In mid-June I happened to go straight from my vacation on a North Sea island to a work trip in the country of Swabia. The contrasts in Germany could hardly be much greater. First sand, waves and tides, then extensive forests, fields and vineyards. First fresh crabs, sole and zamberi. then kidneys, beef cheeks and fresh seasonal salads. Cool at first then blistering hot.
But there is an important intersection. In both areas, which are also heavily visited by tourists, there is a glaring shortage. There is a shortage of workers, especially in gastronomy, but also in other service sectors. In Amrum, many restaurants, cafes and shops are only open a few days a week (or at least with much reduced opening hours). And in Remstal you often saw posters in culinary establishments where staff were desperately needed, both in service and in the kitchen.
Other branches offer better conditions
The reasons for this unhappiness are complex. The lockdown phases of the coronavirus pandemic have pushed many workers in these industries to look for other areas of work because the short-term benefits at these low wages just weren’t enough to survive. Nationally, more than 130,000 jobs subject to social security contributions have been lost in the restaurant industry in the past two years, plus more than 217,000 mini-jobs. And now that the industry is picking up again, in many places they can no longer be filled. Additionally, the islands lack affordable housing for foreign workers and the pool of local workers is shrinking. In Remstal, which is practically on the outskirts of the metropolis of Stuttgart and other important industrial sites, there is also a shortage of workers in these sectors, but the wages paid are significantly higher than in the culinary service professions.
The “inflationary shock” is having an effect
Thus, in many areas there are more attractive jobs with better pay and better working conditions. And some people just don’t want to serve “rich” people from Hamburg or Stuttgart who waste the equivalent of their week’s wages in one night. In addition, the looming slump in sales, especially in the mid-range segment, should not be underestimated. Sooner or later, companies will have to pass on the exorbitant costs to their customers. But in the face of galloping inflation, they have long since started turning every euro twice before spending it.
Personally, this doesn’t affect me that much, because I live by the motto, even on vacation – with very few exceptions of course: “I don’t go out to eat anymore because I can cook so incredibly well.” This means a holiday apartment (with a decent kitchen) rather than a hotel. To put it metaphorically: I’d rather buy fresh sole from the fisherman than a mediocre, breaded fish fillet from the fryer at the same or higher price. But for the affected areas, the gradual decline of gastronomy is unfortunate, because they live off tourism and day-trippers.
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Food sociologist Daniel Kofahl points to the often lack of “meaning” of work in large parts of the restaurant industry. Poor general conditions – lousy pay and very stressful working hours – could hardly be compensated for in the “15/08 restaurants”. So it’s not a loss “if there are fewer of these restaurants”. Working in a company with a good kitchen and a good overall concept can be quite rewarding, both for cooks and waiters.
At best, Kofahl sees them as “cultural workers” and “artisans.” A waiter can be “understood as someone who leads the eating and drinking guest through a special sphere of sensuality.” However, this doesn’t work for restaurants “that offer either bland, boring, or just plain bad products and whose customers are people who are just too lazy to cook for themselves, but might as well get their food from the vending machine.” If you want a thriving culinary landscape, “you need more cultural, but also more monetary recognition for the culinary professions so you can attract people to work there.”
Less could be more
There is certainly a lot of truth in this. You can certainly compare a visit to a restaurant to a visit to a concert, which is ultimately not possible and affordable every day. In addition, a good culinary offer does not necessarily have to have an astronomical price level. However, the structural problem of labor shortages in the catering trade cannot be solved in this way. But no one has to go hungry because of it. Perhaps a corresponding reduction in range would also be a good impetus to rethink the appreciation of gastronomy – from the supplier’s and the consumer’s side.