Ottolenghi forced to cut restaurant opening hours amid chef shortage

Chain admits struggles hiring talented staff in wake of Covid and Brexit

yotam ottolenghi
Celebrity chef Yotam Ottolenghi is credited with popularising ingredients such as date molasses and sumac in Britain Credit: Andrew Crowley

Yotam Ottolenghi, the chef credited with popularising ingredients such as date molasses and sumac in Britain, has been forced to cut opening hours at his restaurants amid a shortage of chefs.

Emilio Foa, chief executive of Ottolenghi’s restaurant company which includes Nopi and Rovi in London’s West End, said its sites had struggled to hire talented chefs in the wake of Brexit and the Covid pandemic.

Mr Foa said: “Recruitment of talented chefs in the wake of the UK’s cessation of membership of the European Union and Covid-19 continues to prove challenging and has forced us to change operating hours in some circumstances.

“It was decided to change opening hours for a small number of our restaurants post-Covid, and we have found these new trading hours to be successful.”

Nopi and Rovi have recently stopped opening for breakfast service, but a company spokesman said this was unrelated to Brexit. The Ottolenghi Spitalfields deli also now ends lunch service 15 minutes earlier compared with last year, according to its website.

Ottolenghi was founded by Mr Ottolenghi and his business partner, the Palestinian chef and author Sami Tamimi, in 2002, when they opened their first site in Notting Hill, a hybrid of a bakery and deli with just eight seats.

Ottolenghi was founded by Mr Ottolenghi and Palestinian chef Sami Tamimi (right) in 2002 Credit: Geoff Pugh

Their relaxed approach to dining won them a legion of fans and over the past two decades their restaurants and delis, which offer a blend of Middle Eastern cuisines, have expanded, while Mr Ottolenghi has become a household name.

The 54-year-old chef is said to have sold more than 11 million cookbooks and is often ascribed with revolutionising how the British middle classes eat by popularising ingredients such as date molasses, sumac and za’atar.

He previously warned his company could suffer labour shortages because of Brexit, telling The Atlantic in 2019 there had been “a much slower influx of Europeans coming to work with us”.

Restaurants and pubs have faced a scramble for talent over recent years amid a crippling shortage of staff. A recent survey by trade association UK Hospitality found that around 61pc of businesses were suffering staff shortages.

Even luxury hotels have all been affected, with The Dorchester and The Savoy warning last month that staff shortages were holding back their recoveries from the pandemic.

According to September data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), hospitality has a higher proportion of staff vacancies than any other industry, with around 120,000 unfilled positions.

The Government has trialled hospitality “boot camps” in a tie-up with the Job Centre in an effort to get more unemployed people working in pubs and restaurants.

As well as a shortage of chefs, Mr Ottolenghi’s restaurants have had to grapple with disruption to the supply of crucial ingredients.

Mr Foa said: “Various world events, including the Ukraine war, poor harvests and avian flu led to supply chain issues on some of our key products, but the chefs have always shown creativity in adapting our offering and menus.”

Sales in Ottolenghi’s restaurants and delis grew from £21m to £28m over the year to March 2023, newly filed accounts show, but pre-tax profits plunged from £6m to £769,671 as the chain was battered by soaring costs.

Mr Foa, a former Burberry and Rapha executive who was hired to oversee the business in 2022, said: “Double-digit inflation is impacting raw ingredients and overhead costs, leading to significant management time focused on proactively managing its effect on the business.”

Despite the cost of living crisis, he said the chain’s affluent customer base “has been resilient and maintained their spending”.

He added: “Recruiting talented staff and building a strong company culture continues to be a priority for us as we strive to offer amazing food and an exceptional experience to our guests and customers.

“In our current financial year, we’ve seen further growth and improvement to our staffing levels and are looking forward to continuing this into 2024.”