Breaking barriers

Experts consider how to get past the challenges of F&B recruitment

[L-R] Ziwa Htun, CD Kotze, Samer Abiad, Marianna Couvaras and Vivek Singh
[L-R] Ziwa Htun, CD Kotze, Samer Abiad, Marianna Couvaras and Vivek Singh
The Address' Vivek Singh puts his point to the table.
The Address' Vivek Singh puts his point to the table.
Traders Hotel's Ziwa Htun and Southern Sun's CD Kotze.
Traders Hotel's Ziwa Htun and Southern Sun's CD Kotze.
[L-R] Ziwa Htun, CD Kotze, Marianna Couvaras and Vivek Singh.
[L-R] Ziwa Htun, CD Kotze, Marianna Couvaras and Vivek Singh.
The Meat Co's Marianna Couvaras discusses recruitment issues with The Address' Vivek Singh.
The Meat Co's Marianna Couvaras discusses recruitment issues with The Address' Vivek Singh.

Caterer Middle East met up with recruitment and F&B industry professionals at the elegant Rive Gauche restaurant in The Address Dubai Marina, to consider the challenges affecting hiring in the region — and how to break through them


• Ziwa Htun, HR director, Traders Hotel Dubai
• CD Kotze, F&B manager, Al Manzil & Qamardeen Hotels
• Samer Abiad, assistant director of food and beverage, Al Bustan Rotana
• Marianna Couvaras, head of HRD — Middle East and London, The Meat Co
• Vivek Singh, HR director, The Address Dubai Marina

What is the most difficult F&B role to fill?

CD Kotze: I’d say any leadership position. It’s sometimes difficult to find someone who’s aligned with the company values and your values as a leader, who is also going to be able to communicate what you want to achieve on the ground on a daily basis.

Marianna Couvaras: I would agree — a general manager for an outlet is probably the hardest person to recruit, both skills-wise and calibre-wise.

You expect that person to have both front-of-house and back-of-house knowledge, be a good manager, be a good leader, be able to motivate, be able to market the brand and have business acumen on top of all that. So that’s quite a tough role to fill.

Ziwa Htun: Personally I think you can find people to fill most roles, but it’s a difficult task to find people with real talent; people who can really charm a customer, who have a real passion for service.

Because you can bring someone in who sounds good on paper, but when you get them here maybe they don’t have that natural talent or ability, or are simply not suited to the role.

Samer Abiad: I have found it difficult finding speciality chefs, because they are very particular: they have special techniques or skills that you cannot find just anywhere, and nowadays these qualified chefs have a whole world of opportunity open to them.

Vivek Singh: If you go round Dubai, and look in 50 restaurants for a bright, talented restaurant manager, that’s a difficult thing to find too. The young breed of up-and-coming restaurant managers and speciality chefs are mostly working in other parts of the world, Europe and the US, and it’s difficult to get them here.

Why is that?

Kotze: I think because Dubai’s so transient, it’s difficult for people to build up a strong reputation in such a small amount of time.

Singh: But we are lucky, in the hospitality industry here; we are at least allowed to hire from any part of the world we wish, whereas many countries actually have restrictions about that.

Couvaras: Absolutely — we can source talent from anywhere and we are really lucky in that respect.

It might take longer to get the guys in, and we might have to accommodate them, but each country has its challenges.

Kotze: I think probably the most difficult thing to do is not only find a person, but also to get them to stay; people often come over here with the mindset that there’ll stay for a finite amount of time.

Singh: From an HR perspective I agree that there is attrition — which can be healthy for a business anyway. But many people do not actually leave the region; they change jobs after a couple of years, but stay in the Middle East.

Personally, I think the main issue we all face is that the truly talented people only make up something like the top 1% of applicants — and nowadays there are a lot of us looking for them.


Where do you source people from nowadays?

Htun: When we are looking, the first thing we do is look internally to fill the roles. We encourage internal transfers; within the Middle East properties we share our vacancies every week.

But in our traditional feeder markets, say in the Philippines, pay is getting higher and service charges are getting higher, which of course means people will think twice about leaving their own country.

Singh: I don’t entirely agree with this issue of traditional feeder markets ‘catching up’ with this part of the world. Because if you look at India, Sri Lanka, the Philippines — all the previous feeder markets — then yes, they have improved. But the compensation is still far behind this region in terms of not only salary but also benefits, medical coverage and accommodation.

I think we still have an advantage here regarding not only our employment opportunities and compensation, but also our benefits and the potential to grow here.

Kotze: But to an extent we’ve had to change our way of recruiting in certain countries, because their economic growth and development means there is no longer the same available recruitment pool.

We specifically don’t recruit in one place, however, we recruit across the board; so if you look at it that way it’s actually a bit of a positive, because you have to spread your net so much wider. At the same time you have to be creative where you recruit, and find out what is that would attract people there to come and work in Dubai. Because what is attractive to a 23-year-old South African is different to what you’d sell somebody from Indonesia, for example. You can’t take a blanket approach.

Couvaras: I feel this area has become quite stagnant; when you go into F&B or retail outlets, you seem the same faces everywhere.

We just opened a restaurant in Kuwait, and someone wrote in and said that it was nice to see fresh faces and attitudes and people who weren’t saying ‘yes ma’m’ and ‘yes sir’ all the time. The industry is looking for different types of people nowadays, and I think it’s important to have diversity and start pulling people from different countries.

Singh: But going back to the earlier point, I do agree; when you travel as a recruiter, it’s a very difficult job. Because if you look at a server in a certain country, say Myanmar, they will ask for X salary, X benefits, you offer him the contract and he will sign it with 200% joy. But if I make the same offer to a youngster in Cape Town, they will turn it down. That’s the reality; it happens. Needs are different, and lifestyles are different.

Couvaras: Looking at another approach, we feel that often the best staff we can get come through our own staff.

It’s through word of mouth that we source the best; our staff know the brand, they know our culture, they know what we’re looking for — and they advertise the best for us as well.

Prior to the downturn, there seemed to be a lot of staff poaching going on; has that stopped now?

Kotze: Not exactly; there is always a certain percentage of your staff who will not be 100% loyal to you, because we are a people industry — everybody’s got to work with you from their heart.

So sometimes it’s OK for people to leave, if they’re not loyal to your concept, or your leadership, or your customers.

It can be better to let that person go and find somebody to replace them who does believe in your brand and your style of service.

But if you’re losing 50% of your staff, it’s probably time to look at yourself and consider what you’re doing wrong.

Singh: I think that trend of coming in and offering someone a huge amount of money to jump ship has really petered out.

The industry learnt its lesson from the downturn; it might happen as a one-off, but nowhere near the scale before the crisis.

Kotze: It’s important that you build people up within your brand, for openings in the future. So when those openings come along, you’re not so desperate to find someone that you end up shoving an overpaid, under-qualified person into a role they can’t handle.

Couvaras: Our strategy is to employ from the back door and push everyone up. It’s easier to find a kitchen porter or a runner or a table-setter than to find a manager with all the required skills. So we work to develop people in-house for those roles.

It’s harder and more time-consuming, but they do become more loyal to the brand, and feel that you’ve invested in them and you’re taking their career seriously.

Is the promise of career security and progression the main factor in staff retention nowadays, rather than the salary on offer?

Kotze: It’s important you’re run by your people not your payroll.

Abiad: When we’re doing the annual performance reviews, everyone is looking for a pay rise; but they’re also looking for a more training.

We try to offer lots of incentives as well, to keep our staff happy, because there are so many F&B outlets and hotels around offering competitive salaries.

Htun: The key is taking risks; you have to take some risks and invest in bringing your staff up to the next level. Only then will people stay and grow with your operation.

What changes would you like to see in the recruitment industry in future?

Abiad: Today people are more into material stuff — there is still too much focus on the pay packet, and not the opportunity itself. It would be good to see a shake-up on that front.

Couvaras: I’d like to see better recruitment agencies operating in this region, particularly for the F&B industry.

I struggle to find the right quality of candidate from these firms, but it would be great if we could rely on them and reduce our time spent searching.

Kotze: It’s a bit far-fetched, but I’d like to see a bit more appreciation of what these people we’re bringing in actually do.

It is a tough environment, because this region has a demanding clientele — partly because they’re used to average service. But if they come in and immediately start demanding things, that can have a negative impact on the server.

Htun: I think one of the main issues today is the hours associated with F&B job; it puts people off taking it up as a career. So I think we need to address the issue of work-life balance more.

I have seen this happen recently in some operations here actually, where they are giving chefs or other F&B staff a two-day weekend, or offering more activities for staff to enjoy in their spare time.

And I think this is an area we need to develop further, so we don’t put off potential F&B talent in future.

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