Aktar Islam: ‘People are worried, everything is aligned against hospitality'
Michelin-starred restaurateur Aktar Islam has called on chefs to speak out about the plight of the industry, saying ‘we can cry on each other's shoulders but we'll only see change if we're open and honest'.
The chef's call to arms comes follows conversations prompted by the fifth anniversary of his Michelin-starred Birmingham restaurant Opheem, which he marked by sending meals from his delivery service Aktar at Home to industry peers. The message he heard repeatedly in the conversations that followed was ‘we're busy, but we can't make profit'.
Islam said: "General sentiment is that it's just not good out there. A lot of people are worried. Everything is aligned against the industry."
Questioning the lack of government support on taxes and energy bills, Islam added: "Businesses need some level of profit to be viable. Without profit there's no expansion, without expansion there's no further investment in the economy, without that investment there's no further job creation. In the end it's the Treasury that suffers because we're not generating more income for them."
Islam, whose electricity bills have increased from £6,000 a month to £18,000 "before we even look at gas", asked how it was possible that businesses were being crippled, while energy companies reported record profits.
"When times are tough my profits go down," he said. "They're saying ‘energy prices are really high at the moment, things are tough'. Then how are you declaring profits of three or four times your usual amount?"
Hospitality continues to face many challenges with food costs continuing to rise, but Islam said the industry needed to come together to call for change around rates and taxes, particularly VAT.
"It seems like we're an industry that's just not understood by the general public and totally ignored by government. [For them] it's just an easy target to basically pillage because if you look at hospitality, if you look at all the different taxes that we pay, on average, about 32% of our gross income goes on taxes."
If nothing changes Islam, who has already put his plans for expansion on hold, predicts the industry will see a massive contraction.
He added: "Ultimately, people will take their skills where they can earn a decent living and have a fair and equitable existence. At the moment, here, you literally work to pay the government, the landlord, and energy companies.
"We'll see massive contraction in the industry. You're not going to see further investment because people are not going to invest in an industry where there's no return. You're not going to set yourself up to be part of an industry if there's nothing but pain in it for you."
The chef said he feared for the future of the sector, which is already struggling to attract and retain talent, and called on his peers to speak out and push for change.
He added: "It's about the industry as a whole. We've got all these young people coming into the industry and we're encouraging people to join our workforce. [I question] is it disingenuous to get people in their prime, young people in their early 20s to join an industry knowing that there isn't a long-term viable future for them?
"That's the reason why we need to be vocal. It's about everyone together and the industry as a whole, it is not about one individual person's plight."
Picture credit: Stuart Manley
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