London’s pre-eminent Japanese udon noodle specialist, Koya, will reopen its two restaurants for the first time in four months, with the help of a new outdoor dining scheme in Soho and the decision to offer takeaway and delivery for the first time.
Both closed on 19 March, the day before the government mandated the closure of non-essential businesses as a result of COVID-19, which included hospitality businesses that did not offer takeaway or delivery. The premises in Soho will reopen on Wednesday 29 July, two days after the site inside the Bloomberg Arcade in the City on Monday next week.
For at least two weeks, both restaurants, overseen by co-owner and head chef Shuko Oda, and heavy on intimate counter seating (the Soho site has no additional tables) will remain closed for customers dining inside. The City restaurant will use its outside terrace, while the original restaurant will spill out onto a pedestrianised Frith Street, permitted under the new outdoor dining scheme launched three weeks ago in Soho; guests will only be allowed to enter to use the toilets. Neither restaurant will take reservations, but the Soho restaurant will use the WalkUp app, which staggers arrival times. Seating at Koya City will be on first-come, first-served basis and will not operate table service.
All staff will wear face coverings when the restaurants return. Oda said that while the situation was subject to change, she felt staff safety was a priority and that they as employers were obliged to cut through the vagaries in the government guidance. “We wanted to make sure that even if it was only one member of staff who wanted to wear a mask, it shouldn’t be up to them to ask others,” she said. Other measures include temperature checks each day, the provision of new uniforms before each shift, and a bell that will ring on the half hour to remind staff to wash their hands.
Co-owner John Devitt added that “staff have to be protected” and that a phased reopening would see the return of all staff — everyone of which had been furloughed — on reduced hours, initially. The government’s flexible furlough programme, in place from August, would be used to top-up the wages of those employees to bring their payments in-line with pre-lockdown levels.
Devitt said that the closure period had been “really lonely,” and that after four months of “talking to banks and lawyers” — keeping a business afloat in a crisis, instead of running a restaurant — it would be “wonderful to have all the professionals back at work.”
While other restaurants have reopened since they were permitted to have guests in their dining rooms from the 4 July, Devitt said that Koya had waited a little longer — partly because of the ability of the furlough scheme to offer a degree of security to the employees — but also because of the suspension of business rates until next year and landlords who he described as having been “very supportive.” It had been easy to stay still and not rush to reopen when the business had “zero costs,” he added. At the City restaurant, inside the Bloomberg Arcade owned by the billionaire media magnate Michael Bloomberg, free rent has been offered until the end of the year. Office workers are not expected to return to the City in significant numbers until September at the earliest, but Devitt believes there will be enough customers to make Koya viable even if only 50 percent of offices reopen.
In Soho, landlord Shaftesbury PLC — whose estate includes a significant number of properties across Chinatown, Seven Dials, and Fitzrovia — have offered a 50 percent rent reduction for the period in which restaurants were closed, until the end of September.
That arrangement does not work for many restaurants — when a business is closed, it earns zero percent of its rent, so 50 percent of rent may still be 100 percent of money it does not have. But for Koya, the fact that no demand for rent was made either for the March quarter or the June quarter was satisfactory. While rent for those six months has not been cancelled, Devitt said that an agreement between Koya and Shaftesbury, which has said it would agree “tailored solutions” with tenants, had been reached — the rent deposit, outlaid at the beginning of the lease, could be taken and used to cover sums owed. (A new deposit would not be required at a later date.)
Reopening in Soho so soon after the Bloomberg Arcade was not something Devitt nor Oda imagined in recent weeks. Social distancing inside the 25-cover restaurant is not viable, but the ability to trade outside on Frith Street had hastened its return. The scheme, conceived by landlords and Westminster council, has transformed Soho into an area of al fresco eating and drinking over the last fortnight. “It seems to be working spectacularly,” Devitt observed. He remains optimistic about the reliability of the weather.
Through reopening, Koya will bolster its business by offering both click-and-collect and delivery for the first time. The company has partnered with Deliveroo, the juggernaut whose limitations and high commissions have drawn complaints from a number of operators during lockdown, because they “best fit” the Koya operation, Devitt said. The strength and popularity of Oda’s food and the wider brand had also lent them a good negotiating hand, with Devitt adding that the commissions were “competitive as they have been wanting us on their platform for over five years.”
Both restaurants will initially return with a slightly shortened menu, and for the reopening, both menus will be the same, whereas before the two restaurants offered different dishes. The udon menu will be tightened, but still offer “something for everyone”, Oda hoped. Koya’s “specials” blackboard is regularly home to some of the city’s best and most inventive cooking. Among those specials, on a menu that also needs to work for delivery, will be pork tonkatsu, chicken kara-age and pickles, as well as salads and tempura dishes with ingredients from Namayasai farm. Oda, who has long used the East Sussex specialist supplier at the restaurant, said she’d enjoyed receiving its weekly vegetable box through lockdown. A period in which she said she’d appreciated cooking more for her young children, noting how one had developed a liking of Namayasai’s daikon and warabi. Elsewhere, Oda pointed to an expanded donburi selection on the reopening menu which had been designed since rice dishes “travel really well.” The chef also said she’d played around with the idea of Koya at Home meal kits and returned to the idea of writing a Koya cookbook as something which would be “nice to do in the future.”
Before that, Koya’s owners are busy enough with the immediate pivot. “It’s a whole new operation in a way,” Oda said. And when asked whether he feared the possibility either of a second-wave of the virus and/or another lockdown, Devitt said he “hopes never to close again” but that the crisis had necessitated a new dynamism to the business. “We have to be as resilient and flexible as possible,” he said.
That adaptability extends to the expansion of the restaurant group, with the duo actively searching for a third site, in a residential neighbourhood. With Devitt recognising that through lockdown it has been in local communities that there’s been a “groundswell of change,” Koya’s future, like the long-term future of dining in London more broadly, could fundamentally rest not just outside, but outside of the city centre itself.