Here’s an interesting quote by Leonard Woolf, Virginia’s husband. ‘It is surprising how much one can produce in a year, whether of buns or books or pots or pictures,’ it goes. ‘If one works professionally for three and a half hours everyday.’
Today, in a supposedly progressive society, there’s still the potential for people to be more productive, less stressed, and much happier with smaller workloads. But really the idea seems nothing short of fanciful. Especially in restaurants – for an industry which often has modernisation and innovation at the fore, it falls behind many others when it comes to work/life balance.
But some chefs and restaurateurs are waking up to just how undesirable working conditions associated with the modern restaurant kitchen can be. So much so that the possibility of shorter working days or truncated working weeks is beginning to look not quite so farfetched at all.
‘We went from €175 to €300 overnight. I don’t think anyone noticed.’ This is Fäviken owner and head chef Magnus Nilsson talking at Food on the Edge about raising the price of his menu – one of the significant concessions he had to make in an effort to create a more desirable working culture at his restaurant. As well as almost doubling prices, Nilsson halved the amount of hours his staff undertook at the restaurant each week, tripled the amount of people he employed, and increased the restaurant’s covers from 16 to 24.
For the moment, the move has paid off. Nilsson says he’s able to enjoy a better quality of life in the process, working three nights and two days a week, even having the free time to take up gardening.
But then, this is a restaurant at which covers are coveted among diners all over the world. It attracts the sort of people who won’t bat an eyelid at a €125 price increase. The same, of course, cannot be said of most joints.
Besides, I’d be surprised if Nilsson had substantial difficulty attracting new work to his Chef’s Table-featured establishment anyway. Look to the UK and you might suspect a similar story – the capital’s best restaurants are constantly subsumed with CVs, right? Not quite. Two years ago, Hedone chef-patron Mikael Jonsson noted that recruiting new staff had always been difficult for him. ‘But things came to a head this spring – it was virtually impossible to employ anyone.’ Jonsson reacted by making the move to a 5-day working week, echoing similar strategies taken up by other restaurateurs – Sat Bains, Chris Corbin and Jeremy King, and later Michel Roux Jr, James Ramsden and Sam Herlihy.
How to make it work
Ironically, just the thought of culling staff hours can instigate more stress for those involved. And those who’ve managed it successfully haven’t done so without at least a few compromises. Ultimately, there’s the need to fill the gap in turnover a day or two’s loss in service makes – the most obvious option being an knocking up those menu prices.
That said, it could be worth taking cues from the restaurateurs thinking outside the kitchen and dining room. Jonsson, for instance, has the floury cushion of the restaurant’s bakery to lean on, which sells 1,500 loaves a week. Sat Bains’ costs are somewhat absorbed by the hotel, while Roux’s celebrity status nets royalties and TV appearances.
Sure, some of these are unattainable for most. But the point is, if restaurants can find a creative means of passive or semi-passive income (such as that of a bakery, cookery class, or paired back pop-up event), the repercussions of improving employee welfare might not be quite so unmanageable.
Inspiration often trickles down from the top. After all, if restaurateurs are struggling to hold onto talent at the moment, let alone acquire it, how will things change if they aren’t willing to adapt?
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