And so it begins… Will Brexit close all our pubs and restaurants?

Cancelled in Cambridge: how staff shortages are affecting just one city

Limited choice at Wagamama for lunch
Limited choice at Wagamama for lunch. Photo credit: Rosemary Mann

And so it begins… Will Brexit close all our pubs and restaurants? My family (two adults, three hungry young teens) wanted to eat out while on holiday in Cambridge. Was it due to staff shortages or distribution problems that finding a meal was a challenge?

A lunchtime visit to eat out at Wagamama in Cambridge yesterday revealed ongoing challenges to the mid-range restaurant business along the lines of the much reported Nando’s chicken and McDonald’s milkshake shortages. The explanation given to waiting customers at Wagamama for a red-lined, reduced menu was staff shortages: skilled European chefs are no longer available due to Brexit. In this instance shortages of ingredients and distribution difficulties were not to blame. 

A missing ingredient: European chefs

Some of the dishes were easy to prepare, and some require more skilled cooking. But with the business’s focus on freshly cooked, visually appealing meals, Wagamama clearly decided it was better to be upfront and remove certain items from the menu, rather than compromise on quality, or to close its doors. Many Wagamama-trained and skilled European chefs had left to work back in the EU, we were told, and remaining staff were under-resourced and under a lot of pressure.

It was a case of all hands to the pump. But the quality of the cooking was not to be compromised, which can only be a good thing.  However clearly there was a choice either to remain open with a limited menu, or close until things improved. Given the ‘revolving door’ situation during the pandemic and associated challenges of onboarding and off-loading staff, closing the doors of such a business might be its death knell.

Thankfully for us at lunchtime, there were still firm favourites on the menu to enjoy.

Things can only get… worse?

By the early evening when we walked past the restaurant, however, the menu had shrunk even further.

The menu that same evening: more is deleted
The menu that same evening. Photo credit: Rosemery Mann

Customers were being greeted at the door by staff who explained their limited menu before they could enter thereby reducing the element of surprise and disappointment. Many patrons however seemed to appreciate the honesty and were happy to partake of the small number of remaining dishes; however, many walked away. Our lunchtime experience had been better although we watched as many left while still in the queue rather than wait longer. The restaurant was busy but the turnover of customers was slower due to staff shortages and it is a fair assumption that takings would have been down substantially for that day despite public demand. They were perhaps grateful that customers seemed to be empathetic to the circumstances.

In the evening we sought to eat out in a well known gastropub chain but their kitchen was closed , reportedly due to technical issues, but further probing revealed staff shortages were also a factor. Another renowned pizza chain with many empty and unreserved tables turned us away due to only being able to accept limited covers, again due to staff resources. We were however pleased to discover that Nando’s were now re-supplied with chicken, so enjoyed our evening meal there sharing their sumptuous platters.

Where will the students eat out?

With 49,000 hungry students expected to return to Cambridge in a few weeks, one wonders whether the student population will be increasingly eating in student halls and refectories rather than spending their student loans boosting the finances of local eateries. The assorted challenges facing the hospitality industry in terms of staff shortages and distribution are not likely to be resolved any time soon, with potential implications for local economies.

Wagamama’s press office have been approached for comment.

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