Sad news reaches us today (27 October) that Durham’s Bistro 21, an “old favourite” for many of our survey reporters, has closed for good. And the reason why Terry Laybourne’s stalwart of 24 year’s standing has shut up shop? Falling staff numbers.
The parent company of the restaurant, 21 Hospitality Group, said the departure of employees was “threatening to impact on the quality of the restaurant” who’s seasonal cooking, according to our 2015 survey, was “consistently good”, not to mention the warm welcome Harden’s reporters always received from front of house.
Finding good people in any industry is hard, but with hospitality it is particularly tricky to not only find them, but keep them too. The industry has always had high staff turnover, especially among waiters and chefs. Neither role is highly paid and the draw of a big city like London, where wages are higher, has always claimed regional chefs and front of house staff looking to earn a bit extra. It makes it particularly difficult for regional restaurants to hold onto their best employees.
Then there is the stigma of a career in service, ludicrous though it may be, it still exists. Most young people at some point in their lives don an apron and bus a few plates in eateries or coffee shops to earn a bit of extra dosh at uni – but consider a career in service? For most it’s not likely. A few years ago Michel Roux Jr made a valiant attempt to promote service as not just a viable career path, but one to be proud of, in The Beeb’s Michel Roux’s Service. But even his twinkly-eyed charisma can’t distract from years of conditioning that tells us waiting tables is a stop-gap job at best, and something broke wannabe-actors do while their waiting for their big break.
It doesn’t help that the entire concept of the star maitre d’ is becoming an outmoded one. What with the country’s preference for casual dining over fine dining – does the average diner now just want their sharing plates delivered in no particular order by someone who simply isn’t actively obnoxious?
The fact that Terry Laybourne’s Bistro 21 has closed because of falling staff numbers is not only sad, it also goes to show that even a restaurant that is highly rated and working well for its customers is nothing without its employees. The “lovely house”, complete with courtyard, just outside Durham city centre held its last service on Saturday 24 October.
Nick Shottel, 21 Hospitality group’s brand director said negotiations to put the lease up for sale had been going on for several months. He said the business wanted to concentrate its efforts on the other restaurants in Newcastle and staff had been informed. The remaining Bistro 21 staff have been offered jobs at Laybourne’s other restaurants.
Anyone with a booking for Bistro 21 will be offered a table at one of its sister restaurants, Café 21, Café 21 at Fenwick, Caffe Vivo, the Broad Chare and Ko Sai, all in Newcastle. The lease on the restaurant remains up for sale and there are apparently a number of interested parties.