The Staff Canteen Founder Mark Morris on The Power of Community, Good Shoes, and Listening to a Restaurant’s Needs
If you’re a chef, manager, supplier or recruiter in the UK hospitality industry, it’s likely The Staff Canteen is your go-to for industry news, resources and job opportunities. The networking website is member-focussed, letting individuals upload recipes and photos, as well as being a great source of informative and inspiring video and written content.
The Staff Canteen extends well past its digital home, with in-person events, peer-to-peer sessions, and live podcasts.
We spoke with Mark Morris, founder of The Staff Canteen, about the companies’ biggest successes, his advice for others in the hospitality sector, and the synergy between The Staff Canteen and Lightspeed.
Can you introduce yourself and tell us the story of The Staff Canteen?
The Staff Canteen was an idea I had 15 years ago. Prior to launching, I worked as a chef, and I was really fortunate to have a great career. I worked for Gleneagles, The Savoy, and Shangri-La in Hong Kong.
But, I got to 30, and my goal was to be a head chef. And then I forgot to set any goals beyond being 30. So, I got to a point where I didn’t know what I wanted to do. And I think a lot of chefs still reach that stage.
I decided I was going to start a recruitment company, and I did. And it went really well. But, in 2008 we went into a massive global crisis. And recruitment is one of those sectors where, if there’s a really tight market, people don’t use agencies to recruit. I looked at the business model and I thought if we have a really lean period of time, I need a revenue stream.
We were building a website for the recruitment platform at the time and the developer said we should put a forum on there. 15 years ago there’s no Facebook, there’s no Twitter, there’s no YouTube, there’s no Instagram. The digital landscape was very different, and people used to come together on forums. And so we created a message board called The Staff Canteen, and the reason I called it The Staff Canteen was because that was a meeting place for chefs.
The challenge with the forum was that it lived on our recruitment site, so people would come on and they would be less than complimentary perhaps about their employer, and the next day we might be speaking to their employer about recruitment, thinking, “Oh God, I hope you haven’t read our forum”.
We took the forum off the recruitment platform, and put it on a standalone domain called thestaffcanteen.com. 15 years later, here we are with an amazing team of eight people. We’ve been really fortunate to have great people that drive the business forward.
What is your biggest success at The Staff Canteen?
I’m proud that we’ve lasted 15 years, and I’m proud of the team that we’ve built. I’m proud of the fact that we have become the go-to platform for chefs and restaurateurs.
When I started The Staff Canteen, we employed an editor before we employed a sales person, because I honestly believe if you look after your community, the commercial side of things will work out.
When someone comes to The Staff Canteen and signs up, they’re a customer. They can go to Instagram, they can go to Facebook, they can go to all of these platforms, and they come to The Staff Canteen to share their knowledge with us. The fact that people do that fills me with huge pride.
What are the main challenges the industry currently faces in the UK?
Hospitality is in a really tough place. There have been so many factors that have affected hospitality. Lockdown was a challenge. Brexit has been a challenge. It’s almost a perfect storm for hospitality. Add into that a broken supply chain and the energy crisis – hospitality is being squeezed from every single angle it possibly can.
I was talking to a chef the other day, and he said cooking oil has doubled in price. So you say, okay, that’s fine, we won’t fry anything, we’ll just use olive oil or rapeseed oil. But they’ve all gone up in price as well. There’s a massive price increase across the board.
It doesn’t seem right that one sector is recording record prices, and another sector is screaming out for help. I think part of the challenge the sector has is that it’s quite diluted. It almost needs more people to come together in hospitality and lobby the government. I think hospitality is the third biggest employer in the UK, so it’s a very important sector to the UK economy. It does worry me that without external support, it could be a very tough period ahead.
Have you noticed any emerging trends in the UK hospitality industry?
One big trend we’ve seen that’s being led by the owner operators is employee welfare. Hospitality has always had a reputation of being hard work and unsociable hours. I don’t think it’s exclusive to hospitality, but employers are investing in their people a lot more.
Restaurants are now doing four days a week, and straight shifts are becoming pretty much standard. People are much more aware about people’s mental and physical health. It’s amazing that in the hospitality sector, we’ve been feeding our staff really badly. If you’re going to ask someone to do 10, 11, 12 hours a day and feed them really rubbish food, you’re not going to get the best out of them.
You’re only as good as your team, and if you don’t have a team, your business is fragile. If you’ve got a team that are motivated, that aren’t tired, that aren’t stressed out, that are being looked after, are getting a good salary, are getting all the breaks that they need, it’s going to improve your product.
You’re only as good as your team, and if you don’t have a team, your business is fragile.
This is a really positive change for the industry, but it’s still got a long way to go. We need to attract more women into the industry, and there needs to be more support for people in the industry that want to have a family. At the moment, with the government support that’s in place, it’s very difficult to return to the industry after having a family.
What are the future plans of The Staff Canteen?
We recently launched our app called Chef Plus. It’s a way of giving our members a more user-friendly interface. We’ve always been a community site since day one, so it’s been fantastic to watch people add their content and add their images to the app. A huge focus for us this year is to drive more memberships, create more of a community, and improve retention, all through the app.
We also want to re-energise the community with live events, and one of those events is a live podcast. We did a pilot in Glasgow and it was just hilarious. There were five chefs on a panel, recording a podcast in a restaurant full of diners. For us, it’s about giving the diners something more than their normal restaurant experience.
And, we’re also talking about potentially expanding The Staff Canteen down under. Australia seems to be a destination where everyone leaves the UK to live, so we’d really like to have a presence there, and ultimately, expand to North America and Canada.
Why did you decide to partner with Lightspeed?
Over the past 15 years, The Staff Canteen has built up a huge network. We always knew we had a really strong audience, but the technology sector has always been an industry that we struggled with.
Recruitment and staffing is a massive issue for the hospitality industry, and because of this, we realised that technology was going to be something that hospitality businesses were going to have to adopt far more. Businesses are looking for technology to help them. That could be as simple as when you go back to a restaurant, someone’s saying, “We’ve got your usual seat for you”. Or, “Last time you were here, you ordered this bottle of wine, would you like that again?”
It’s having data, but turning data into information, and making the data that you have valid for your business. It’s great for us to partner with Lightspeed, as you don’t just look at restaurants as a sector, but each restaurant as an individual business. Lightspeed listens to the needs of each individual restaurant, and how it can help with the different demands.
It’s having data, but turning data into information, and making the data that you have valid for your business.
What is the best advice anyone in the hospitality industry has ever given you?
We used to do a feature on The Staff Canteen and we asked the same question, and there was a restaurant manager, his name is Dale Dewsbury and he’s the restaurant manager at Restaurant Andrew Fairlie. I said to him, “What’s the best bit of career advice you’ve ever been given, Dale?” And he said to me “Buy good shoes.”
I want to thank him for giving me the best bit of career advice anyone’s ever given me. And I’ve been in hospitality for 30 years. While it makes me smile, it is wonderfully simply true. You spend all day on your feet in hospitality most of the time. If you’re not comfortable, that’s a challenge. So, it’s not my advice, but one of the best bits of advice I’ve ever heard is to wear good shoes.
Buy good shoes.
What is the best advice you can share with young ambitious hospitality managers and chefs?
My best piece of advice is to have a plan. For me personally, I always knew I wanted to work in Hong Kong. So I went to work in Hong Kong. I always knew I wanted to work in France. So I went to work in France. With hospitality you can work anywhere, there are so many choices.
For someone coming into hospitality, if you’ve got the right mentality and the willingness to learn, you can go anywhere you want, but try and decide what you want to do.
Do you want to work in a hotel? Do you want to work in a restaurant? Do you want to work overseas? Think long term at the start of your career rather than short term. Try and think about places that are going to build your career. And remember, if you don’t get it right, then change your plan. Don’t stick to something that you don’t like.
Discover the power of technology
With an efficient and modern ePOS, your restaurant can be at the forefront of the hospitality industry, and be ready for any challenges that come your way. Take a look at Lightspeed Restaurant right here.
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