Why restaurant service stinks

Illustration: Matt Golding.
Illustration: Matt Golding. 

If you've experienced inconsistent or inept service or food in a restaurant recently, don't be in too big a hurry to condemn the hapless restaurateur. We are experiencing the worst shortage of skilled staff I have seen in my 40 years in the hospitality industry. Many of my clients went into the past festive season with kitchens and front-of-house teams carrying a number of ''warm bodies'' - staff recruited in desperation just to keep the doors open, and it is going to be worse this season.

The reasons for this situation are complex, but the seeds were sown about 20 years ago with the conversion of what were then Technical Colleges into the TAFE colleges of today. The Techs, as they were known, concentrated on practical apprenticeship training for a range of industries, while the TAFEs, as they became, quickly moved towards academic diploma and degree courses and almost became pseudo universities.

This was the time when the well-respected waiter's apprenticeship was discarded. Until then, top restaurants and hotels were supplied with a steady stream of well-trained, qualified wait staff, who moved up as they gained experience to become ''professional waiters'' - the highly skilled and well-paid staff you often see in our top restaurants. A percentage of these progressed to higher levels and became restaurant managers.

But as the waiting apprenticeship was disappearing, the apprenticeship in cookery started to change from an indenture to one older, experienced chef, backed by quality technical college training to the questionable system we have today. Apprentices are now free to move around from one employer to another at whim, and their training and schooling are often not meeting the needs of the industry. I have asked senior chefs I deal with if they can count on a job applicant who has finished their apprenticeship and become qualified as a cook to know the basics, and I have not had a positive answer for years.

As a result, the burden of training has fallen to the industry itself, at a time when few businesses have the money, resources or skills to train their own staff. To compound this problem, the margins in hospitality businesses have fallen to the point where chefs and managers have to be competent to manage much more tightly than they have had to in the past. Because of this they require much more thorough training than they would have 10 years ago.

The hospitality industry has also grown rapidly - too rapidly - there are now about four times the number of hospitality businesses in Australia than there were in 1990, and as the traditional training and education systems have not kept pace, those skilled staff who are available have been spread thinly and the laws of supply and demand have forced salaries upward.

Many business owners, who have traditionally counted on being able to recruit skilled, experienced staff from the pool of unemployed, have found that there is a minimal response to their advertising, and that the few skilled people who do apply are prohibitively expensive.

The high salary levels demanded by those skilled senior staff have created the situation where staff are often required to work long hours on salary for wage costs to be kept at the correct ratio to income. This, in turn, has created the situation where many older, experienced staff have opted to leave the industry to regain a work-life balance.

We are also finding that the so-called Gen Y, who have made up the bulk of casual staff, are not terribly keen on working on nights and weekends, as these hours negatively impinge on their social lives and the pay on offer does not meet their income expectations. There is also a reduced need for casual income among many young adults because they are living at home with their parents until they are much older than was common 20 years ago - so the pool of labour has shrunk at a time when the industry has sustained a major growth spurt.

These varied factors have forced many restaurateurs and cafe owners to accept staff that are far from ideal, just to keep their doors open. You may have experienced some of this yourselves - waiters with poor English language skills, a lack of hospitable personality, inconsistent delivery of your favourite meals, poor knowledge of the menu and wine lists, slow service, etc. I don't believe any reasonable business owner would accept these issues without concern - but many of them don't have a choice at the moment.

On the other hand, if you receive a flawless performance at a restaurant or cafe, you should warmly congratulate the business owner in charge, because the attention to detail, and the internal recruitment and training skills necessary to achieve this, is worthy of admiration.

Tony Eldred is a hospitality industry consultant.