‘Hospitality charities are the light for those who’ve lost their way’ 

Lee Bye, chef-patron of the award-winning Tuddenham Mill near Bury St Edmunds

Lee Bye is chef patron of Tuddenham Mill in Suffolk and The Lifeboat and The Chequers in Norfolk - Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown

How have your staff and businesses fared during lockdown? 

“I’m grateful that here we’re in a relatively good position to see ourselves through. But others won’t be so fortunate. I think I speak for everyone in the industry when I say we don’t want to see anyone go under. Often it’s the unseen forces that suffer. The housekeepers, receptionist, porters. These guys are usually on hourly paid jobs, and are the ones who will see those jobs go when hours are cut short if people don’t turn out to eat or stay in our region. 

“As well as dealing with the fallout from Coronavirus, there have been supply and demand issues across the board. Where lots and lots of guests have flocked to British restaurants and hotels, with Brexit in the mix, and people having to relocate back to Europe, there has been a big impact on staffing levels, which puts pressure on everyone left behind. Without Covid we would have seen the impact in recruitment anyway. It’s always been an area that’s been drying up. Less people have wanted to do it because of the unsociable hours and the pay. There’s lots to be done to draw in a new age of chefs. 

“Our restaurants in Suffolk and Norfolk are working really hard to listen to the guys – to try and make life more enjoyable at work. We’re learning what they like to do on their days off, how they like to take their breaks, how we can support them better. We’re planning more group activities, like vineyard dinners and days out...listening to their interests and threading those through their work.  

“You can’t change the fact that when people want to eat out, is when you have to work. With youngsters, we’re finding they don’t want to work evenings. They’re not so worried about weekends, but evenings can be an issue. They want more balance. When I started cooking, I’d be on the stoves every night, but now a finish in a kitchen could be 6pm rather than 10pm. We have to find a way of balancing people’s lives better.” 

How has the pandemic changed you as a chef/hotelier? 

“Some business owners were forced to be at home – many of them the ones who led the hardcore charge of working relentless hours. I’ve been guilty of that in the past. There was that feeling that the only way to the top was to work long and hard, but lockdown taught me it’s more about balance. We have our mental and physical health to look after too. We were on a journey before Covid, but this has made a lot of chefs realise there’s more to life than working 80 hours a week. 

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National Hospitality Day

Why should people go out and support National Hospitality Day? 

“From the word ‘go’ hospitality was on the chopping board in the pandemic (excuse the pun). Hospitality folk tend to react really well. They improvise and adapt, and we’ve seen that across the country with people doing takeaways or offering something different. 

“But with that came the big burden of spending cash, and going in and out of lockdown. The Government came swinging in with support, and I think a lot of businesses have done really well using that support. But with the furlough scheme coming to an end soon, there will be blood on the floor. I really think hospitality is going to struggle.  

“We need people to keep using these services, because, sadly, they will feel the pinch from now on. There has to be a big push because now we’re at the time when the cash in businesses really dries up. 

“It’s almost like when the sun goes in, naturally guests don’t want to turn out for a meal. Across the industry, more than ever, diners need to make a point of booking once a week, maybe once a month, getting out there to support restaurants, pubs and cafes.  

“And there’s so many good hotels in East Anglia too. Places where owners have reinvested that support from the Government to make their accommodation really great when people were scared to (or couldn’t) travel abroad. We shouldn’t forget these destinations on our doorstep. There are so many fantastic hotels and guest houses to visit in autumn and winter. And along with that comes brilliant food. I, personally, can’t wait for the game season to come in...that’s something we do so well in the east.  

How vital are charities like Hospitality Action for the industry? 

“I’ve heard some horrible stories coming out of kitchens in the last year or so. People won’t work like that anymore – and we don’t need to either. 

“If we want to continue to see the success of our restaurants and hotels in this country, it’s paramount people get behind them, and the charities supporting National Hospitality Day are a vital part of the mix too – helping everyone from those little coffee shops, to Michelin starred restaurants. They’re trying to ensure the future of the industry. 

“In our businesses we do ‘invisible chips’ on the menu. So we ask guests to spare what they can on top of their meal and see if they can support Hospitality Action. It’s an easy way to get people to engage...a fun way in. The ‘invisible chips’ have been a really great tool. Basically it’s a donation – so you’re almost giving someone a bowl of chips price-wise, but they’re not eating anything – the money goes to the charity. Fred Sirieix has been helping to market that. It enables our team to talk to guests about the importance of the charity. We haven’t had to lean on it recently, thankfully, but I know plenty of people in the industry who’ve used charities like this as a buffer to get them through tough times. We need them now more than ever. They really are the light for people who’ve lost their way.” 

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