Shangri-La at The Shard, London’s new F&B Director, Ela Shehu on the Rise of Her Career
Before joining the leadership team at the tallest hotel in the United Kingdom, the Shangri-La at The Shard, London, Ela Shehu rose through the ranks at some of the finest establishments in the city including reinventing the restaurants at the iconic Harrods department store, where she once had to open an entirely new restaurant concept in just 19 days!
Her journey to the top started early, when she was just 13 and still in school, Ela began working part-time in a beachfront cafe in Brighton. It was there she fell in love with creating memories and elevating guest experiences. Despite her passion, Ela went on to study Law at university at her parents' urging, gaining a 1st Class Honours degree but kept working in restaurants on the side.
Instead of pursuing a law career, Ela began her first leadership role working for Marriott at 21 years old. She has since gone on to a range of positions from providing guidance to bespoke event menus to helping to develop offerings for Marylebone Leisure Group across London, and consulting for Art’otel in Battersea Power Station. Her breadth of experience in hospitality opened her eyes to various management practices, and Ela's style has evolved to lead with empathy.
We chat with Ela to learn more about herstory, what it means to be a woman in the male-dominated area of F&B, and how she plans to lead Shangri-la The Shard, London’s restaurant and bar outlets.
What was your first job?
I was a waitress at a Brighton beachfront cafe. I started as an after-school and weekend job when 13, I used to beg my parents to let me do it all the time.
Wow, at 13 is that where your love of hospitality started?
I first became interested in hospitality when I noticed the special interactions that I was having with guests and felt joy when customers began to specifically ask for me. I feel that hospitality is like treating someone as if they were a family member and I’ve been lucky enough to work with some fantastic brands which have allowed me to grow and develop this aspect of my service.
You studied law at university, did you consider a hospitality degree?
I did, however, my final choice was affected by pressure from my parents who viewed the law as a traditionally preferred profession. They didn’t really see a hospitality degree as the right path for me, the reality was quite different from this. Halfway through my Law degree, I considered switching, however, I was again swayed by my parents' reasoning.
Just curious, do you feel your legal studies help you in your job today?
Absolutely! My degree has helped me in contract negotiations, and legislative processes in workplaces. When I’ve worked in smaller businesses, I’ve always known legal processes that needed to be followed, it helped in articulating myself and writing lengthy emails when needed.
What steps have you taken to get you to the place where you are now, leading the food and beverage operations in one of the finest luxury hotels in Europe?
I started working in hospitality at a young and worked my way up. I’ve worked in a huge variety of roles which have helped me get this position. Having worked my way up from the bottom to the top has allowed me to understand the pressures and the joys that my team go through on a regular basis. I believe it’s helped me become a rounded leader and this means I understand what is needed to progress, helping to be a better mentor to coach my team and develop individuals more thoroughly, like I’ve been able to do in my various roles.
What was it like working at Harrods? The food hall is amazing! Tell us a crazy story from your Harrods days.
Harrods was fantastic. It was a busy operation, a very luxurious environment, we were often dealing with many changes. We tended to open a new restaurant or brand every 6-12 months, the openings in Harrods were the most frequent I’ve ever experienced. A crazy story that comes to mind is helping with an opening that took just 19 days, this is the fastest opening I’ve done in my whole career.
Who inspires you in your career?
My inspiration in her career has been my mum, I always saw my mum working really hard growing up and it always taught me that I can do anything I put my mind to. From helping me to raise my two children to encouraging me to do my Law degree, my mum has always been a fantastic support. I would not be where I am today without her love, support, and devotion. Working in hospitality allowed me to have the flexibility to look after my children while progressing in work.
Have you faced barriers in your career due to being a woman? If so, how did you overcome them?
I am strong-minded and like to achieve things by showing results. I’m now at a stage in my career where I would like to bring more women into the industry and lead with love and compassion. I would like to see more women in leadership roles, fixing the pre-conception that these roles should be dominated by males. I feel something special about Shangri-La The Shard, London is that the Excom team is made up of equal amounts of men and women, which is wonderful to see.
What is the most important message you want to send out to young women thinking about a career in hospitality?
Hospitality is a fantastic career to have, it's full of opportunities for development and progression, giving options for flexibility that not many other careers do. Hospitality as an industry recognizes hard work and dedication.
Why do you think diversity in hospitality is so important?
Diversity in hospitality is important because it allows for a different way of leadership; women are more nurturing and leadership in hospitality has been changing. I feel hospitality needs to become a people-first industry, one that is more empathetic than what I experienced at a young age. In the past, people have been misled to believe that they need to work long hours for pay that doesn’t benefit the individual, this doesn’t need to be the case and certainly isn’t at Shangri-La The Shard, London. Working in hospitality is a fun and rewarding experience, allowing those who work in it to experience some of the best culinary tastes and settings as a reward.
What is the most important piece of advice you have been given?
Know your value and never shy away from it. Women need to realize that they should never question if they are good enough for a certain role. This advice was given to me by a manager early in my career, and it has stuck!
Going broader for a moment, what trends are you seeing in fine dining at the moment?
Dining out experience has become very much that, an experience, it’s become elevated and digitalized, and everything is being led from our mobile phones. We no longer need to browse websites, we check Instagram pages instead, due to the fact we live in a digitally-led environment, we need better experiences that are guest-led experiences, these are creating more traction in the fine dining world. Healthy eating is another trend we’re seeing – CBD drinks and vegan food are becoming more popular than ever and people are becoming more health-focused and they even want to see this in fine dining.
Sustainability is another hot topic, what is the hotel doing and do you see progress?
I am a sustainability advocate and have been for a long time. Shangri-La The Shard, London takes sustainability very seriously – we stay away from single-use plastic and try to use sustainable products. Ninety percent of our menu which is carefully curated by executive chef, Paolo Belloni, is rooted in nature and sustainably and ethically sourced through local companies with seasonal produce which are chemical pesticide free.
Look into your crystal ball and make a prediction: what will be the next big thing in dining at luxury hotels?
Everything moving forward has to be really elevated. Service must go above and beyond, product knowledge needs to be fantastic, and experiences need to be theatrical to help customers create unforgettable memories and feel fantastic. As guests become more and more knowledgeable about what they want, everything needs to become grander. We need to focus on what will make experiences truly out of this world and what will make customers want to return.
Quickfire with Ela!
What is your morning routine?
I run every morning then have one or two boiled eggs and hop on the train to work.
What do you do for self-care?
I meditate, practice yoga, and I’m such a skincare fanatic. I also love spending as much time as possible with my children.
What is the hardest part about working in hotel F&B?
I’d say it’s keeping up with growing industry trends and the constant innovation that’s required, also managing multiple different personalities.
What is your favorite room service order?
I love our Malaysian Fried Rice.
What is your go-to cocktail?
Cosmopolitan. There’s a unique recipe I particularly love, created by one of my bartenders many years ago, but it’s a secret that I can’t share!
Do you like to cook? If so, what is your signature dish?
I do but I don’t have a lot of time. My daughters love my lasagna and shepherd’s pie.
What books/TV/Netflix/podcasts are you into?
I love listening to Steven Bartlett’s Diary of a CEO and I’m currently reading Unreasonable Hospitality: The Remarkable Power of Giving People More Than They Expect by Will Guidara. My go-to shows are usually very F&B focused, usually something like MasterChef.