Waiter, waiter! Where are you?

Restaurants are booming but they can't get the staff, reports Catherine Pepinster
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The Independent Online
They are a restaurant's essential ingredient, and suddenly they're in short supply. Waiters, sommeliers and chefs - be they commis, sous or de parti - are in demand as never before by London's booming restaurants.

Places to eat, from cafe bars to restaurants with superstar chefs, have in the past three years been opening at an unprecedented pace in the capital. The result - an acute shortage of staff and fast-rising wages bills.

Higher pay is not the only reward that front-of-house and kitchen personnel are enjoying. Membership of gyms, accommodation and loyalty bonuses are among other attractions.

Take Harvey Nichols's new restaurant at the converted Oxo tower on the South Bank. Staff are entitled to a discount card after six months of service, entitling them to a third off goods at the Knightsbridge store.

Like many other London restaurants, Harvey Nichols went abroad for its recruits. It found its brasserie head chef, Cait Mitchell Hill, and her deputy, Simon Arkless, through an ad in the Sydney Morning Herald. Other restaurants, including the Atlantic Bar and Grill and Sir Terence Conran's Mezzo, have recruited many of their waiters and chefs from continental Europe. Others look to Scandinavia, New Zealand and Canada.

The recruitment problem, say restaurateurs, is not the trade's image, but the pace of business. "There's no problem convincing young people that working in restaurants is glamorous," said Joel Kissin, managing director of Conran Restaurants. "In the Sixties, the job to have was to be a photographer. In the Seventies, it was being a rock star, and in the Eighties they all wanted to be dealers in the City. Now it's being in food. The trouble is just keeping up with demand."

At the Atlantic Bar and Grill, a cavernous, below-ground restaurant in the heart of the West End, inexperienced recruits are being put through a newly devised training scheme.

"Until two years ago the restaurant business was really antiquated in the way it dealt with staff," said a spokeswoman. "Now employers realise they have to improve conditions. That means giving people sick pay and paid holidays.

"Nevertheless it is very, very difficult to find good staff. Companies like ourselves have to be extremely professional and offer loyalty bonuses. We are doing up space behind the scenes to provide a better staffroom, as well as setting up corporate membership for staff to join a gym."

The changes are particularly marked for waiters, who for years relied on tips to boost their wages. Now, staff who would have been paid just pounds 7,000 three years ago can earn double that. For a basic-level commis chef, salaries have undergone a similar rise.

But according to Steven Lockley, an Australian chef now working in London in catering recruitment, it's not pay that draws young staff to London: it's the buzz. "You can get much better pay elsewhere in Europe or in Australia but it's in London where people want to be, with the really big names in food. There are no constraints here; you can try all sorts of cooking, with any ingredient you like."

But the feverish search for staff could prove ultimately dangerous for restaurants. Traditionally they have made a 60-70 per cent gross margin on food, and the key to profits is to keep overheads stable while attracting more diners. Without the staff, that becomes impossible. But if the wage bill rises too fast, the profit crumbles. And with that danger looming, London's new food tycoons must be asking: how long will our luck hold?