Peak season blues: Where have all the chefs gone?

The exodus from the hospitality sector is a blessing for other services sectors. Photo: Mint
The exodus from the hospitality sector is a blessing for other services sectors. Photo: Mint


Shortage of skilled workforce is hurting the hospitality sector in peak tourist season but the pandemic alone isn’t to blame.

Recently, I took my family out for a celebratory lunch to a plush restaurant, in Mumbai’s Lower Parel, famed for its Lebanese fare. Sadly, the best part of our lunch ended with the starters. Only two of the three starters ordered arrived as the waiter had forgotten to note down the last one. The manager apologised, citing rush hour, and suggested we quickly order the main course. The main course took over 30 minutes to be served and a chocolate globe arrived instead of the baklava we had ordered for dessert. As for the truant starter, well, it never made it to the table.

Before leaving, when I complained to the manager about the poor service, he said that the entire staff was new and few in number to manage the place.

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This isn’t an isolated case. India’s leading hotels and restaurants are being skewered by an acute shortage of skilled manpower, especially in peak tourist season, and it is hurting their quality of service. Hemant Oberoi, chief executive officer (CEO) of OB Hospitality, will vouch for this even as he cites his own recent disappointing experience at a fine-dining restaurant in Mumbai: “The place was short-staffed and the food was average. The hospitality industry is grappling with such a severe crisis that when salaries are paid by the 10th of the month, we don’t even know whether the workforce will come for their shifts the next day or have quit and changed sectors."

“No longer do we get waiters and managers who can gauge whether the guest liked the food or his mood and what he wants," he adds.

So who moved my chef/patissier/manager/sous chef and waiter?

There isn’t just one culprit we are talking about here. The workforce in the hospitality sector was already under strain with long stressful hours and low paychecks. And when the pandemic came, the sector was battered by job losses and severe pay cuts. Distressed by the fickleness of the industry, much of the workforce relocated to their hometowns to start their own small affiliated businesses or switch to entirely new careers like insurance or real estate.

Post-covid, as the industry scrambled to pick up the pieces, it saw itself staring at an acute manpower crisis. Worse, the revenge consumption that was driving people to hotels and restaurants saw the mushrooming of new eateries, further shrinking the limited pool of labour. The cup of woes overflowed when Qatar and its FIFA World Cup preparations triggered large scale poaching of skilled staff from India. Add to this the declining interest in hotel management courses, with graduates opting for cushier jobs over core hospitality sector ones.

Labour pain

A quick glance at some numbers will show how the pandemic shaved off a big chunk of the workforce.

As per the third Tourism Satellite Account (TSA), a tool for the economic measurement of tourism, the sector employed roughly 79.86 million, both direct and indirect workforce, in 2019-20, or before the pandemic. According to industry watchers, employment in the tourism sector may have shrunk by at least 20% today.

A 2021 report by the National Restaurant Association of India (NRAI) states that over 25% of restaurants were shuttered and more than 2.3 million people lost their livelihood during the pandemic—those employed only in the eateries.

Post-covid, things took a new turn with demand outstripping supply. Revenge consumption unlocked different stages of staff unavailability, says Kabir Suri, co-founder and director, Azure Hospitality, and also the president of NRAI. “The restaurants that survived the pandemic pressed the accelerator. So did hundreds of newcomers who took advantage of the low real-estate prices and opened new eateries," he says.

Suri runs 53 restaurants and plans to open eight more in December. “I have to take some staff from my existing restaurants because the workforce is hard to get. Earlier, while opening a new place, we mostly looked at rentals, space and location. But now we have to seriously consider manpower," Suri adds.

Young but not restless

Oberoi has worked in the hotel industry for over 40 years—earlier, he was the corporate chef at Taj Hotels Resorts and Palaces. Now, he is convinced that the sector is no longer as attractive as it used to be for today’s youth.

Oberoi recounts a conversation with the principal of a hospitality institute who said that half the seats of a new batch in his college were going vacant. “There were 120 seats and no takers. Quality and consistency is important in this sector but it now looks bleak. At one time, thousands would sit for the exams to get a seat and hope for a job. Now, many want white-collar 9-5 jobs," he says.

The faultline is therefore cracking at the very bottom of the ladder. “Only 50% of the graduates are opting to join the core hospitality sector. The starting annual salary in the hotel chains is often 3-4 lakh whereas other sectors in need of similar skill sets are willing to pay 7-8 lakh," says Dilip Puri, founder and CEO of Indian School of Hospitality, a school that offers programmes in hospitality management.

“Even if half of the batch joins the hospitality sector, a large number drops out within the first two years. Attrition is highest in the first five years of service," he adds.

The exodus from the hospitality sector is a blessing for other services sectors. Talent is moving to luxury retail, real estate, cruise liners and aviation. Cruise liners, for instance, offer a nine-month contract and give the workforce more flexibility and leave benefits.

“For 42 years, I worked from 9 am until midnight," recalls Oberoi, adding, “long hours are the norm in this industry. Now, the question of working hours comes from candidates who have not even been shortlisted for the job. One cannot hire additional workforce because wage bills go up, places run on loans and the return on investment is poor."

Interestingly, the high attrition of more than 20% in junior and middle employee levels in the sector and the despondency among the younger workforce closely resembles the tech sector. Both sectors are manpower dependent and have been forced to roll out counter offers, rework their benefit packages and give mid-term hikes despite the margin pressures to retain their workforce.

Gauri Devidayal, co-founder of Food Matters Group (whose stable includes brands like The Table, Magazine St Kitchen, Mag St Cafe, Iktara), has 250 employees, most of whom have been with her for over five years. She believes in investing in talent beyond hikes. “If someone is interested in wine, a wine sommelier course may be useful. There needs to be continuous investments in training. You can’t keep increasing salaries and neither can you keep upping the price of dishes on the menu," she says. She does not rely on job portals and recruits via social media sites to get the right person.

Rise of mediocrity

Finding the right hire is another challenge altogether. Though large hospitality chains have a bench strength, they are often stretched. As for standalone ones, labour shortage tests their survival. With customers quick to post their opinions on social media, hotels and restaurants often make do with whatever workforce they get. The result: swift promotions and immediate backfill leading to shoddy services.

Ravitej Nath, director of boutique resort Karma Chalets, near Gurugram, knows this well enough. During the pandemic, when his property was relatively isolated, he managed to hire senior talent from established hotels who were left without a job.

But now the recruitment timelines have taken hoteliers like him by surprise. “It takes six-seven months to find a mid-level or senior manager. It was never this long. The barely skilled workforce is getting promoted to handle guests while a junior chef becomes a sous chef without going through the middle stages," Nath rues.

Typically, it takes 13-18 years for a range cook (staff at the beginning of their careers and those who do bulk of the cooking at a restaurant) to become an executive sous chef in large hotels. Such traditional career paths are no longer sacrosanct. Though manpower costs were burgeoning, Nath says he had no option but to roll out two hikes a year for his employees. “One is a marginal market correction which comes in October (before the tourist season) while the second one is in April. The hike timed with the tourist season is about 7% and the second one is 10-15%," he says.

Ironically, the manpower crisis is not very prominent in the tier II and III cities where many of the former senior hospitality staff have opened their eateries and bread and breakfast inns. Covid pushed them to recognize the fragility of the sector and venture out to start their own firms. They realized that there was a talent pool that didn’t want to return to the metros but was willing to service the industry from closer home.

According to industry watchers, places like Uttarakhand or Goa are now dotted with cafes opened by former head chefs and senior hotel managers. They launched their own enterprises as visa crunches pushed holiday goers to splurge on domestic destinations.

Exodus to Qatar

Barely had the hospitality sector managed to get a grip on how to serve the returning customers with limited manpower, when it was cornered again. This time, it was poaching of skilled staff by top restaurants in Qatar, host nation to the football World Cup.

“Over the past year, there has been an exodus of hospitality staff across hierarchies who have been wooed by hotels and restaurants based out of Qatar. They have been given a year-long contract and three times the salary to leave their India roles," says a restaurateur from Gurugram who didn’t want to be identified.

A much sought-after profile has been that of a pâtissier (pastry chefs). “Across the industry, the pâtissiers are much in demand and many of them have gone to Qatar. This segment of kitchen resource is tough to come by," says Manisha Bhasin, corporate executive chef, ITC Hotels and WelcomHotels.

Bhasin insists that while ITC has a pipeline of workforce ready, the rise in baked food category and ready-to-eat options during the pandemic has led to many pâtissiers starting their own ventures.

Apart from job opportunities in Qatar, Canada and Australia, the rise in popularity of Indian cuisine in many European countries has propelled trained staff to head abroad.

Course correction

In India, though, the hospitality sector will take at least a year to find its mooring. Oberoi believes the newly sprouted restaurants will soon realize that it takes a lot more than a menu to keep a place going. “Everyone serves sushi and a few offer grills. There is no exclusivity and these generic businesses will wind down soon," he says.

Suri of Azure Hospitality, too, estimates that in a span of two years, a large number of the new joints which had taken advantage of the pandemic-induced low rentals will shut shop. “You will again have the workforce back and there will be an available talent pool for the established restaurants and hotels to select from," he says.

But time is running short in the face of a supply-demand mismatch. A study by consultancy Hotelivate says that about 59,000 new rooms are set to be added across the country in the next five years. Of this, 72% or about 35,000 rooms, are under active development. Mint had earlier reported how domestic tourism is seeing a spike despite rising travel expenses. Flight costs have shot up by at least 66% on domestic routes and by about 23% on international routes from the pre-pandemic year of 2019. Yet, as a study by American online metasearch engine Kayak shows, domestic hotel searches by Indian travellers have increased by about 54%.

Weathering a manpower crisis in peak tourist season is an awkward situation where, as Nath points out, “there are guests at the gate but barely any trained staff to serve them". For a sector driven by the motto of athithi devo bhava (guest is akin to God), hopefully, the guests may not have to wait too long.

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