FAMOUS VISIT US President Joe Biden pictured with then Taoiseach Enda Kenny and his relations, the Blewitt family, during a visit to Ballina in 2016 when he had lunch at Heffernan’s. Yesterday, due to staffing shortages, the popular restaurant was closed on Valentine’s Day. Pic: Neill O'Neill
Starkness of restaurant workers’ disappearance ‘mind-boggling’
RESTAURANTS are unable to provide the service they would like due to the severe staff shortages that are crippling the sector. That is according to Ballina businessman Anthony Heffernan, who doesn’t foresee the issue easing any time soon.
According to estimates, the hospitality industry currently has 40,000 vacancies across the country.
Mr Heffernan says that he and other businesses in the Ballina have been struggling to fill all kinds of positions.
“It’s mind-boggling where they all went to. We have adverts on the window and we’ve no one to answer them,” he tells The Mayo News.
Prior to the pandemic, the Heifer and Hen employed 22 people across their shop, deli, bakery and restaurant. While they have been able to operate in various capacities since March 2020, they are still not back at full throttle.
There is demand, but the staff simply aren’t there, and business can still be unpredictable.
Last Friday evening, the restaurant could have served 70 customers, but the seating had to be capped at 50 people.
Yesterday (Monday), the lack of help meant their restaurant wasn’t even open for Valentine’s Day.
Staff regularly show up on Thursdays to prepare food for a weekend menu that has had to be slimmed down due to lack of manpower.
“It’s a strange thing to be cutting your menu rather than adding to it,” Heffernan comments.
It’s not just the Heifer and Hen that is struggling in Ballina. Heffernan names the Ice House Hotel and the Cot and Cobble as just two of several other local hospitality businesses that cannot keep their premises staffed.
He notes that Ballina native Gina Murphy is currently operating the renowned Hugo’s restaurant four days a week, despite being located in the heart of Dublin city.
‘Happier to live with less’
Heffernan says the last lockdown left many hospitality workers ‘disheartened’ and possibly reluctant to return to full-time hours, if wanting to come back at all.
The pandemic-related support meant that for many, the incentive to work was taken away. “They got used to living on the smaller amount of money,” he says.
“They don’t want to come back because they realise they are happier to live with less. At the moment, they seem more content to accept the amount of money they are getting from the state. We had quite a few people that were like that.
“It’s amazing how it got into people’s heads that work seemed to be a problem. One time, people left a value on a day’s work, now they don’t.
“I don’t know what the magic wand is to get people back. I know ourselves we could do with one or two extra, but nobody’s coming up,” he adds.
Some have pointed to the long, unsociable, and often poorly paid hours as part of the reason why workers are turning away from hospitality. However, Heffernan points out, even well-paid positions like chefs are very difficult to fill.
He says that paying higher wages would only have the knock-on effect of raising prices higher, at a time when inflation is causing financial headaches all over the country.
“Grade A restaurants are one-off businesses. A couple may go to Ashford to celebrate an occasion whereas we are in a small town, so you are relying on return business,” he explains.
“If [we] overprice, it they won’t come back. Your target is that you are trying to get them [customers] back at least once a month, so you’re pricing to that range.”
Hospitality has also been heavily dependent on part-time labour from students, currently a ‘saving grace’ for the Heifer and Hen.
While the students will be back come summertime, thousands of highly skilled foreign workers left the country last year as the Republic of Ireland locked down hospitality.
Many of these workers may have been enticed home by increasing living standards in places like Poland, as well as the increasingly unbearable cost of living here.
One of Anthony Heffernan’s Polish employees even left for Austria to establish his own restaurant in recent times.
The Ballina businessperson says that Ireland may have to consider making it easier to recruit workers from abroad, as has been suggested by the Restaurants Association of Ireland.
“We were in Dubai on one occasion years ago in this fabulous hotel and I said, ‘How is it all Indian guys that are cooking?’. Your man says, ‘We could not get local chefs, so we had to go to India and bring back chefs from there’,” he explains.
“They are going to have to go to where there are a lot of people and give them work permits to work here.”