How can food and drink and hospitality continue to grow?

Table talk: The guests at the Anderson Strathern discussion, main from left, Douglas McLachlan, Marc Crothall, Shirley Spear, Sara Roberts, Tom Chisholm, Paul Brown, Josh Littlejohn, Robert Allan. Picture: Stewart Attwood
Table talk: The guests at the Anderson Strathern discussion, main from left, Douglas McLachlan, Marc Crothall, Shirley Spear, Sara Roberts, Tom Chisholm, Paul Brown, Josh Littlejohn, Robert Allan. Picture: Stewart Attwood
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In partnership with Anderson Strathern.

ASKILLED workforce is crucial to the future success of the food and drink sector. A group of industry experts met to discuss how to deliver this, at a breakfast seminar hosted by legal firm Anderson Strathern. The discussion was led by Paul Brown, head of the firm’s food and drink sector group and Shirley Spear, chair of the Scottish Food Commission. Among those in attendance was Josh Littlejohn, founder of Social Bite, the sandwich shop chain and social enterprise which supports a range of charities and employs a proportion of its staff from homeless backgrounds.

Paul Brown, partner, Anderson Strathern (PB): What are the particular challenges facing the food and drink and hospitality sector in attracting sufficient skilled people?

Robert Allan, director of human resources, Apex Hotels (RA): It’s about getting a pipeline of young people coming into our industry from schools.

Shirley Spear, founder of the Three Chimneys, Skye and chair, Scottish Food Commission (SS): We need to change attitudes. It is still seen as being in service. Even though it is a skilled and fun profession, it’s not seen like that.

Society has a particular view of the food and drink and hospitality sector; long hours, weekend working and no social life.

We must move on from that. Life is now 24/7, it’s not just the hospitality business.

Marc Crothall, chief executive, Scottish Tourism Alliance (MC): Our industry is associated with failure; the view seems to be that if you fail your exams, you can always get into hospitality.

I heard that view put forward very recently in a radio phone-in in Scotland. Society has built a stigma around our industry.

Tom Chisholm, the Buck & Birch, which specialises in creating food and drink from locally sourced, and often foraged, ingredients (TC): I worked as a waiter in Brown’s in Edinburgh and you were incentivised to do well and the staff were very good. Yet the customers still have that attitude, “What are you going to do after this?”.

SS: Exactly. Diners ask our staff at the Three Chimneys, “Why are you working here when you have a degree?”.

Service is a two-way street; if you take an interest in the person serving you, you will get better service. Yet customers are so snooty when an employee makes even the slightest fragment of an error.

Front of house staff are under the spotlight all the time. Yet good training in this area is fantastic for building confidence.

RA: One of the four skills priorities in the sector is raising the attractiveness of the profession. That’s about bridging the massive gap in understanding in schools about our profession.

At Apex, we are working with Craigroyston High School in Edinburgh on a pre-apprenticeship programme, which brings in kids who might have left school after fourth year with poor prospects and are often not doing anything. When they come to us, we see their confidence grow and they can also start to earn some money.

MC: It’s challenging to attract young people when you are up against the digital sector, oil and gas and so on.

Leadership is really important in terms of getting people into the profession and allowing them to progress quickly. It’s about getting back to that primary school audience and making them aware of the opportunities.

RA: It’s an industry where you can come in at the bottom and get to the very top.

Most of our general managers started at the bottom and now run multi-million businesses.

MC: I completely agree. I dropped out of school, got a job peeling potatoes and then got a break – and I have had a career which has taken me around the world.

SS: You have to start at the year dot in primary school with stories of food and where it comes from. You have to inspire.

But we have a huge issue with the shortage of home economics teachers and the inconsistency in the teaching of home economics; some school kitchens are really well-used, some are almost abandoned.

There is also a lack of confidence in teaching cookery. There is a whole gamut of stuff that we need to sort out.

I have a very enthusiastic head chef and general manager at the Three Chimneys who have been into schools in the Highlands talking about working in the food and drink industry. The next meeting of the Scottish Food Commission is devoted to education, which is very important.

PB: How can we persuade school children to eat more healthily?

TC: You have to get them early and make it fun. My mum runs a nursery and we take the children foraging for food and then cook with it. They love it – but then we often seem to lose them by their teenage years.

SS: There are pockets of amazing success in our schools, but people don’t know about them.

We will soon launch a website and separate social media for the Scottish Food Commission so we can tell these stories and share best practice, to give people inspiring ideas.

Building a “good food nation” is about hundreds of things coming together – and they must come from the bottom up, not the top down.

Sara Roberts, Healthy Nibbles, a company which supplies vending machines with healthy products (SR): It’s difficult. The school market has been hard to crack for us, although we have got into Harrow.

There are some big-name confectionery producers who pay really high margins to vending machine operators to take their products and we cannot compete with that when it comes to products made from healthy ingredients.

There is also a big issue around kids not knowing what to do with products – that’s why they go with the pre-prepared and packaged food; it’s easier and cheaper.

Many of them don’t know what to make with a particular food or how to cook it.

PB: What about some of the issues around pay in the sector – and the influence of Brexit on the availability of migrant labour?

MC: There are some issues, no doubt, but the sector is much more sophisticated in what it wants now. If you are going into marketing, you need digital skills and the sector is paying competitive rates for specific skills.

However, we do use a high percentage of migrant labour in the food and drink and hospitality sector in Scotland – around 58 per cent.

In some ways, we have created a monkey for our own back with discount businesses and voucher offers making eating out cheaper. They are driving down the margins.

No-one wants to pay low wages but the business squeeze is so tight; there is great pressure to deliver both high quality and value for money.

SS: It’s interesting that one of the big pushes in Scotland, quite rightly, is to tell the story of food and drink and where the products come from.

It can be challenging because we employ so many people from outside Scotland and we have to teach them to understand and then tell the story of our food heritage.

RA: We employ 1,000 people at our nine Apex hotels, with a ratio of 52:48 British and non-British.

We aim to keep staff turnover as low as possible and that means equipping employees with the skills to deliver the best possible customer service.

We also need to manage expectations – there is less acceptance of “doing your time” as new recruits want to move on very quickly.

PB: Food production relies on migrant and seasonal labour, so how will that be affected by Brexit? It looks likely that negotiating a trade deal with Europe will require some continuation of free movement of labour. Some people have raised questions over whether we will really go as far as an Australian-style points system, but we still cannot be certain how much things will change.

RA: I think that’s right but we do need to look at developing our local workforce much more than we do now, on the basis that we might not have access to the same amount of migrant labour in future.

It’s a massive opportunity but it requires us to look at areas like the apprenticeship levy in a creative way – we can use it as a skills fund to encourage innovation and leadership development.

There are real differences – some companies want to get young people on the career ladder and develop them as their future talent, others see it as a way of employing young people more cheaply.

It’s crucial to give apprentices parity of esteem with older new starts and not pay them far less.

SS: In rural areas, it can be hard to give young people the start they need. You used to have young people starting work when they were maybe 15 and they got a great grounding.

Now because of all the regulation surrounding employment, that is much more difficult.

PB: Yes, there is an element of food and drink businesses struggling to find the flexibility they need under the Working Time Directive. It reinforces the importance of getting them hooked at school.

Douglas McLachlan, partner and IP specialist, Anderson Strathern: If you become a waiter or a chef, you can work anywhere in the world.

MC: Yes, and Scotland can benefit from young people going abroad, getting experience and coming back.

We are a very resilient industry and we are good at dealing with whatever circumstances throw at us – and the same goes for Brexit.

But the main thing is getting young people interested; it’s about going back to the source and inspiring those kids at primary school level.

Another bite of social enterprise

Josh Littlejohn, co-founder of Social Bite, explained to fellow attendees at the seminar his plans to develop a new business to build on his chain of sandwich shops – and how he is committed to helping train marginalised people to work for his company:

“The hospitality industry is relatively easy for people to access and to be trained up. Social Bite did not originally set out to employ people who were marginalised but a homeless guy called Pete came in and asked for a job and we decided it fitted with what we were trying to do.

“It developed organically and one in four of our staff is now from a homeless background – but we wanted to put more structure into it. So we have taken the learning from four years and created the Social Bite Academy to work with people who are marginalised in society.

“It starts with basic stuff like turning up regularly and on time, builds up to a couple of hours work a day, then four hours, then a full day.

“There will be on-job training as well as counselling and addiction support; we are committed to making the employment successful and sustainable. We have our first two recruits, Biffy and Sam, and we are looking to take on five more.

“One challenge we had was the lack of progression with the company as we just run sandwich shops, so we are now opening a restaurant [called Home, in the former Wannaburger premises on Queensferry Street, Edinburgh].

“We have recruited experts to help us so we have Dean Gassabi of Maison Bleue running the restaurant, Martin Wishart creating monthly specials – and both Dean and Martin, as well as David Wither of the Montpelier Group, are on the board, [along with Josh’s father, experienced restaurateur Simon Littlejohn].

“It’s a place where diners can come for an amazing dining experience but also support some of the most vulnerable people in our society at the same time.

“Diners can ‘buy forward’ and pay a little extra to feed homeless people in Edinburgh – and one afternoon a week, we will open up to feed the homeless.

“In terms of staff recruitment, it can be challenging recruiting the 75 per cent of our staff who are not homeless.

“They must buy into the philosophy of what we do, and they have to be really patient. They have to give food out to the homeless people who come in, which can be difficult at times.

They also have to accept that initially, the homeless staff we recruit might not be as reliable or productive because they have serious issues in their lives.

“But we tend to do quite well with our staff from homeless backgrounds because they mainly come from peer referrals.

“The person recommending them doesn’t want to take a risk as someone coming in and not working well reflects badly on them. And those coming in don’t want to let down the friend who recommended them.”

• This article appears in the Autumn 2016 edition of Vision Scotland. An online version can be read here. Further information about Vision Scotland here.