The hospitality industry still isn't being taken seriously enough by the government, running the risk of exacerbating the difficulties firms are already facing in recruiting staff.
That's according to Alex Reilley, co-founder of Loungers, the cafe/restaurant/bar group which now has 102 sites across the country under its Lounge and Cosy Club brands.
Speaking in the same week that prime minister Theresa May was due to outline her proposal for the three million EU citizens living in the UK at a dinner in Brussels on Thursday night, Reilley warned that the government needed to consider how it was going to ensure that the hospitality sector had enough manpower to fill the vacancies it was creating with the people it needed.
Bristol-based Loungers, which has more than 80 Lounges and around 20 Cosy Clubs throughout the country, has a comparatively low proportion of EU workers within its ranks as compared to other operators in the sector, with only 15% of people on its payroll being non-UK resident.
Despite this, Reilley expressed his exasperation that the government seemed more concerned with attracting people from outside the UK who were working in other professions.
"The big frustration for me is the government's aspirations around controlling net migration. I can understand why they want to control the number of people coming into the UK but they bleat on about how we want the doctors and the nurses and the surgeons and the scientists. Actually, the economy has been propped up growth-wise by the service sector and what has happened in our industry is a large part of the reason why the economy has by and large remained reasonably steady and successful," he said.
He added: "The reality is that we need people. We need people who can make coffee, who can mix cocktails and who can prepare food. There seems to be a sense that we only want the cream of the crop to come into the UK and that hospitality is just a poorly paid job or something that is not important and yet we are all under pressure with recruitment."
Part of the reason why Loungers, which employs 2,900 people, has a relatively low number of non-UK resident workers is due to the fact that it does not operate in London, where competition for workers is particularly fierce. Nonetheless, Reilley said he felt some sympathy for the situation London-based brands face.
"I feel for some of the big London brands who have got big London estates. [Home secretary] Amber Rudd's response to Pret A Manger, making the point that Pret needs to work harder employing British people, is quite frankly ridiculous. It's just nonsense. I still feel our industry as a whole is just not taken seriously enough by government. The only way that is ever going to hit home for them is when they can't get a latte because there is no-one to serve it for them."
Loungers is set to reach 105 sites by the end of July this year, with Establo Lounge opening in Rustington on 28 June, followed by Corvo Lounge in Bridgend on 19 July and Cosy Club in Worcester on 24 July.
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