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Omar Vella/ LinkedIn

Recently reopened catering establishments must strike a balance between striving for a quick financial recovery and maintaining quality levels of service for customers, according to recently appointed Association of Catering Establishments (ACE) CEO Omar Vella.

Speaking to BusinessNow.mt in a broad interview following his appointment to the industry lobbying group, Mr Vella identifies a number of problems facing Malta’s catering establishments, including chronic staff shortages, an expectation-capabilities gap and COVID-related capacity limits and proposes a number of solutions, notably a shift in philosophy to further embrace the quality of Malta’s local products.

First addressing his appointment, which came at the start of July, the new CEO explains that his background is not in catering directly, but rather in a range of managerial and editorial roles.

“In a nutshell, I come from a management background – a sales and management background to be precise – and I also have an editorial background because I manage a number of magazines.”

It was the editorial side of his career that first brought him into contact with ACE, he recounts.

“I have learned quite a lot about Malta’s food industry working on the ‘Delicious’ magazine, which also brought me into contact with the catering industry, and indirectly also then ACE.”

From this role, Mr Vella says he was able to learn about the major challenges facing the industry in the current COVID times, as well as in the pre-COVID period.

“Obviously”, he says, detailing some of the problems facing the industry in the short and long terms, “it is quite clear that one of the major challenges the industry is facing are human resources challenges”.

COVID has enormously aggravated skills shortages in the catering industry, prompting an exodus from the hospitality and catering industries, and in the cases of some foreign workers – from the country.

“This has created a number of problems, where some establishments are closing on select days of the week, or having situations where customers are only being served hours after being seated”, Mr Vella explains.

Indeed, this week another popular outlet, Giuseppi’s Bar & Bistro, announced it would be temporarily closing on Tuesdays “due to the serious staff shortage issue our industry is currently facing, and also for our current team’s wellbeing”.

“In this peak season, especially after the year they’ve had, restaurants want to take advantage of all prospective customers, even if the staff shortages both in the kitchen and in the front of house make it difficult to do so, and ironically, this is leading to a problem in the quality of the product and the customer experience”, the ACE CEO says.

On this, he acknowledges that striking the right balance “is not an easy endeavour”, but encourages businesses to keep the future in mind while trying to reap the benefits of the present.

The long-term solution to the staffing problem, he thinks, is the strengthening of education and training support for staff, thus fostering local talent and ensuring it is directed at the catering industry.

For the moment though, he acknowledges, the solution to staff shortages is abroad.

“The use of third-country talent is, in a number of cases, the solution to the problem, and the facilitating of hiring from abroad needs to be fostered by the Government, through the smoothening of a visa process for staff in fields facing shortages”, he posits.

Aside from the staff shortage, Mr Vella also addresses the unfulfilled potential of Malta’s catering products as something to be addressed, noting that local establishments have a wealth of high-quality ingredients available to them.

“From the farm to the fork”, the country needs to embrace its high-quality local produce, Mr Vella says, and there are a number of products which are already worthy of this reverence.

“I’m talking about the salt from Ta Xwejni, the fine port, the boutique wines, the producers of the very good local ham, the local vegetables, and the local fruit – the strawberries”, he says.

Xwejni salt pans/ Facebook

“This is an opportunity for ACE and the country as a whole”, the CEO insists, but “holistically, this country needs a better strategy for food”.

Discussing the next steps for the association, Mr Vella explains that as it has successfully generated momentum from its political standpoint, creating awareness around major issues, next it will aim to implement solutions.

“We need to keep the [political element] but also implement our plans, creating educational courses, seminars, and events to help motivate, stimulate, and actually do justice by the industry.”

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