 announcement.

Owner Danny Pain has been at the Queenborough High Street site for seven years and is looking forward to a busy summer.

The 55-year-old said: "Bookings are beginning to come in for the summer – for May, June, July.

"I think everyone is waiting for the 17th just to be sure it won't be pushed back and their booking will still be in place. After that I expect there will be an onslaught of bookings."

Danny says he's lucky enough not to have been affected when bringing back staff from furlough and that the Queen Phillippa has been rotating eight staff on and off the scheme to give everyone an equal amount of time to work.

The Queen Phillippa in Queenborough High Street
The Queen Phillippa in Queenborough High Street

He added: "Our staff are very loyal and everyone's been great coming back. Anyone who was on furlough has come back, no problem."

The hotel hasn't been open fully since December but has been housing some of the key workers from the docks at Sheerness over the past few months.

The Abbey Hotel in Minster, Sheppey, has not had any problem with getting staff back.

A spokesman said: "Everyone is raring to go. It's been a bit of a struggle for the last 12 months but we're looking forward to start again and there's so much pent up demand already.

"Bookings are coming in and we're confident it's going to be a positive summer."

The Beaumont in London Road, Sittingbourne
The Beaumont in London Road, Sittingbourne

One family-run B&B in Sittingbourne says the past year has been a learning curve and they are unsure what will happen to the hospitality industry in the future.

Barbara and Steve Smith run The Beaumont in London Road, Sittingbourne, after taking over in June 2019, just a few months before the pandemic struck.

The pair run the B&B themselves and were forced to close for 10 weeks during the height of the pandemic but were allowed to stay open after that to house essential workers.

Ahead of the May 17 easing of restrictions, Barbara said: "We're all set to go and getting everything nice, clean and tidy for when people other than essential workers can stay.

"It's been a very long time and we're looking forward to it. We've had essential workers come in and stay in drips and drabs but that's it.

"We'll hopefully get more bookings as we've mainly been trying to keep ourselves afloat, but nobody knows what is going to happen..."

"It's been hard trying to keep ourselves busy but we've given things a new lick of paint and getting everything sorted for the date.

"We'll hopefully get more bookings as we've mainly been trying to keep ourselves afloat, but nobody knows what is going to happen.

"It's all very new to us, and to everyone really, and we're trying to get our head around everything – how to run it, getting people in and keeping them safe etcetera. It's been a massive learning curve for us."

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