With the industry’s staff shortage only set to worsen after Brexit, Peter Hancock asks why we suffer from an absence of older hospitality workers
During a recent break in Rome, my wife and I happened upon a delightful restaurant just far enough away from the main attractions to qualify as a “discovery” by our reckoning. It appeared to have been last decorated in the 1950s and was absurdly cheap for the quality of the food. At 7pm it was stuffed with locals who gave the impression they went there regularly and so even at that early hour the place had a great atmosphere. In one corner were two clerics, redolent of an episode of Father Ted.
Most strikingly, our waiter was at least 65 and looked exactly like the late Larry Adler, a brilliant American harmonica player, perhaps only familiar to older readers. He whizzed around the room plonking plates and glasses in front of diners with remarkable speed, not bothering to even attempt polite conversation. He took orders without a pad and the way he re-laid tables would put a Formula One pit stop team to shame.
We ordered a bottle of decent Italian wine. He drew the cork and sniffed it then filled both glasses without delay. No need to taste, he said, it is good! The one complaint I witnessed was from a young couple who questioned whether the fish before them was what they had ordered. Our sexagenarian host immediately produced the menu, pointed to the item they’d chosen, shut the menu again and walked away without a backward glance. As he passed our table I am sure he winked at me, sensing a kindred spirit, maybe. The whole experience was hugely entertaining and we agreed it had been one of the best-value meals we’d ever enjoyed.
To my regret I failed to ask our waiter for his name, but his example reminded me that in the south of the continent there is no shame at all in performing what many British people might regard as a subservient job right up until retirement. In fact, the way he conducted himself was not subservient at all. He was completely in charge.
Lots of the hoteliers I speak with say it is difficult to find good front of house staff, hence our industry’s heavy reliance on imported youth. I do sometimes wonder if we’re ignoring a pool of talent right under our noses, if only our culture celebrated serving skills enough to encourage older men and women to think of hands-on hospitality as the noble profession it is.
There were certainly plenty of grey hairs among the industry titans who went ‘Back to the Floor’ to serve at a charity dinner for Hospitality Action earlier this year. One or two said it was jolly hard work, but none of them could hold back the smiles as they felt once again the joy of giving pleasure to others using those half-forgotten skills that make the world a better place.
Peter Hancock is chief executive at Pride of Britain hotels