It's been a tough few years for the restaurant and bar industry, not least in London. The devastation of the 11 September terrorist attacks in New York had far-reaching effects not just for the international hotel and tourism industries, but they also cast a long shadow over restaurants, bars and theatres. Add to this the continuing uncertainty caused by the Iraq conflict, rising interest rates and oil prices and pretty much everyone has suffered an uncomfortable slump.
Three years on from 11 September, however, and we're seeing hope on the horizon again. Tourism figures from VisitBritain consistently show a slow but steady return in tourists to London for 2004, while the British Incoming Tour Operators Association recorded a 6.8% year-on-year increase in overseas visitors for July alone. And while we're not yet seeing as many high-spending Americans as we might wish for, the tide seems to have changed.
"The sector is finally coming out of several years of low-volume turnover," says Steve Johnson, brand manager at recruitment consultant Lister Charles. "There are a lot of new concepts starting to do well now and those who have managed to trade through the bad times are seeing success again."
The recruitment sector looks to established companies like Wagamama, Carluccio's, and the Real Greek (now owned by the Clapham House Group), and newer operations like the Mint Group and Living Ventures are just some of today's success stories. Antonio Carluccio's chain of Italian cafes and delis is not only trading well but has launched an aggressive expansion plan in central and greater London. The group is also investing heavily in training - a sure sign that there's money for long-term investment again.
"We're slowly beginning to see restaurants and bars investing in their own training packages and systems in line with the uplift in turnover," says Johnson. "It's also linked to the perennial problem of the skills shortage, but at least now people are realising they need to fund their own skills needs."
Significantly, the big investors in people - companies like Wagamama, Nando's, Carluccio's and Living Ventures - are successfully rolling out their concepts in London and beyond.
However, even with some companies spending more on training again, the battle is a long way from being won. "Chefs are still a nightmare," says Johnson. "There's an ongoing, major shortage and there are no signs of the situation changing."
As well as a need for more chefs in the capital, there's a consistent need for bar workers, according to both London businesses and recruitment companies.
Despite predictions that the UK would be overwhelmed with eager Eastern European workers following the enlargement of the EU earlier this year, the jobs are still out there.
A survey by recruitment agent Reed last month showed a sixfold rise in applications from the new European states year on year, with a majority seeking work in the hospitality industry, yet the jobs are still out there.
"Restaurants in particular are still suffering from a lack of professional candidates with a career in mind," says Johnson.
While new concepts are beginning to burgeon in the restaurant sector, the world of bars is also going through a transition period. "Some of the high-street pub and bar brands are gradually coming towards the end of their natural life span," says Paul Glen, senior pubs and bars recruitment consultant at Lister Charles. "As a result, there's a vacuum opening up for new and exciting concepts. We really think this is the end of the ‘one-brand-fits-all' attitude with a significant move towards more stand-alone, original operations. One-offs are the future."
In short, if you're looking for a job in London, you've picked a good time. Not only is there a wealth of jobs, but even for those with limited experience, the opportunities to develop and progress through better training programmes are again opening up. Working in a bar or restaurant might still not appear an obvious career choice, but increasingly that's actually what it is - a chance to develop a flexible, challenging and well-paid career.
Job: Concept manager, Living Ventures
Salary range: £30,000 upwards plus bonuses
Tell us a bit about Living Ventures Living Ventures (LV) was established in 1999 by entrepreneurs Tim Bacon and Jeremy Roberts. The restaurant and bar company currently operates 14 units nationwide, 11 of which trade as the Living Room, and three as Prohibition. Living Room is an up-tempo casual dining restaurant and piano bar and Prohibition is a funky bar concept. The latest concept to open is the Bar and Grill - the initial site for which is at Smithfield market.
When did you join the company? I joined just under a year ago as a concept manager.
Describe your job - what are your chief responsibilities? My job is a balance between maintaining and promoting the brand, helping the business grow, developing the individuals who work there and ensuring our core values are not diluted.
This involves monitoring sales and any operational issues, and reviewing forthcoming forecasts submitted by the managers, including sales projections and costs. I'm not office-based and spend most of my time in the units.
How did you get involved in the company and what attracted you to it? I was looking to move from my previous role so I contacted a friend at a recruitment agency and asked him which companies were good to work for. He suggested LV. I like working for the company because it's important for me to work with people I like and respect. I insisted my CV went only to people whose businesses I truly liked. LV is extremely well set-up and its systems work, which means I can concentrate on the fun part - running restaurants and bars.
Have you always done this role or did you work your way up? When I joined LV, I completed the company's three-month management training course where you learn everything about the way the company trades. This includes training on the bar, on the floor as a server, in the kitchen and finally as a manager.
Many of the systems and processes I hadn't come across, so my learning curve was huge. I'm from a venue/bar background, so what goes into the production of great food and service was certainly an eye-opener for me.
What do you most like about your job? The people: working in a bar offers you the chance to people-watch all day, every day. If you run a bar well, you can see your customers having a fantastic time and know that you have had a hand in making that happen. Developing your colleagues is also a deeply rewarding element of the job.
What do you most dislike about it? There isn't much to dislike. There's no denying it's a pressured environment and you must deliver. But I enjoy pretty much every aspect.
What are your chief career ambitions? I am ambitious but I'm not particularly a "ladder-climber". If people around me are developing and feel rewarded in what they do, that's rewarding for me too.
Why do you like working in London? I love living and working in London. London offers you everything: all walks of life in all their glory at all times of the day and night.
Is there anything that really irritates you about working here? The Tube.
Tell me a little bit about what you were doing before you joined LV. I have a retail background and read fashion and textiles at university. I then started my working life in publishing. After that I joined Pitcher & Piano in 1995, initially as a trainee manager. I left in 2000 as openings manager, did a stint with Punch Group, followed with quite a bit of consultancy for a number of independent operators. Then I went back into management with the Match Group, managing at Sosho, Matchbar and finally opening Trailer Happiness in Notting Hill.
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