Restaurateur Jeremy King, co-owner of landmark London restaurants like The Wolseley, The Delaunay, and Brasserie Zedel, which all closed seven weeks ago, has used his Corbin and King newsletter to lament the exclusion of service charge payments from the government’s furlough scheme, and offer that a restaurant future which has to adhere to strict social distancing is both impossible and implausible, particularly for vast, busy restaurants like those in the Corbin and King portfolio. King also admits that he does not know when the restaurants might reopen, but that takeaway versions of part-prepared dishes was under consideration.
“What are your plans for reopening?” King says he was recently asked. “Do you know how to make God laugh?... Tell him your plans!” was his reply.
Looking to the future, King said that he did not know how the restaurants would reopen, having “heard every possible suggestion as to how all this ends,” but said frankly that he knew for sure “that when we do return, social distancing in a restaurant is impossible and implausible.” He elaborated on the personal and practical reasons why he did not believe restaurants and social distancing were compatible.
I think that people are beginning to realise that. Chris and I always had as our guiding light the premise that we opened restaurants we would like to go to. I am afraid I certainly have no interest in going to a place where I am sitting in isolation, surrounded by Perspex screens and served by someone in a mask and gloves — where’s the fun in that? Restaurants are generally social hubs which depend on the conviviality of community and we need to understand this…
King did however point to some positivity in recent polls — which found that a majority of people would be disinclined to visit or uncomfortable visiting restaurants once they reopened. “Many say that people will be scared to go to restaurants but from everything I hear that is not the case for all,” he said. “Indeed, whilst the YouGov poll last week said that 57 percent of those asked would be apprehensive about going to a restaurant, what I took from that is 43 percent would be happy to — and that can only grow over the next month or two until we get to the point we can contemplate reopening.”
He also said that restaurant owners in Britain would be fortunate in that they will be able to “learn from the experiences of fellow restaurateurs in China, Hong Kong, the USA, Germany,” countries which are setting templates for the emergence from lockdown.
On Corbin and King’s employees, King said that the hope and optimism which greeted the initial announcement of the government’s furlough scheme faded as details of what it meant in practice became clear. “Hearing that there would be a Job Retention Scheme filled us with hope because it better enabled us to hold onto staff,” he said. “However as the reality of the scheme emerged our positivity dissipated with the news that we couldn’t include the service charge pool (tronc) in the payment calculations.” He called it an “extraordinarily discriminatory ruling” noting inconsistencies in the rationale and “despite the fact PAYE has been paid on all received money and that other professions would be able to include variable earnings.”
Like others in the industry who were dismayed by the exclusion of substantial tronc earnings from the furlough scheme, he noted that that instead of staff getting 80 percent of earnings (or less if over £2500 per month) “it means that they will be getting more like 40 percent and that’s just not enough to pay rent and provide — especially if supporting a family.” He said the restaurants “have been supplementing the staff where we can and are fighting this through every channel and with TV appearances hopefully the message will get across.” King noted that the company had other potential ideas but that nevertheless it was “going to be a very hard month of uncertainty and penury for many of our staff.” And ultimately, while some companies are being forced to make large swathes of their workforce redundant in preparation for an unknown future, he said that was “thankfully something we have avoided so far.”
King wanted to make it clear that he was “not advocating a premature return to restaurant trading,” but that restaurateurs must be prudent. “There will come a point where we weigh up the pros and cons of the direct threat against the latent damage in other ways — including health,” he said.
“But we are not sitting idly,” he conceded, indicating what the group’s restaurants might do before reopening is permitted. The group’s decision to pursue takeaway food will depend on the ending or extension of the furlough scheme, he said. And while they are not planning to do it yet, if and when they do, it will “probably not [be] in the ‘Ready to Eat’ guise — but maybe part-prepared…” As well as what happens to furlough, it will also depend on “what sort of customer demand there is for some of our most popular dishes to be delivered to home,” King concluded.