A leading Suffolk hospitality figure has said the sector is currently facing "the most dangerous and difficult period since before Covid".

The comments come as the industry faces a triple whammy with a number of venues reporting soaring energy costs and widespread staff shortages - and with the prospect of reduced customer spending as the cost-of-living crisis bites harder.

Julie Yeo, co-owner of the Yeo Group which owns a number of cafes and restaurants in Felixstowe, said: "It's really quite scary.

"One of our latest bills went up by an extra £2,000 per month.

%image(14480237, type="article-full", alt="Julie Yeo, co-owner of the Yeo Group")

"On top of that, we don't have enough staff to be open all the hours that we were before Covid.

"Some of our venues are having to close over weekends or a couple of days in the week.

"The hardest thing is not knowing what's ahead.

"It's quite a struggle."

Increasing supplier costs are also pushing a number of businesses to increase prices.

As a nationwide cost-of-living crisis continues to bite, a number of venues are questioning how they can continue to attract customers.

"It's a terrifying tightrope we're having to walk", said Julie.

"Do we put prices up and risk losing sales because our customers are also struggling?

"Or do we relinquish our margins and start trading in a way that focuses purely on survival?

"That's what hospitality businesses are having to focus on right now: survival."

A study from Barclays Corporate Banking in June found the cost-of-living crisis and staff shortages could threaten £1.8bn worth of growth in the East of England's hospitality and leisure sector.

A number of H&L businesses in the East of England reported a 42% year-on-year average spike in their utility bills, while 98% said they were struggling to recruit.

Speaking to BBC Radio Suffolk, Philip Turner, owner of the Bury St Edmunds-based Chestnut Group, said rising energy bills could have a worse effect than the pandemic.

"We're seeing operators cut days they're operating, which then increases the impact of those utility bills on their businesses.

"Ultimately, it feels the impact of the utility bills increase could have larger long-term impacts on the hospitality sector than Covid."

In the face of such financial difficulties, businesses across Suffolk are having to make difficult decisions.

In June, award-winning Felixstowe fish and chip shop, Fish Dish, was forced to shut its doors as a result of staff shortages, while the town's popular sandwich shop, Lotty's, began closing on weekends as it had become "no longer viable" for the owners.

%image(14480240, type="article-full", alt="Popular Felixstowe sandwich shop, Lotty's, began closing on weekends as it had become "no longer viable" for the owners")

David Scott, chief executive of The Hotel Folk, owners of a number of hotels and businesses across the county, said: "We're very fortunate that our utility bills have largely on a fixed price since before the crisis began.

"Regarding staff shortages, we haven't seen such a hit to the point of having to restrict business or close.

"However, the people we're employing don't necessarily have the skills needed for the sector.

"As a result, we're focussing heavily on development and, in March, we opened a purpose-built training facility to ensure they get those skills.

"This has helped us to retain staff and ensure they're confident in their roles.

"It's important because, though people are going out less, they will still continue to enjoy themselves.

"But they'll only go out to the place that looks after them and delivers the best product. If we fall short on that, then we won't be in that customer's consideration.

"That is what will see us through."

%image(14480241, type="article-full", alt="David Scott, chief executive of The Hotel Folk Group")

As energy prices look set to worsen towards the end of this year, a number of venues fear the worst is yet to come.

The Cornwall Insight consultancy group forecast annual energy bills to top £4,200 from January, meaning the average household would be paying £355 a month, instead of £164 a month currently.

"We know there are rough times ahead", said Julie of The Yeo Group.

"But things are difficult as they are now.

"All we can do is remain optimistic and hope it isn't as bad as what is being predicted."