The only thing certain about Brexit right now is uncertainty. Prime Minister Theresa May faces a no confidence vote, her leadership remains hanging in the balance, and by extension so does the government’s proposed deal — the deal that the E.U. has said is not up for renegotiation. That uncertainty carries over into the businesses and people that stand to be affected by Brexit, and that includes London’s restaurants.
Since the vote in 2016, Brexit has prompted bad-idea burgers; threatened a “shock drop” in the numbers of hospitality staff; forced grand European-style cafés to close; threatened foie gras supply lines; led the Brexiter boss of the U.K.’s largest pub groups to scrap E.U. brands; caused concern over the size of champagne bottles; reportedly threatened up to 20 percent of U.K. restaurants; delayed the introduction of new hospitality qualifications; threatened the import of speciality ingredients, and, again, threatened the future of thousands of restaurant staff.
On Tuesday 11 December, restaurateurs Jeremy King and Monika Linton discussed the impact of Brexit and its uncertainties on London restaurants, at an event hosted by Eater and Ace Hotel London. Linton, the founder of Spanish restaurant group and speciality importer Brindisa, said that it had raised prices 16 percent since the referendum, in two leaps that she described as “painful.” Drawing parallels with the 2008 recession, the difference now is timeframe: “this is longterm, and harder to absorb: largely exchange rates,” she said. This has directly impacted on Brindisa’s business strategy, leading to tiered products — “not just the best anymore, you’ve got to have some better, some deals” — with some customers leaving, and some having to pass on the additional cost to their own customers. The fall of the pound hasn’t just affected imports; it’s affected what’s happening at point-of-sale in the U.K., too.
King, meanwhile, was quick to point out that as British produce has become more desirable, it too has become more expensive; he agreed with Linton that food safety would become a serious issue at the border. Widely-circulated worst-case scaremongers about chlorinated chicken might be exactly that, but the roots of their existence are not without substance. Exiting the EU means exiting binding PDO (Product of Designated Origin) regulations, and Linton’s main fear for Brindisa is that “food with integrity” will be devalued by lax designations: “people will pay more, for less.” She remembers setting up the company when Spain was outside the EU: “it was difficult.” The fear is what happens if it goes the other way.
Linton also suggested that the U.K.’s middle-income bracket might no longer be able to afford the quality and diversity of ingredients like olive oil, cheese, and cured meat to which it has become accustomed. It should be said that this is symptomatic of what both Linton and King called “the London bubble,” as well as being a minor concern in the context of how Brexit could affect people’s day-to-day lives: Linton was clear that “everybody in Britain can survive without a single Spanish ingredient.”
King was resolute: “I am going to fight, but if it happens, we will heal.” Healing, adjustment, and their synonyms, were a theme of the discussion: King suggested that “shake-outs” (closures, reflection, and adaptation) can be good, leavening complacency: “people will be less arrogant,” he said, pointedly. Linton, similarly, was optimistic for Brindisa’s restaurant trade, and that patience and diversification would — or could — be enough to see the company through. Both appeared aware of their privileged positions as long-established, household restaurant names, at least in London, though King’s comments about a reduction in dining out wherein “it’s the third, or fourth, or fifth, or sixth choice restaurants” that will close might have reflected more on which economic and social classes of people and restaurant can afford to dine out and stay afloat.
What keeps both groups afloat is staff, and both Linton and King were keen to emphasise the pastoral support needed, in the face of workers “suffering abuse” outside of work. “In history they will laugh at us,” said King. “My fear is that our humanity gets trampled.” Both he and Linton emphasised that training, support, and investment in staff were key to improving hospitality’s attractiveness, and in turn making it less of a perceived “risk” for people “building lives and careers,” with the help of what King bemoaned as ineffectual hospitality lobbying, from official bodies.
He reflected, equally, on the “I know I’m serving you now, but soon you’ll be buying my records” attitude of servers, and bartenders “more interested in showing you their tattoos than showing you the menu [...] while drinking a cocktail out of a reformed jam jar.” Service, and hospitality, needs to be rehabilitated, and King identified those over 50 as an untapped demographic that would benefit its perception as an attractive career. Like his restaurants — “we don’t do well in a boom, but in a bust” — King emphasises resourcefulness and assessment of what is prompting people to eat at restaurants over deference to trends and cutting of costs: “flexibility of price, and showing alternatives.” He also said that he would, in theory, open in Shoreditch, given the right site — “as much as I might seem like part of the establishment.”
He also emphasised the restaurant, its space and social importance, over recent delivery innovations: “It’s crap: limp chips and a flaccid burger.” The specialness of going out in an economic downturn creates an impulse to seek out special value for money rooted in clarity and confidence — “linen napkins, and nice cutlery” — not prompted by deals and discounts. “When I see special offers in a newspaper, I say, ‘that’s not a restaurant I’m going to go to.’”
Linton concluded by reflecting on the disparity between decisions and consequences: “ministers are incredibly ignorant about what it’s like to be on the ground floor.” She also, said, however, “that there will always be something people will come her for,” even if on restricted two-year visas akin to those currently in place for Australia and New Zealand. King, meanwhile, maintained that, while people — at least some people — would be able to “heal,” “people sometimes need comeuppances.” His hope is that Brexit won’t be one of them.