With less than two weeks to go until the EU referendum, MCA conducted a snap poll of leading operators to see what impact they thought Brexit could have on the sector.

The poll of 20 finance directors from some of the top companies in the sector revealed 80% think leaving the EU would be a bad thing for their business, with only 5% saying it would be good and the same percentage saying it wouldn’t make any difference.

Asked how it would affect the growth of their business, 45% said it would decrease; 35% thought it would stay the same and 20% didn’t know.

In total, 70% said their personal preference would be voting to remain; 5% said they would opt to leave; 20% hadn’t made up their mind and 5% were ineligible to vote. When asked what they thought the most likely outcome of the vote was, 70% said they expected a marginal vote to stay in the EU; 20% thought it would be a strong vote to stay in, while 10% considered it too close to call. No operators thought there would be a strong or even a marginal vote to leave.

Recruitment crisis

Drilling down into the details of the objections, it becomes clear that recruitment is a key concern, with fears that nationwide problems in finding skilled chefs could be exacerbated by withdrawal from the EU.

The poll shows 65% of operators think there would be at least a moderate recruitment crisis if the UK quits the EU and 20% said it would be a serious crisis. There were 15% of respondents who thought their company would be unaffected, but no one considered Brexit would help them recruit more British workers.

Asked how important the migrant workforce was to their business, 55% said ‘very’; 35% said ‘quite’ and 10% ‘not’.

One operator warned: “Reduction in migration will stunt growth and inhibit businesses recruiting the best talent where there are skills shortages.”

Another added: “There is a current shortage of kitchen staff across the UK. With the majority of ours being foreign nationals, a Brexit would only further deepen that issue across the restaurant sector.”

There were also concerns about potential barriers to importing raw ingredients from EU countries. Al-though no operators thought it would be ‘much’ harder to do this, 60% considered it would be ‘somewhat’ harder; 25% thought it would stay the same and 15% didn’t know. No one thought Brexit would make it ‘much’ or ‘somewhat’ easier to import raw ingredients from the EU.

When it comes to the effects of Brexit on UK food costs there was a general feeling that prices would go up, with 25% suggesting costs would increase less than 5%; 15% suggesting they would go up by 6-10% and 15% assuming there would be a hike above 10%. However, 5% thought costs would be decrease by less than 5%; 15% thought they would stay the same and 25% didn’t know.

Predictions of how Brexit would affect red tape were also mixed. While 35% thought it would reduce red tape ‘a little’, 15% thought it would increase ‘a little’ and 10% that it would increase ‘a lot’. The poll showed 15% thought bureaucracy would stay the same and 25% didn’t know. No one thought exiting the EU would reduce red tape ‘a lot’.

For some operators the impact of the referendum is already being felt.

One said: “There is so much dis-information that it is difficult to really understand what the real impact will be if we leave. The one certainty is that the current uncertainty is not helpful and is undermining sentiment and confidence.”