Branding: Steves&Co.May 3, 2023
Interview: Sandro Vella, Chef Patron at Step 15May 8, 2023
Article by the Association of Catering Establishments (ACE)
There is a common consensus that the catering industry plays a fundamental role in Malta’s economy both in terms of revenue generation as well as in terms of people who are directly or indirectly employed in the industry.
Indeed, according to a release on GDP from the National Statistics Office, the biggest driver of GDP growth for Q2 2021 was the accommodation and food service sector, which registered a 165.4% increase over the levels seen in the corresponding period of 2020.
Notwithstanding the key role it plays, 2023 is turning out to be another challenging year for the catering sector. A moment of truth for many establishments. A do or die situation for some. An opportunity to renew, redefine and even grow, for others. The COVID-19 pandemic, the war in Ukraine as well as the recession looming on all corners of the planet have hit the local catering industry in different ways.
Whilst all local establishments have felt the bite, some are thriving, some have changed their modus operandi, some have shrunk their operations whilst others had to close or are struggling to make ends meet. No matter what situation establishments are facing, the challenges are quite the same for all - a scarcity of good human resources, a sudden increase in price of raw materials, a constantly changing consumer behaviour as well as a host of bureaucratic challenges just to mention a few. In conjunction with such challenges, the industry must also come to terms with other legal obligations including waste management and the Beverage Container Refund Scheme (BCRS).
The introduction of green initiatives and obligations have always been welcomed by the sector. It is often the hasty approach adopted that is an issue for the industry. It is the way communication and the management of such measures that often poses a challenge to the industry. It is fair to say that we as catering establishments need to understand that the circular economy is part of our everyday life. It is a mindset of a new culture that the industry must accept and realise it is being done for the common good.
Yet, authorities and private entities involved in the green industry must understand that change is a process which needs to be handled well so as to avoid failure. Change in modus operandi that calls for some hand holding, understanding and perseverance. Unless that is kept in mind, the circular economy will never be absorbed well by the industry.
The industry would be in a much worse state if the government wouldn't have intervened during the COVID-19 pandemic by means of the COVID Wage Supplement, especially its extension over the past months. An extension which helped cushion the direct and indirect impact of the war in Ukraine on the industry. Above all, the wage supplement extension helped catering establishments to gear up for the summer season. The voucher scheme also played an integral part in the sustainability of the catering establishments as well as other schemes introduced by the government during the pandemic.
Whilst Malta has registered in 2021, one of the lowest unemployment rates in the European Union - 3.4% unemployment vis--a-vis an average of 6% in the EU the major challenge for the industry remains recruiting, headhunting and above all retaining human talent. A recent study commissioned by E-Cubed Consulting has highlighted the change in perception towards the sector from one with genuine career prospects to an industry that should be avoided. This is one of the major stumbling blocks to the industry’s long-term viability. A major challenge for the industry given the limited resources available.
This is more critical, when the industry is seeking to focus more on quality rather than quantity. A major challenge for an industry that has to depend more on foreign employees. Up to the end of 2019, Malta registered over 48,000 third country nationals employees of which the majority were Serbian, Filipino and Indians. A major challenge for a country which is currently seeking to target key niche tourist segments. An integral element for an increasingly demanding and knowledgeable local clientele. A major challenge too for a sector which includes MICHELIN star and MICHELIN Guide list restaurants.
The issue of talent scarcity is not an easy task to address yet somehow, the government together with the industry itself need to work on a top-down plan to solve the industry’s staffing crisis. It needs a short and long term education vision which seeks to concretely address the matter. The measures introduced in the Budget 2022 are surely a good starting point yet more has to be done in terms of upskilling, in terms of educating imported talent, in terms of ensuring enough talent for today's but most of all, tomorrow's catering industry. And in this process, it is the role of entities such as the Association of Catering Establishments to make sure that such challenges are addressed, to make sure that all parties involved come together to offer a better tomorrow.
Today a clear strategy for the industry is necessary more than ever. It is necessary for a better tomorrow for the catering industry. It is essential given the country’s dependency on the tourism sector. It is essential also given the number of people who are directly or indirectly reliant on the sector. It is essential given the government’s vision for the industry.
However, the catering industry is called to do its part by better understanding client behaviour, by better understanding that the industry has grown a lot, maybe I would dare say too much given the demand and supply imbalance, by understanding that we are what we offer, what we deliver in terms of service, food, ambience and above all, value for money. The industry must act by finding the right balance between price and what they offer. The industry must also understand that we are all ambassadors of Malta’s culinary industry and thus our actions, our decisions, our measures will impact on the catering sector’s today and most of all, tomorrow.
Omar Vella is the current secretary of the Association of Catering Establishments (ACE). He is also director of Maltapoint Ltd. and the Chief Executive Officer of Union Print Co. Ltd.. Omar is also editor of several local business, lifestyle and food magazines.
ACE (Association of Catering Establishments) represents a wide spectrum of entrepreneurs ploughing their trade in either of the following commercial outlets: snack bars, cafes, kiosks, casual diners, catering operations located within clubs, fast food take-away, food delivery outlets and fine dining restaurants.
For more information visit https://acemalta.org.mt
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