One way caterers can prepare for the UK's new immigration laws

by Willie Biggart

The UK government has announced that so called “low-skilled” workers will not get visas from 2021 onwards, under post-Brexit immigration plans.

Waiting tables and certain hospitality-related jobs will fall short of the ‘points-based’ requirements for skill level, so the industry can expect staff shortages. The Food and Drink Federation has voiced concerns about bakers, meat processors and some food-makers not qualifying for visas under the new system.

These are sad times for our industry, which has always enjoyed employing staff from varied cultures and backgrounds. The aim of the legislation is to move the UK away from cheaper European labour in favour of retaining British staff and investing in automation technology. It’s possible that caterers will be among those hardest hit by the changes, as the new legislation removes thousands of people from the market. Under the new rules baristas will not qualify for a visa, despite warnings from Pret a Manger two years ago that only one in 50 job applicants were British.

The UK Hospitality chief executive, Kate Nicholls, said the high street will suffer and that “ruling out a temporary, low-skilled route for migration in just 10 months’ time would be disastrous for the hospitality sector and the British people”.

We have written a lot recently about retaining staff in an industry with labour shortages and a very high turnover, and how automation technology can help as the costs of employing people rises. Under the new rules, both of these will become increasingly important.

For most restaurants and contract caterers, hospitality sales represent a secondary revenue stream and an area that is not front and centre in their minds. Many hotels have all the resources, but don’t offer corporate catering at all. Each of these types of business will feel the sting of reduced immigration and the associated rise in employment costs. The rewards of an efficient and profitable catering service will go a long way to reducing the impact of these inflated costs. The challenge is to turn a secondary revenue stream, or entirely new business opportunity, into a reliable service that doesn’t demand an increase in staff.

Software is often the answer, helping restaurants and caterers do more with less in every area of their business. ResDiary and OpenTable let restaurant customers book their table online, without taking up valuable staff minutes. Toast is a POS software that speeds up table service payment processing. And Spoonfed is built to control catering orders from the customer ordering online, through to all the various back of house processes. Automation of these processes makes it possible to handle more orders with fewer staff, and prevents errors creeping into production and delivery. Time savings are huge, and with increased revenues, caterers can then afford to pay the reduced staff more, while a reliable system makes their work less stressful, and improving the likelihood that they stay in their role longer.

Interestingly, last year 45% of catering orders in Spoonfed were made online, directly by the caterers’ customers. For caterers that would otherwise have had to put these through manually, transferring them from an email, or while on the phone to the customer, this clearly illustrates the potential for time saving for both catering staff and customers.

We have found that UK caterers have generally been slower than the US in their transition to software for handling orders, with some enquiries coming from businesses that still run on spreadsheets and manual processes. If there is a silver lining to the new immigration laws, it’s that they might bring the industry to a tipping point, forcing the UK’s transition to efficiency and automation. 2021 will prove very tough for those caterers that struggle to respond to a post-Brexit environment. But for those that embrace software and focus on retaining staff, it could be a year of consolidation, new opportunities, and growth.

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