Mary O'Callaghan, who set up a successful delicatessen in Mitchelstown, Co Cork, with her late husband, Pat, in the late 1980s, has tried to hire chefs since Christmas. So far, she has had one approach.
The Lower Cork Street cafe, delicatessen and bakery, which can seat 120 people, is currently open just four days a week, from Wednesday to Saturday. It used to open six days a week.
O’Callaghan is “very worried about the future”. She employs 17 full-time staff and four part-timers. “We feel we have a very good business. We just need chefs.”
Despite advertising for chefs since Christmas, O’Callaghan had just one approach from a candidate interested in becoming a chef, and he wanted to do so in a five-star hotel.
I don't know how we're going to manage. In 34 years, we have never been in this position
Four chefs are needed. The business has three, but one of them is leaving in the coming weeks to drive a truck. Not enough chefs are being trained in the State, says O’Callaghan.
“The whole emphasis is to get people into university. They need to tell people that hospitality and trades are viable careers,” she says, adding that many arts graduates “don’t know what they’re going to do”.
Over the years, the business has employed Polish, Lithuanian and Latvian staff, but the shortage of chefs is now being magnified by the number of eastern Europeans returning home or going elsewhere.
“I think, too, that a lot of people took a break during Covid, reassessed their lives and maybe decided to move on, like our chef who’s starting on a new career driving a truck,” she adds.
Facing life with just two chefs – one of whom is her son, Paddy – O’Callaghan says: “We will be under colossal pressure. I don’t know how we’re going to manage. In 34 years, we have never been in this position.
“We may have to cut our offering. Since the pandemic, we’ve been doing a huge trade in single-portion takeaway meals. That takes a lot of time and will probably have to be put on the back burner,” she adds.
You have every Sunday off, there is no evening work and no work on bank holidays
She is talking to two chefs from Sri Lanka who are working in the Middle East. "We're actively recruiting one of them, and hope to speak to the other guy in a few days. But to get them here will take four or five months.
She says the State’s visa rules are “absolutely ridiculous, especially in these times”, since the job must be advertised for 28 days and there must be “no suitable” European Economic Area candidates before it can be filled from outside.
“Our cafe is particularly nice to work in,” says O’Callaghan. “You have every Sunday off, there is no evening work and no work on bank holidays. That’s all very attractive in the hospitality industry.”
Throughout, it has been a family business. Besides her son, Paddy, her daughter, Kate, is now is general manger, having trained at the Shannon College of Hotel Management: “[They] were helping out since they were kids.
Because of the shortage of chefs, O’Callaghan is spending more time in the kitchens: “Before Covid, I was working 3½ days a week. Now I’m working 5½ days a week, from 5.30am until 4pm.”
O’Callaghan (66) finds being on her feet from early morning hard going. But she has no plans to retire, saying she’d “crack up” if she wasn’t working. “But I would like to reduce my hours significantly.”