Is the authenticity of foodservice under threat post-Brexit?

SGM  (Shutterstock)

SGM (Shutterstock)

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When I moved to the UK from Poland in the mid-90s, I anticipated change – in my personal knowledge, my career and, of course, in the global eating and drinking out industry I was beginning to dip my toes into. But it was perhaps impossible to predict the ground-shifting transformations that would take place in the international business economy as a whole – transformations which have brought us to where we are in 2017, facing the future of the UK outside of the European Union. When I began what would be a decade-long career in the UK hospitality and foodservice industry, I was part of a workforce that estimates suggest is now made up of 76 per cent non-British employees. Watching the recent changes taking place in Britain from my current position, having been an insight expert for some of the world’s leading blue chip drinks brands, the subject of Brexit has been of great interest to me. But, learning of the proposed £1,000 fee levied on EU workers in the UK has made me wonder how an industry fuelled by foreign workforce will survive this latest and most monumental transformation.

I am not alone. My concerns have been shared by many other industry figures. As The Caterer reports, Tim Rumney, vice chair of the Lake District Hotels Association, recently commented: “Enforcing this fee will be nothing short of devastating for the hospitality industry, an industry that contributes around £143 billion to the UK economy and provides employment for an estimated 4.6 million people.” Last year, British Hospitality Association chief executive Ufi Ibrahim warned that the UK dining industry could be “pushed to the cliff edge” by Brexit unless more is done to safeguard the future of the workforce that forms its vital underpinning. Out of the 4.6 million people working in the industry, the majority of them are working in “transitional” jobs, whether working through a gap year, whilst travelling or, as I initially did, alongside university study. Those who work in hospitality to fund qualifications like I did face astronomical fees, others aiming to make it in the dining and drinking out industry have to begin in entry-level hospitality roles that rarely pay above the minimum wage. Additional levies will be a massive deterrent for these talented and passionate individuals who the hospitality industry desperately needs.

Michael Jung  (Shutterstock)

Michael Jung (Shutterstock)

As Rummey explains, the restaurant industry faces massive shortages of candidates for jobs such as chefs.

“Several of our member hotels employ European workers, many of whom have worked their way up through the ranks to management positions and built careers for themselves here and are now fearing for the future of their jobs. We are already struggling to fill positions from food and beverage service right up to heads of department because of an absence of good applicants. This policy would pull the rug out from under our ability to employ quality staff from overseas and add even more cost and red tape into our industry.”

Having worked in nearly every foodservice position imaginable, from hosting, managing and front-of-house work to salad prep, assisting chefs and waiting tables, I know only too well that the skills required for this trade are increasingly demanding. Only the best candidates suffice, and if talented applicants from overseas are being lost due to fees and restrictions, this could place huge pressure on the industry.

Even big-name brands such as Carluccio’s and Jamie’s Italian have voiced concerns that they will be forced to cease expansion or even shut down outlets in a levy-enforced post-Brexit British eating out industry. As BII chief executive officer Mike Clist insists, “For our businesses to survive, the Government needs to reassure our operators and employees it will ensure that, whatever agreement they come to, does not result in a shortage of staff throughout our industry.” Besides making the UK an attractive place to pursue a career, this also involves, as ALMR chief executive Kate Nicholls points out, securing the right to remain for valuable international team members.

Civil  (Shutterstock)

Civil (Shutterstock)

Last week the government toned down their rhetoric on the proposed levies, but it is not just recruitment that new Brexit deals may affect. The entire integrity of the UK dining and drinking out industry could be threatened by a barrier on EU workers – whether that be financial or legal. With their skills, passion and potential, international hospitality workers also bring experience of their local cuisines that many British restaurants draw heavy influence from. Any successful Lithuanian restaurant, for example, must hire chefs with experience of these authentic cooking styles in order to truly bring the flavour of a country’s cuisine to a foreign market. They must then be able to further customise dishes to cater to the tastes of local foreign nationals who visit the Lithuanian establishment for a ‘taste of home’ – with all of the regional varieties that this entails. Thus, authenticity is a key issue that the Brexit deal will negotiate in the eating out sector.

Interestingly, it is perhaps a version of the desire for ‘authenticity’ that drove many Brexit voters to vote ‘leave’ in last year’s referendum. We have heard journalists and critics talk of the political disillusionment of the British working classes, but undeniably much of the right-wing rhetoric bandied about before and after the vote was influenced by the idea that Britain isn’t as ‘authentically British’ as it once was. Of course, what those who believe this forget is that Britain was never formed of one monolithic culture. England was first inhabited by European expats, and what we now know as the United Kingdom was influenced by ancient Rome, Greece, Germany, Arabia and others. In more recent history, Britain’s imperial activity meant that people and products from areas as diverse as India, Africa, the Caribbean and many more were actively brought to the UK.

Ironically, anti-diversity campaigners rarely take issue with one product of multicultural society which perhaps debunks the idea of ‘British authenticity’ the most – food. If you look at the British public’s favourite dishes, they will include Indian curries, Mexican tacos, Spanish tapas and many more. Dishes such as the chicken tikka masala are even thought of as classic British dishes – but they wouldn’t be here were it not for the UK’s multicultural past. Whilst some ‘leave’ voters seek cultural ‘authenticity’ that was never there, the UK eating out industry endeavours to create authenticity in international cuisine – Italian restaurants hire Italian cooks, Spanish managers welcome customers in tapas bars – this is a theme that British consumers have come to expect of the restaurant industry.

Consumers expect to walk into an Italian or Norwegian restaurant and be served by people that have good knowledge of the region, tradition, or at least can pronounce the names of the dishes correctly. Could Jon from Yorkshire credibly discuss the tradition behind some of the Catalonian tapas in an authentic Spanish bar? Rightly or wrongly, the average British diner assumes that experience equals understanding. Again, what these customers are searching for is authenticity, but one that is multicultural by default, an authenticity that celebrates diversity and the incredible food that it creates. Of course, with the world becoming increasingly globalised and interconnected, we can eventually hope for a society in which cultural appropriation is avoided whilst cultural pluralism and sharing is encouraged. But this cannot be achieved without diversity and unity. After all, who is the diner to assume Jon’s knowledge or heritage?