pre-brexit: there is such a thing as a free lunch

Credit: Sean Carey

By Sean Carey

I have just been to my local bank in St Albans, a commuter town not far from the suburbs of north London, and am walking down the hill to return to my car. The sun is shining but it’s a chilly day. It’s still winter, after all.

I become aware of a slim woman, with a very smart bob hairstyle, dressed in black trousers and black top walking slowly in front of me. She’s not wearing a coat, which is puzzling. I think that she must work in one of the banks or estate agents in this part of town and may have popped out for some fresh air, a cigarette, or something else before she returns to sit in front of a computer.

Bill’s restaurant, part of an 80+ chain part-owned by billionaire serial entrepreneur and philanthropist Richard Caring, is located at the crossroads in the center of town. It’s a prime site. A few days ago, I noticed Bill’s was being refurbished. Now it appears to be open. 

Bill’s is one of a number of nationwide chains – Carluccio’s, Côte, Jamie’s Italian, Wagamama — which have proliferated in the last 15 years or so in affluent urban areas of the U.K., including St Albans. They are on my anthropological radar because I am interested in how the exponential growth in eating out, and coffee consumption. has changed the look and layout of many U.K. high streets, as well as turbocharging London and the South-east’s increasingly digital economy.

So, I pause to look at the menu at Bill’s without any intention of eating there.

Then I hear the words “Would you like to have lunch?” from the woman in black, who appeared beside me. “It’s free – you won’t be charged as we are training staff and getting customer feedback on our new menu before we open for real next week.”

A free lunch? I’m sceptical, of course. I’m thinking even if the lunch is free something else won’t be (I’ll probably be asked to sign up for a timeshare apartment in Spain). Besides, when I eat out it’s nearly always in the evening. So, I’m hesitant – something which is immediately picked up by the woman in black. “No, honestly, you won’t be charged except if you order drinks,” she says reassuringly.

The scenario sounds more plausible. Quick calculation: I have a meeting in central London at 4:30 and it’s now 1:05. As long as I can leave by 2 o’clock I’ll be fine. “Okay,” I say. “Let’s do it.”

Credit: Sean Carey

At the service desk the woman in black introduces me to a member of the front of house, a young woman who is instructed to take me to a newly installed bar area, where there are stools to cater for lone diners like me. There is only one other person at the bar, a fashionably-bearded man in his late 20s, who is ordering a burger and fries. 

I look around. Bill’s has an interesting layout – a very spacious L-shaped room, equipped with dining tables, sofas, and miscellaneous chairs, with reclaimed pine-clad walls. All very smart and idiosyncratic enough that Bill’s doesn’t resemble a typical chain restaurant. In fact, the style would not have looked out of place in fashionable Hoxton in east London a few years ago. Well done the interior designers.

Bill’s is about a third full with couples and small groups. Everyone is young-ish, middle-class appearing, and respectable-looking – most certainly Bill’s ideal demographic.  Behind the bar are three staff – two young men and one woman without very much to do. Simply put, they are performers without much of an audience. I am presented with a menu by the woman who escorted me to the bar.

A few minutes later she returns.  “Would you like to order now, sir?” she asks. “What would you recommend?” I say. “Well, I would go for the fish pie.” She smiles, “It’s really good.” With nothing to lose I decide to go with her recommendation. “Okay,” I say, “and I’ll have an avocado salad as an accompaniment. And a coffee. An Americano will do nicely.”

I’m now aware that I have a problem experienced by all lone diners waiting for food while facing bar staff, who themselves have very little to do while senior management are on the prowl. Like most people in this situation I decide to engage in conversation with a member of staff.

Chris (not his real name) tells me that he has been working for Bill’s for three months. He very much likes the work. He has an interesting accent that sounds as if it originates in a nation in southern Africa. “Are you from South Africa?” I ask. “Actually, I was born and lived in South Africa for some years but then my family moved to Australia. That’s why a lot of people can’t work out where I’m from as my accent veers between South African and Aussie.” Now that he has pointed it out I can clearly hear the oscillation in his speech sounds. Because of increasingly stringent immigration qualifications I ask Chris how he is able to reside in the U.K. “I’ve got ancestral ties,” he replies matter-of-factly. “Once I’ve completed five years residence I can apply for U.K. nationality.”

The U.K.’s hospitality sector is highly dependent on foreign labour. At Bill’s in St Albans, for example, I discover that only 11 of 30 staff are U.K. nationals. “So, what happens after Brexit?” I enquire of a manager, who has come to ask if I’m being looked after.  “That’s the question everyone’s asking,” she answers with a shrug of her shoulders.

A recent report by the Greater London Authority (GLA), identified that around a quarter of all jobs in catering in the U.K. are carried out by people from other parts of the European Union. In some businesses the figure is much, much higher. Last year the sandwich chain Pret a Manger, which has a branch in St Albans, stated that only one in 50 of job applicants is a U.K. national. But with some sort of Brexit looming – hard, soft, or somewhere in the middle – restrictions on inward migration are inevitable.

Despite numerous trade associations issuing a plethora of warnings the Theresa May-led coalition government doesn’t seem to be listening. Instead she and her ministers prefer to believe that proposals for a new hospitality qualification targeting U.K. nationals to be introduced in 2022 will magically sort everything out.

The Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers (ALMR) is evidently sceptical and alarmed at the government’s initiative. So much so that it has recently called for a “constructive future immigration policy” and teamed up with other groups, such as the British Hospitality Association (BHA) and British Beer and Pub Association (BBPA), to launch a month-long “Hospitality Works” 2018 campaign commencing 7 February.

All this has come to pass because former prime minister David Cameron decided to appease the right wing of his own Conservative party by offering the electorate a simple, binary-type referendum on whether to remain or leave the EU in 2016 , rather than continuing to debate complex issues surrounding immigration, residency and entitlements in parliament. Cameron narrowly lost the vote, of course, and now if the U.K. does leave the single market and customs union the hospitality sector (and other industries) will lose access to the EU’s frictionless labor market. The result will be that employers and prospective employees will be forced to jump through all sorts of new bureaucratic hoops to find workers. This will undoubtedly add to business as well as personal costs for all concerned and will have any number of unintended consequences.

My guess is that large operators such as Bill’s will weather the storm. By contrast, small independent cafes and restaurants, including family-run businesses, without much in the way of organisational elasticity or ready access to capital, will come under severe and sustained pressure. A good number will go to the wall, which in turn will affect local economies in many parts of the country.

In a nutshell, U.K. society is about to become less prosperous – and less open.

By Sean Carey


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