Ecosystems are delicate mechanisms. Tamper with them at your peril.

Earlier this month we were in the States and heard from local entrepreneurs how it had taken a good 10 years to establish Nashville’s now thriving restaurant and bar scene, and importantly to build around it a whole hospitality ecosystem (their description), from supply chains to people pools, that supports it and now allows it to grow and flourish.

Nashville may be Music City and a top tourism destination, but it’s also a bustling business centre, home to Bridgestone tyres, an Amazon campus and soon a Google complex - which have all made it fertile ground for pioneering local operators and the influx of restaurant entrepreneurs and top chefs from out-of-the-State. 

They have together turned a once ‘beer, shot and burger’ town into today’s eclectic culinary destination offering just about everything from fine dining and polished-casual establishments to loud honky took bars through to the the country’s top-rated food hall.

It’s not just been about building new locations - though that’s going on at a pace - but creating and nurturing a strong hospitality culture, in particular around people. The collective commitment to training, brand values, careers and opportunities runs through the city’s hospitality businesses. It means that people want to work in bars, restaurant and cafes - and that’s shown it the levels of service and, yes, old-fashioned hospitality you receive. It’s the one area I would still argue that the US beats the UK, more often than not.

But as Nashville demonstrates, you can’t build culture overnight.

On the other hand, as we’ve witnessed here in Britain, you can do it serious damage in the stroke of a legislative pen if you are not careful. London’s hospitality ecosystem, for example, which has served the capital well over the decades, is only just recovering from the exodus of well-trained, motivated staff from Europe that followed Brexit.

If that demonstrated anything, it was that you can’t replace experience, skill and attitude with just anyone off the street. Restaurants, pubs and bars need a source of committed talent - knock that out of kilter and we’ve seen the results. Sadly, I fear politicians (and not just from the Government side) still don’t fully get that.

So, it was refreshing to be able to celebrate all the raft of hospitality businesses that made the Sunday Times Best Places to Work list for 2024 this month. It’s not just those individual companies that should be shouting about their success, but the sector as a whole. 

Their achievements provide valuable ammunition to shoot down the old, but still widely prevalent, stereotypes that working in pubs, restaurants and hotels are low-paid, unskilled, unfulfilling, dead-end jobs. Parents, politicians, schools, career advisers and the wider public all please take note.

But as well as celebrating, this is also an opportunity to take a closer look at what systems, practices and business cultures helped those companies gain that success. Two sector operators singled out for particular praise were Moto and Dishoom, both with strong diversity and sustainability credentials. 

The Sunday Times highlighted the fact that Dishoom rewards loyal staff with trips to Mumbai after five years’ service, and a month’s paid holiday and travel vouchers for those clocking up a decade. It also plants a tree for every employee every year, and it now has over 1,500 individuals on the team. That may be a little ‘woke’ for some in Government, but it seems to work.

Creating and nurturing robust people cultures makes good business sense. It is also about strengthening, and defending, a vital part of the ecosystem that wraps around UK hospitality.

Robots on the march

But hospitality is also changing and has to adapt. Growing automation is seen by some at least as a clear threat to maintaining rewarding work environments. The opposite view is that it provides an opportunity to focus even more on the human elements of hospitality, while taking care of the mundane and monotonous. 

The truth is that automation is on the march. I’ve been talking about the US healthy food chain Sweetgreen for years now and its early adoption of technology. Last May, it opened its first Infinite Kitchen in Naperville, Illinois, a robotic kitchen system designed to reduce labour costs and create a better experience for both guests and employees. It’s been so successful that the company has announced plans to roll it out across the country, in both existing and new units.

Sweetgreen says automation of food production allows it to focus on its core value proposition of making great food from scratch, no matter how big it gets - and in turn delivering higher-quality customer experiences. Benefits include order accuracy, food safety, speed of throughput and labour cost savings. For consumers it is also allowing for greater personalisation of dishes through the selection of more food combinations, something the founders believe may eventually make it the ’Spotify of food’.

Stores still rely on employees for prep work and adding the finishing touches, and it says staff turnover is down - it also adds the move to automation has allowed it to give regional leaders more autonomy in reacting to their local market needs. It’s a development we should all be watching.