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'You don't really make any money' - what is life like running a restaurant in Norfolk?

PUBLISHED: 07:10 04 July 2019 | UPDATED: 11:10 04 July 2019

Michael Fuhri, who runs the Crab Pot Café in Cromer. Photo: Crab Pot Café

Michael Fuhri, who runs the Crab Pot Café in Cromer. Photo: Crab Pot Café

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From long hours and abuse to dietary demands and the cost of butter - café and restaurants owners across Norfolk have shed light on challenges of life in the kitchen.

The survey said people in Norfolk tip less than 10pc on average. 

Picture: James BassThe survey said people in Norfolk tip less than 10pc on average. Picture: James Bass

We asked 50 independent business owners around the county for the highs and lows of their work, and how the role has changed.

Two thirds of our respondents have worked in catering for at least 11 years, while 62pc have run a business for six years or more.

They painted a picture of a challenging, but rewarding role - some spoke about friendly customers and team camaraderie, as well as thank you cards and champagne gifted by appreciative diners.

But others described a challenging industry, with long days - 42pc said they worked 12 hours or more on average, and 24pc said they worked seven days a week - staffing challenges and growing demand from customers.

Three quarters said the role had changed in recent years, while 59pc said they had thought about jumping ship in the last 12 months.

Owner Karen Connor at the Mulberry in Thetford. Photo: Sonya DuncanOwner Karen Connor at the Mulberry in Thetford. Photo: Sonya Duncan

Increasing competition, recruitment issues and a struggling high street were listed as difficulties, with one person saying chain restaurants' "ability to devalue the product" made independents look more expensive.

Another pointed to the "masses of dietary requirements challenging chefs".

Karen Connor, from The Mulberry in Thetford, said intolerances and allergens had become a "huge" part of the role, but that it was an easier challenge for independents, where more is prepared in-house, to navigate.

"Where you used to get one request for an allergy to something or an intolerance every so often, now most days you will get somebody that has different things they can't eat," she said.

For the Green Grocers, on Earlham Road, the rise in veganism has been the most notable change over their decade in business, with their vegan breakfast now a best-selling dish.

But manager Kelly Moore said they have had vegan and organic options on the menu over that time and, rather than competition, saw it as "recognition of what we are already doing".

MORE: Boom in number of Norwich cafés, restaurants and food trucks - but city has lost 30 pubs in eight years

She said: "We've had the same things on our menu all that time - we've had vegan sausage rolls for five years."

The survey has shed light on the challenges of running a restaurant or café. Picture: YakobchukOlena/Getty Images/iStockphotoThe survey has shed light on the challenges of running a restaurant or café. Picture: YakobchukOlena/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Elsewhere in the survey, one owner said costly wages piled on pressure, adding that the cost of "a pack of butter has increased by 100pc in five years - the cost of a dish on the menu hasn't".

The responses also highlighted a shocking level of abuse from customers, with 76pc saying they had experienced aggression.

The majority said it happened rarely, but 8pc said they faced it on a weekly basis.

Giving examples, one owner said a customer had threatened to sue after falling over, but was unsuccessful after it became clear she was drunk on arrival.

Others cited stolen items, customers leaving without paying and diners refusing to be served by someone "foreign".

Vegan sausage rolls from The Green Grocers. Photo: The Green GrocersVegan sausage rolls from The Green Grocers. Photo: The Green Grocers

Another person said they had seen racism against their staff, while one said: "Twice I've had customers tell me they wished I would get cancer for refusing them service... Was very much a wow moment."

Ms Connor said, approaching nine years at the restaurant, she could count on one hand the number of times it had happened, but that it was intimidating when it did.

She said it was largely alcohol-driven, and said, with customers paying for their night at the end of their meal, it put restaurateurs in a difficult position.

"When people have got to that point they don't care about who else hears," she said, "so it can become about not letting that affect the experience for everyone else."

She said she understood comments made in the survey on the pressure of always smiling and remaining positive.

"I love the people side of it," she said, "so if people are in and having a good time, then it's great. But I can understand it - you can have anything else going on in our life and you do have to act. It is almost like acting. First impression means so much to people."

Ms Moore agreed, and said: "We do remind staff that whatever might be happening, you have to put that aside. Sometimes it is really hard when you've had an awful day, but it's important and we try to look after our staff."

MORE: 'You have got to be diverse' - butchers' trade stays steady as demand for vegan options grows

The Green Grocers at Earlham House Shops, Earlham Road. Photo: James BassThe Green Grocers at Earlham House Shops, Earlham Road. Photo: James Bass

The coastal challenge

The seasonal nature of coastal work and pressure of the off-season was listed as a challenge for several owners.

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Michael Fuhri, owner of the Crab Pot Café in Cromer, is among the businesses that notices a downturn in trade over winter.

"People come here because it's a nice place to be but it is a bit weather dependent," he said.

He said they opened all year, but shut for a couple of weeks in January and shortened their opening times during winter.

"We'll also do a few evenings rather than relying on day time, and have a quiz evening or Spanish evening," he said.

"I think all cafés are similar - you don't really make any money, you just try not to lose it.

"The season is quite long, though, probably eight months, and you get an uplift around Christmas and New Year, so really there's only three actual months where there is a noticeable difference."

To tip, or not to tip?

While tipping may not be as customary in the UK as elsewhere, many diners choose to leave a little extra.

But questions over where the money goes, and arguments over whether service was tip-worthy, can create a divisive debate.

In this country, a tip of roughly 10pc to 15pc is widely considered standard, and plenty of restaurants add a 12.5pc service charge.

In our survey, 52pc of owners said the majority of their customers left tips, while a quarter said about half did.

Sixteen per cent said that only some did, while 8pc - working out as four restaurants - said next to none did. No-one chose an option of 'all of them'.

And according to the survey, the majority of Norfolk diners tip less than 10pc.

In total, 58pc of owners chose that option, compared to 42pc who said customers left a 10pc to 20pc tip.

No-one selected the '20pc or more' option.

The one thing they want customers to know

We asked the owners what one thing they would tell their customers about running a restaurant. Here are some of the responses.

- We are very grateful for you!

- Don't trust TripAdvisor.

- What the actual costs of simply opening the doors and staffing the restaurant are.

- To relax and let us host you - it's our job. Oh, and put your phones away, just for a little while.

- I've never worked so far for so little money, however it's one of the most enjoyable careers you can do.

- It's like being in a play. You are constantly performing.

- We are here to serve you, but we are not your servants.

- Your average restauranteur works 100 hours per week.

- Don't do it! Why would you when so many restaurants are closing around you?

- Their positive feedback means the world to us.

- Accept that I might not be smiling every second of every day.

- How hard we work to please them.

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