Why is British service so awful compared to Europe?

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sevice in the uk, uk hospitality, uk travel, eu service, holidays, hotels, best restaurants - Getty
sevice in the uk, uk hospitality, uk travel, eu service, holidays, hotels, best restaurants - Getty

There is a scene in the first season of Frasier – the finest American sitcom ever made, celebrating its 30th anniversary next year – which sees the eponymous Seattle radio psychiatrist affectionately rebuff his father’s Mancunian physiotherapist: “The moment I give a fig for what you think is the day that England produces a great chef and a world-class bottle of wine.” How dated that seems today, when we have a dining scene that puts the States in the shade, and Nyetimber’s 1086 nudges out most champagnes in blind tastings. But why haven’t we got the service to match?

The same year Frasier debuted, London saw the opening of both Terence Conran’s reinvented Quaglino’s, and Gordon Ramsay’s Aubergine, a kitchen that would also give us Marcus Wareing and Angela Hartnett. The following year, Eurostar launched, bringing the Continent closer than ever. Between the new rails and existing cheap flights, a career in Britain felt as attractive as anywhere else and it heralded a golden age for UK hospitality. We enjoyed an embarrassment of riches, with a burgeoning, innovative restaurant scene, new hotels opening weekly, and an infinite supply of highly skilled European staff to bring it all to life. World class service became the norm.

Then along came that oven-ready Brexit, with a big portion of pandemic for pudding.

A report by Caterer.com last year detailed a departure of 93,000 EU workers from UK hospitality in the previous 12 months, attributed more to Brexit than Covid; the exodus has been ongoing since 2016. The current situation is parlous – hotels and restaurants have had to lower staffing expectations, and customers have come face-to-face with British teenagers waiting tables and front desks with an often comedic lack of enthusiasm.

Michael Caines, Lympstone Manor - Matt Round Photography
Michael Caines, Lympstone Manor - Matt Round Photography

I was at a fairly fancy restaurant somewhere in the Home Counties recently and asked for a glass of port at the end of dinner. The waiter scribbled down the order but came back a minute later, exasperated. “Sorry, is that like… WKD?” When I’ve made the same request at a mid-range restaurant in Lisbon, the waiter has immediately given me five different options and described the style of each.

“The industry has 160,000 vacant roles,” says Kate Nicholls, Chief Executive of UKHospitality, outlining the scale of the problem. “We need to convey the attractions of hospitality jobs, demonstrating that roles come with long-term career prospects, and are not simply stepping-stones on the way to something ‘better’.”

We saw hotels and restaurants pivot with ingenuity during the pandemic to keep the lights on, but they can’t conjure up staff that don’t exist. The big chains are particularly desperate. The Financial Times recently reported that 34 per cent of Pizza Express staff are now under 20, compared to 18 per cent pre-pandemic. The company has introduced “gamification” into its training, while the noodle chain Pho is recruiting via posts on TikTok. Graduates of Le Cordon Bleu and the Michael Caines Academy are unlikely to be sourced by such routes.

“The scarcity of entry level staff is notable,” says Thomas Kochs, MD of the Corinthia hotel in London, and trustee of the Gold Service Scholarship, which mentors successful candidates under 28 in top-tier hospitality. “Following Brexit, the immigration and labour laws changed. Jobs in hospitality are now seen as unqualified labour. We can’t employ young people from continental Europe even though they have university degrees, have successfully completed apprenticeship programmes, and have visited some of the finest hotel schools in the world.”

The Corinthia hotel London, London hotels - London Corinthia Hotel
The Corinthia hotel London, London hotels - London Corinthia Hotel

A shortage of staff isn’t the only factor behind Britain’s substandard service. Much of Europe considers waiting an honourable profession deserving of respect, but the same culture has never really existed in the UK in a broad enough way – not since the butlers of the Downton Abbey era, anyway. Star chef Margot Henderson is currently preparing to open the Three Horseshoes pub with rooms in Somerset. She has had a nightmare trying to find staff to match her level of cooking: “Europeans believe in the culture of restaurants as serious work, but here it seems to not be taken seriously,” she says. “Everyone is looking for ‘proper’ jobs. I say bring Europe back in. Also, we need to be speaking directly to students at school and suggest apprenticeships. Australia has a very good system for both front and back of house.”

One of the main problems the UK has is that despite numerous hospitality courses up and down the country, it’s always lacked the apprenticeships Henderson mentions, to foster the idea of the service industry as a fruitful career path. In the UK, hospitality jobs are seen as seasonal or part time. The lack of interest shows frequently on the frontline, with the Fawlty Towers factor.

It’s not all bad news. While you’ve probably noticed service standards disintegrate since 2016, at certain smaller and often family-run places, things have actually improved. When life was interrupted with lockdowns, a lot of restaurateurs took a long hard look at their future, and decided working practices needed to change. Happy staff make for a happy dining room. The owners of Timberyard, for example, easily the best restaurant in Edinburgh if not the whole country, reopened after lockdown with fewer shifts and earlier closing times. “Sustainability has to start with the staff that we nurture,” says co-owner Lisa Radford. “We need a solid foundation of a living wage, training and respect. Our staff have three days off a week. We are trying to find a healthier work-play balance.” It makes total sense – treat staff as disposable, and they’ll behave accordingly.

Timberyard Restaurant, Edinburgh restaurants - Chris Watt/chriswatt.com
Timberyard Restaurant, Edinburgh restaurants - Chris Watt/chriswatt.com

Poor service can also stem from poor management, and that’s been a British issue long before Brexit. It just hasn’t been seen as an appealing job. The industry is working to make that change. but it’s going to take years, and more respect from the top of the food chain for new recruits. Kate Nicholls wants to see the Government streamline many more post-16 qualifications with a focus on the industry. She also points to Hospitality Rising – an industry-wide initiative to promote recruitment – as a way forward.

Bad service, of course, isn’t limited to our shores. Just jump on the Eurostar and go to Paris for lunch, where the Gallic shrug and indifference is as omnipresent as steak tartare and frites. Fly to LA or New York you’ll get a song and dance of enthusiasm, born from a necessity to supplement shoddy wages with tips, but it’s as fake as the food is over-sweetened.

The reality will always be that for most people, working at Wagamama for a while isn’t the start of a career, but a means to an end. So, all things considered, surely the goal should be flawless and invisible service? Competence should be achievable. No one goes out to make friends with a waiter or concierge, you just want everything you ordered to arrive in a timely fashion, and don’t want to go home annoyed. Anything else is gravy. But the reality is, like a lot of things we love, from tea to wagyu, that gravy needs to be imported. Competence comes from numbers. As Kellie Rixon, Chair of the Supervisory Board for the Institute of Hospitality says: “The talented and hardworking EU work force has been an integral part of what we do in the UK sector. This crisis needs to be addressed immediately. We need more flexibility for seasonal and casual workers from across the EU. The incredibly challenging processes of hiring these essential workers need to be lifted.”

Margot Henderson is optimistic that we won’t go back in time 30 years, however. “We are in tricky but exciting times,” she says. “There is so much energy going into the food. Chefs are working hard to produce the best they can. The front of house has stepped up too. We just need… more!”

The hotel school that makes the staff who get it right

In hills overlooking the city is Switzerland’s prestigious EHL Hospitality Business School, founded in 1893 as the École Hôtelière de Lausanne and widely regarded as the Oxbridge and Ivy League of hotel schools, with alumni that form a who’s-who of the luxury hotel world. The nearby five-star Beau Rivage Palace is managed by one of its graduates, while in London the Goring’s third-generation owner Jeremy also honed his craft here.

I spent several days at its campus learning what the future of hospitality will look like. More than 2,000 students, mostly aged 18-22, attend from over 120 countries, paying around £140,000 for the four-year course. Only half go on to the world of hospitality when they graduate, with the other 50 per cent snapped up for high-flying jobs in banking, industry, commerce and fashion. “There’s plenty of daddy’s money around” an Italian student told me, “but there are also plenty of people who work damn hard just to be here.”

The course, in either English or French, covers every aspect of life in a hotel, from making beds to marketing, placating grumpy guests and waiting tables at on-site Le Berceau de Sens: the only Michelin-starred restaurant in the world where the staff are brand new every week.

Knowing this, I forgave them for the almost hour-long gap between main and dessert when I dined there. The food itself was sublime; pâté en crôute of wild boar, and duck with crispy pumpkin crust.

Lusanne, Switzerland, service school - Jean-Christophe Bott/Keystone
Lusanne, Switzerland, service school - Jean-Christophe Bott/Keystone

The next day I was in the classroom, including a class on housekeeping, where four students were gathered with a teacher. The room was rather bare, but I slipped on a pair of augmented reality goggles, and suddenly I was immersed into a plush suite at the aforementioned Beau Rivage Palace.

I had 45 minutes to go through the room, finding everything that needed to be cleaned and made right, from making the bed, positioning glasses correctly, untangling the phone cord and returning some euros that had slipped behind a chair. I ran out of time, and I don’t think the teacher was very impressed.

Afterwards I talked to 18-year-old Thalia Gemayel from the United Arab Emirates, who wants to be a hotel manager in either Dubai or Geneva. “To me luxury is less about brands and more about quality and service,” she told me. “That’s a constant, always living up to and exceeding [guests]’ expectations.

All the students I met on campus seemed excited for their careers ahead. I’m not sure what the collective noun is for “people persons” but this flock was it. It’s reassuring to see that good old-fashioned service is in safe hands.

By Will Hide

For more information on Switzerland visit myswitzerland.com. Swiss (swiss.com) flies to Geneva from Heathrow from £80 return; the Beau Rivage Palace (brp.ch) offers doubles from £386.

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