Brian Murphy, owner of the Currach restaurant in Keel on Achill Island, has spent months trying to hire chefs by every means imaginable.
With staff in short supply and tourist numbers on Achill rising significantly after the Covid-19 pandemic, he has instead changed the way he does business.
“I had to cut down the menu massively to be manageable because I’m on my own. Obviously, if I had more people, I could put on more intricate dishes,” he says. “If 20 or 30 all come in the door at once and they haven’t made a reservation... it will put massive pressure on the kitchen.”
Achill’s geography, Murphy believes, presents a specific problem when seeking out staff.
“It is harder here, though, on the island, it all comes down to accommodation, so it is hard to bring someone in from Castlebar if they haven’t got accommodation on the island.”
Nearby in Dooagh, Alan Gielty, who is the third generation to run the family-owned restaurant, has found a chef, having suffered numerous failures advertising in local newspapers, on radio and on social media.
“When I was looking for a chef it was very stressful. I did feel like closing, but I said to myself I am going to keep going here. You just have to keep going,” says Gielty, who took up duty in the kitchens to keep the business going.
Gielty’s is one of the few businesses on Achill that does not close once the summer ends, which gives him some advantage when it comes to retaining employees. “When you are closing and opening and closing and opening it is very difficult to hold on to staff.”
Both Gielty and Murphy believe that the pandemic changed the way people view hospitality jobs and also what they want from life.
“People just don’t want to be in hospitality,” says Gielty.
There is, he adds, a generational question, too, since young people are engrossed in technology and happier not having to interact “with people, day in and day out — some people just can’t handle it”.
In Glencolmcille in Co Donegal, Christopher Gillespie, owner and chef at Cafe Blasta, also believes young people are less keen on hospitality jobs nowadays as they have more options.
“They’re computer literate and have got their own companies selling on eBay. They don’t need to go in and get a trade and work weekends when their mates are off, and doing 50-60 hours a week,” he says.
The crisis with hospitality workers has been building for a decade, Gillespie believes, but was brought into sharp focus by the pandemic when people realised that they were often the first to be laid off and that they could get easier work elsewhere.
“The days of split shifts are mostly over. When I was first on the scene, you went in the morning and you finished at half two, or half three and you were back in at half five till God knows whatever time.”