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Reopening Cannot Mask the Multitude of Issues Faced By Restaurants

With central London still a “ghost town” and no solution on rent, restaurants’ ability to reopen can’t gloss over uncertainty ahead

Fergus Henderson (glasses) and Trevor Gulliver at Cafe Di Stasio on 29th August,
St. John owners Trevor Gulliver and Fergus Henderson
Fairfax Media via Getty Images

A group of high-profile London chefs and restaurateurs have written an open letter warning that restaurants having the ability to reopen this Saturday, 4 July does not disguise the multitude of problems faced by businesses across the capital. It calls for London-specific “support and action now.”

The letter which is signed by St. John owners Fergus Henderson and Trevor Gulliver, as well as Angela Hartnett, chef-owner of the Michelin-starred Mayfair Italian restaurant Murano, Geoff Leong of Chinatown institution Leong’s Legend, the Galvin brothers, and critic Tom Parker Bowles, says that “July 4th is no silver bullet for London Town, hidden by scenes of mobbed urban parks and commons and the crazy seaside on our screens.”

“The centre of London remains a ghost town,” the letter continues, outlining the particular issues many restaurants in the centre of the city face over the coming months. Theatres are likely to remain closed until next year, with restrictions on cinemas and visitor attractions; sport events will remain unattended; there will be no public gatherings or concerts; hotels have been closed and are expecting a torrid recovery. Even future plans for the reopening of tourism — compounded by the government’s two-week quarantine policy — add to a sense of uncertainty.

With many employees working from home and the expectation that some offices will not return to capacity until the autumn at the earliest, next year at the latest, the letter says that July is already a write-off and August trading is “looking dire.” The City of London, which has undergone a restaurant renaissance in recent years, is, the letter points out, “a ghost town with Fridays, once buzzing, particularly now empty, with many restaurants not reopening yet.” Chinatown has its “particular problems,” — an area of London which was among the earliest to suffer, for reasons of prejudice, from the novel coronavirus crisis, and whose restaurants are now expected to pay 50 percent rent (dating back to April), having, in most cases, been unable to trade at all.

The letter also reserves dissatisfaction for the decision to increase and extend the central London congestion charge for cars coming in and out of the city. It also points out that the London transport system “cannot deliver people to the workplace and there is a general unease in the public mind about dining out and coming into London generally.”

It says that while initial government support — such as the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme — “was most welcome, for those able to access it,” those support programmes are set to taper off, while the big issue of rent has “not gone away” and staff redundancies loom. Restaurant tenants are still obliged to reach individual agreements with landlords, while because of reduced capacity in almost all cases, employers are imagining new business models or trading forecasts based on fewer members of staff. No one yet knows what consumer demand is going to look like after nearly four months of closure and national lockdown.

The letter ends with a call for Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Mayor of London Sadiq Khan “to sort out their differences” and to come together to provide businesses with “specific support and action now.”

St. John

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