A reduction in overseas kitchen staff in the last year, plus a rebound in trade has exacerbated the need for cooks and chefs in pubs. With a real need for kitchen staff, Lewis Land Group has turned to signing bonuses and above-award wages to attract chefs from a talent pool that is smaller than ever.

The lack of cooks and chefs in Australia has been a problem for the wider hospitality industry for a few years now, but COVID has exacerbated the problem to new dire levels. With pubs heavily reliant on cooks and chefs from overseas to staff their kitchens, publicans saw an almost overnight decrease in that particularly workforce as visa workers not covered by JobKeeper returned to their home countries once stood down. Now, with international borders closed, they are unable to return to Australia, even though the work has.

Brad Jenkins, head of leisure at Lewis Land Group, says that although the group only lost about half a dozen chefs over it’s four large pubs, trade has returned so strongly – particularly at it its Sydney pubs The Fiddler and Camden Valley Inn – that the group desperately needs to recruit between 12-15 full-time cooks and chefs for the two venues alone. With traditional methods of advertising the positions not really showing any results, Jenkins and his team have decided to provide incentives to both retain the staff they have, and to make their venues attractive to potential new staff.

“We’ve done a number of things. We recognise because of the shortage we had to increase our salary bands of existing staff. So on average everyone went up about 8-10 per cent on our existing staff, and we also know now that the labour market demand is probably pushing up the whole industry on that front as well. It’s just a fact of where we’re at,” states Jenkins.

“Then we had a sit down to think about how we’re going to attract a few more. Even getting applications has been near impossible. So we decided we’d put in a one-time bonus for $2500 for all new recruits from this point. Once they’ve been with us for three months they get that bonus.”

In recognition of the hard work current kitchen staff have been putting in, the one-time $2500 bonus has also been doled out to roughly 45 cooks and chefs across the group. While the bonuses are a current initiative until enough new staff are employed, Jenkins says the industry-wide demands for qualified chefs is creating the need to offer such incentives.

“I think we will settle eventually once we can attract some outside staff, but it’s like any occupation that’s got a workforce in the marketplace that’s not large enough to meet the needs of the industry, there’s going to be some price tension there that you need to acknowledge. It’s a business decision and I’m quite happy – I’ve got no problem paying it at all.”

Dine & Discover a boon for trade

The shortage of kitchen staff for The Fiddler and Camden Valley Inn has become more pronounced with the popularity of the NSW Government’s Dine & Discover program. The voucher scheme was created to entice people to return to the hospitality and entertainment industries, which has definitely been the case for the Lewis Land Group pubs.

“That’s been a big driver of business for us, particularly Monday to Thursday. We’ve had an unprecedented trade off the back of it,” states Jenkins.

“We’re doing weekend numbers on Tuesdays.”

Just this past Tuesday, the two venues combined did roughly 2000 covers, which is double the normal amount of trade mid-week.

“Particularly the week after a public holiday, it would normally be a bit quiet now. Normal trading trends are out the window at the moment. There doesn’t seem to be any sense to any of it, so we’re making our own sense of it now.”

Trade has also been doing extraordinarily well at The Belvedere Hotel just north of Brisbane.

“I’ve never seen it like this. This is probably the biggest drive to our type of hotels – as in large-format suburban pubs outside of the city – I can ever recall. I can’t remember any other time when we’ve had such an influx of people coming in to our places. There’s a lot of new faces.”

While trade has been doing very well for the group, Jenkins acknowledges that without the right levels of staff, the same quality of offer can’t be maintained – and that’s a problem for the entire industry. The AHA and TAA lobbying the Federal Government strongly over the last few weeks to add cooks and chefs to Priority Migration Skilled Occupation List, highlighting the critical shortage the industry is facing. Jenkins hopes the Government listens.

“They’ve got to listen. Something has to happen. Everybody needs them. Overseas chefs were a part of the mix of our workforce in the past and we’re all feeling the removal of that portion. The Government needs to work with industry and get this happening as quick as we can.

“Otherwise it’s the product that suffers – the quality of your meals, your speed of delivery, your service, everything.”

Image: Damien Milan

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