The state of hospitality in New Zealand

A reflection

//This was originally posted at the start of 2016 on my now defunct blog JonnyEatWorld. I’ve updated the article to reflect on what has happened since the original writing of this article//

A handful of new places opened up last year in Wellington and Auckland, and I believe 2016 will be another year of fresh new places. I do hope these new places manage to stay open and find their feet, as the current state of hospitality tends to lend itself to trends that do not necessarily have a long shelf life.

2016 and 2017 has shown a lot of growth in both Wellington and Auckland (and also Christchurch) but I think there needs to be a distinction with growth vs sustainability. Not necessarily just in terms of environmental sustainability, but cultural, social and mental sustainability that can keep businesses, employers and employees healthy as they move forward. It has been written about countless times and we’ve even seen industry leaders globally open up about their problems with substance abuse to deal with the long hours and toxic work cultures that can propagate. I believe we are still in the beginning stages of these conversations and problems being openly talked about and accepted but I do hope we see a shift in the near future.

Wandering around Auckland you see fancy new venues with million-dollar fit-outs, but the service is generally lacking and food, well sub-par. I can’t put all the blame on the new venues for their sub-par service levels, as there seems to be a drought of good hospitality workers in the city. The hospitality industry seems to lose valuable people each year to places abroad, leaving the newer staff members with few mentors. I’m not sure if owners and shareholders need to find better incentives to retain staff, or if training programmes need be better streamlined. It’s a complicated issue and is not something easily fixed. However, I can say with confidence that throwing more bodies at the problem isn’t going to fix anything. There needs to be less cowboys/girls and more team-work orientated people. Servers, hosts, cooks, KPs and the like need to symbiotically work together in order for a service to run smoothly. Yet, the “mixologists”, “gunslingers” and ego-laden people seem to be a bit too rampant for my liking.

The draught in question has been acknowledged by media in 2016 and 2017 but I think there are still latent socio-cultural barriers and biases that inhibit skilled and talented hospitality workers to flourish in New Zealand. This is even more problematic when there appears to be, least in Auckland (and quite possibly all our cities) too many venues vs population. In other words, Auckland does not have the population density to support the amount of cafes, restaurants and bars that are currently trading. The high costs of living in Auckland probably do not help with this problem and I imagine this is a deterrent for many people to committing to long-term hospitality gigs.

Living costs have steadily risen especially in Auckland, while wages are relatively stagnant. Small business can only afford to pay staff so much with overheads increasing and stiff competition. Yes, there are venues that have “made it” and appear to be on cruise control but I imagine the small-fries do not have this luxury. Balancing wage costs is always a problem as quiet times are generally seen as times to clock staff members off to save wage cost but with the potential risk of getting slammed later in the evening and providing sub-par service. This can be remedied with salaried employees but this also leads to the unfair treatment of people and I’ve heard of people doing 16+ hours with no break, or pulling 80–100 weeks but only getting paid for 40.

To some people hospitality is a means to pay their rent while studying, a temporal life choice that is dumped when ‘better’ things arise. However, to a handful of people hospitality is their lifeblood and pride. A lot of nitty gritty bits happen behind the scenes — cleaning the grease pits, taking apart extractor fans, stove tops, stock-take, mise en place… It’s bloody hard work and for all the hours and love that we put into or jobs it’s a bit disheartening to be asked “so, what is your real job?” I’m not saying “treat us better”, or take a step in our shoes and see how hard we work. Rather, I think we as a country need to value the hospitality industry a little more. It’s a valid career option and it’s disheartening to hear colleagues leave because they have found “real” work. I have to say the skill-set I have developed over the years working behind bars has been really useful and something I’m proud of. Perhaps, when it is socially acceptable to be a server, cook or barkeep as a primary job we might see better service levels in this country. It might be wishful thinking, but I do hope something changes in the near future.

I really do hope that there are significant systemic changes within and outward-looking in about what hospitality is and how valuable of an industry it is.