Q&A: Conrad Howard, The Market Lane Group

Q&A: Conrad Howard, The Market Lane Group

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Conrad Howard. Pic: Naomi Kamat Photography.

As of June 2017, unemployment in Ireland has been confirmed at 6.4% – its lowest since the economic downturn, eight years ago.  While that information seems positive overall for Ireland, Irish businesses and general economic recovery, there seems to be a new set of problems presenting themselves specifically in the restaurant, bar, hospitality and food services – finding experienced staff to fill middle management positions.

This has been a reoccurring issue that has propped up frequently as an aside with many members of the industry that we here at Food for Thought have been in contact with over the last few months.

So, with this in mind, we tried to get a little insight into why this is happening and what employers can do to try to find and secure excellent and reliable staff.  I spoke to Conrad Howard from award winning restaurant Market Lane to see if he could shed any light on an obstacle that is affecting so many in the industry at the moment.

FFT.ie: So tell us about a bit about yourself and the Market Lane Group.    

Market Lane has been open since 2007.

Conrad Howard: Market Lane was opened in 2007 by three partners, of which I am one.  Over the past 10 years, it has grown into five businesses with 160 colleagues. The restaurants in the group include Market Lane, Orso, Elbow Lane, The Castle Café in Blackrock, Green Space and we also have the Elbow Lane nanobrewery.

These group of restaurants deliver exceptional customer service to the many regulars and visitors to Cork every week. We source much of our food from The English Market and local farmers and cheesemakers.  Offering value, a warm welcome and good food provenance at its core, Market Lane has enjoyed great success over the past decade and this has enabled us to offer enhanced training programmes and opportunities to colleagues.

As part of this, we have a series of in house experts (wine, whiskey, beer, cocktails, coffee etc) and external partners (such as Cork Institute of Technology) that ensure that our staff can seriously advance their skills and therefore can take advantage of promotional opportunities within the group.  And many have.  We have our own brewery and urban farm and will this year open our own coffee roastery.

Market Lane is owner operated as are all of our businesses and all partners work hard every day within the businesses.  As all of our business partners started in junior positions they know how important day to day details are for both guests and their colleagues.

We’ve noticed that it has been hard for hospitality businesses to get staff across the board.  Why do you think that is happening?

I think that due to the resurgent economy more opportunities are opening up for people in the employment market and for hospitality operations in particular. Given the lack of training that occurred during the recession this was always going to be an issue and it was something that the RAI flagged continuously to those in government. Emigration has played a large part in it also. The RAI is making some headway finally and the government ship is slowly turning. The real results of this won’t be felt for another 18 months though so this will continue to be a live and serious issue for our industry for some time to come.

What advice do you have for businesses trying to attract staff?

We continuously try to put ourselves ‘in the shoes’ of the applicant and are very self-critical when it comes to our employment offering.  We understand what competitive advantages we have and we focus on these during the interview process and also when advertising for new colleagues.

Within restaurants and hotels are there different sets of issues?

The hotel market is not one that I’m familiar with, but traditionally that sector would have had closer alliances with training colleges for example and had a more formal training trajectory for people to follow. I think that this difference is no longer as defined, as larger restaurant employers like ourselves are in a position to be able to offer the diversity of experience that could traditionally only be found in a hotel. New chefs in our restaurant group have five kitchens that they can get experience in, all of which have different styles and menu offerings – from Lebanese to Irish.

Do you think that there is a lack of incentives to work in the industry?

No. I think that employers in the restaurant industry are, in the main, innovative and responsive to labour market conditions. If we weren’t, we couldn’t operate. I think that enlightened operators are constantly polishing their offering to guests AND colleagues to ensure that they remain successful.

What do you think can be done at a wider level to alleviate the problem? More training, more incentives, better working conditions?

All of these but I think we could bring home a lot of the hospitality workers who were forced to leave Ireland during the recession. I know that for nurses there was talk of an incentive to return and the government should recognise that not only are chefs a critical skills group but that nationals living abroad should be given incentives to return in terms of tax incentives for the first year and some form of “welcome back” package that would make it easier to re-assimilate when you do return from abroad. I understand that even simple things like getting driving experience in other countries recognised is difficult for people returning, so focus on ironing out these annoying disincentives would pay dividends if married to a good financial tax incentive to return.

Are there any trends that you have specifically noticed?

We know that the world of employment has changed generally and people need to be stimulated and have their interests catered for. The challenge for our industry is to meet this change in non-traditional ways while remaining profitable and productive.

Is staff retention a problem and do you have any suggestions there?

Respect and interest in each person is key. By no means would we hold ourselves up as perfect but we have conducted exit interviews with all colleagues that have left our group over the last 18 months to see if there was a trend or if there was any parting intelligence that we can use to ensure that we can present a better offering for those that have stayed or are joining in the future. We’d recognise that asking colleagues to do the same tasks every day can get boring, especially when you’ve spent time in the industry. For that reason we offer opportunities for experience in other departments and all of our training courses are open to colleagues from all departments, so we’d frequently have chefs at wine training and bar staff at butchery demos.