On Wednesday 16 December, just over nine months since London restaurants were first ordered by the government to close their dining rooms, Mitshel Ibrahim closed the doors of Ombra, the 60-cover trattoria he’s run for the last three and a half years above the Regent’s Canal in Hackney, for 2020. In a year that has included two national lockdowns and a third London lockdown in all but name, it never before occurred to this chef and restaurateur to actually stop. Instead, Ibrahim has spent the year identifying new opportunities to grow his small Italian restaurant business. Extending its opening hours, employing more people, serving hundreds of new diners, and broadening its appeal to an expanded local community, Ombra has cemented itself as London’s “pandemic restaurant.” And in spite of unimaginable uncertainty, 2020 ends as the best year the restaurant has ever had — by some distance. “The best thing that could have happened to Ombra was this virus,” Ibrahim said last week.
Over the course of the last six months, Eater has spoken to Ibrahim on several occasions, charting the impact of lockdowns, mandated closure, reopening, pivots, adaptations, and government initiatives. Each month since March has required the chef and his team to react to either changing policy or changing consumer behaviour. This was the year they made theirs.
On 18 March, Ombra became a pastificio, offering fresh ribbons of tagliatelli, twists of trofie, and chubby tubes of rigatoni for collection each day. The government’s mandated closure of all non-essential businesses had been issued with a caveat: food shops could stay open and restaurants could offer takeaway. In the weeks that followed, staff at Ombra would upload a weekly changing list of provisions to an online Notion portal — fresh yeast, flour, wine, tins of tuna, and in-season Italian fruit and vegetables — which could be pre-ordered for collection or delivery via WhatsApp, paid upfront through iZettle. As the situation in the capital changed, and government messaging evolved, so too did Ombra: meal kits and local picnic deliveries followed. While lockdown eased, the sun came out and stayed out, and Londoners, after months at home, agitated to get out, Ombra never stopped adapting. Four long months before restaurant dining rooms reopened in July would come to define a game-changing year for the business.
“It was the most obvious thing to do — sell the things we were making already,” Ibrahim told Eater at the restaurant in August. He had a friend who turned around labels quickly; all the restaurant needed was packaging, which it got. Then began a period in which Ibrahim would start anticipating needs or identifying customer wants. “There was talk of a flour shortage, so we started selling flour, because we had lots and had a supply,” he remembers. Yeast, as well. “We didn’t necessarily make money [from it],” he said, to emphasise that it was more important then for the restaurant to quickly insert itself into people’s daily lives, and the wider community ecosystem.
During those early days, it was an unusual time for Ibrahim personally — it is not normal for a chef to have every evening off work, especially when starting at 9.30 a.m. or 10. “It was not hard physically,” he said. “But mentally — [having to] keep adapting, adjusting — it was harder.” He also recalls the exhaustion of uncertainty: not knowing how customers would respond to a new offering or idea, or seeing a flood of interest one week; and complete apathy the next. “It was very draining.”
But it was successful. In the early days of the pandemic Ibrahim and Ombra managed to harness a particular demographic’s newfound enthusiasm for home cooking. The kind of people whose disposable incomes would ordinarily be spent in the non-essential businesses that had suddenly just closed. It meant that “a lot” of new customers used the restaurant as a shop or takeaway during March and April. Ibrahim remembers those early months as “very exciting — coming up with new things [like jarred sauces] and improving [existing products.]”
The first sign of the long and uncertain journey through the year would come when Ibrahim saw a 40 percent sales drop in the first week of May. Ombra’s customers weren’t at home, because they were in the park under the sun — after the government’s COVID-19 messaging pivoted from “stay at home” to “stay alert.” Within days, the team was preparing picnic boxes — cold beers, salumi, cheese, olives, chunks of focaccia — and bike-delivering them to the three major local parks: London Fields, Victoria, and Mile End. Announcements were made on Instagram, while orders were placed through WhatsApp. Customers simply sent the restaurant a pin for their location.
By June, “usually a good month” for Ombra, things had gotten “quite shit,” Ibrahim recalled. “People were bored of [the whole Covid situation] and a lot of places had reopened [for takeaway.]” But by the end of that month, after over three months of closure, restaurants were told that they could reopen the following week. Some would wait a while, with the cushion of furlough and a fresh extension to rent debt protections; others, like Ibrahim, were chomping at the bit. A disappointing June could thus be written-off: “We took a break, prepared for reopening, and gathered our energy,” he said.
On 4 July, the earliest permitted date, Ombra reopened its dining room for customers. It was at this point that things really changed for Ibrahim and his staff: the restaurant was on the verge of its busiest ever period.
Although the government’s August ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ scheme did not immediately seem like an obvious thing in which to participate — such were its inherent associations with chain restaurant discounts — Ibrahim, like many independent London restaurants, reasoned that there was little to lose by signing up. It was an unqualified success for Ombra, which pre-pandemic would regard 40 covers on a Tuesday or Wednesday, not typical, but “a good day,” Ibrahim said. In August, because of the terms of the scheme covering the first three days of the week, the restaurant opened on Mondays for the first time. Covers were registering so much higher than normal — in the sixties and seventies in the early days of the week — to the extent that Ibrahim gave himself Friday and Saturday off, inverting the conventional order of a head chef’s working week. On the final day of the scheme, Monday 31 August, the restaurant served a record 150 covers; a 60, 90 lunch, dinner split. “That’s a lot for us,” Ibrahim said.
Elsewhere, there was growth and development too. Over the course of the pandemic, Ombra’s Instagram followers have increased by almost 2,000, (or 25 percent), while in the summer, after reopening, reservations made through the Resy booking platform were 80 percent new customers. There was even a cash surplus to invest in refurbishing the decking on the restaurant’s 40-cover terrace — a space that would be as important in the cooler autumn and winter months as it was in July and August.
But Ombra’s summer success was not just a result of ‘Eat Out to Help Out’. While it served to bring in new faces incentivised by the discount — to the extent that extending Ombra’s self-financed version of the scheme to keep the momentum was a “no-brainer” — treating its success as one long, hot summer ignores the foundations laid in March and July.
“It’s quite hard to pinpoint [the reasons for] our success,” Ibrahim said. “It’s a combination of [‘Eat Out to Help Out’] and our work during lockdown.” To illustrate the multifarious reasons for that success, a period when customer confidence in restaurant settings was far beneath what it would become in August, in the immediate aftermath of permitted reopening is instructive. In the month of July, too, “we’d never been as busy,” Ibrahim explained.
The common narrative for restaurants across the world this year has been quite simple: COVID-19 is extremely bad news. Lockdown, closure, threats to employee safety, fewer customers, job cuts, unfamiliar and profound uncertainty. True, there have been parallel stories of restaurants and food businesses whose place outside of the “restaurant industry”-complex ill-afforded them the option of closure; those for whom the pandemic has not been about success or failure, but business as usual. But Ombra’s story — on various occasions, a candid Ibrahim has said “we’ve never been busier,” “we’ve never made as much money,” and “it’s been the best year we’ve ever had, 100 percent” — is both remarkable and anomalous.
For Ombra, graft, savvy, and situation aligned at a time when others were winded, panicked, or angry by the sudden nature of mandated closure. During the first lockdown (and later, the second), Ibrahim tried hard to channel his and his team’s energy into innovating and adapting; not spending it on anger or frustration. It was what it was, he reasoned; there were people worse off than he. “Some people seem angry at the government,” he said on the eve of lockdown in November. “We’re new to this — and the best way to use our energy was not to be negative.”
Ibrahim looks and acts like a leader, but he was keen to credit the work of his team throughout the first few months of the pandemic: Massi Gregori, the general manager; Francesca dal Maso, who managed the ordering and delivery programme during lockdown. “It’s a very good team,” Ibrahim said in August. “We’re aware of the uncertainty ahead, so we’re working seven days a week. Who knows if there’ll be another lockdown.”
The buoyant return to what felt like normality-at-two-metres soon gave way to the predicted second-wave. A 10 p.m. curfew and a new tier system, which in London, restricted indoor dining to single households had been introduced in September and October, respectively. Both had hurt restaurants’ ability to trade as they had in the summer with those heady days later linked to a “significant” rise in COVID-19 cases. Despite the government repeatedly pledging its opposition to a nationwide approach, by the end of October, it imposed a second national lockdown in England. From 5 November, restaurant dining rooms again had to close.
Ombra had only been open for one day when Prime Minister Boris Johnson returned to the lectern on a Saturday evening, having imposed its own “critical break” on 18 October after the track and trace app notified a member of staff that a contact had tested positive for COVID-19. “Ombra needs to self isolate,” the restaurant announced on Instagram.
“A lot of people respected our transparency,” Ibrahim said. “It wasn’t a gamble, because there was no precedent but I was worried that people would be put off coming to the restaurant.”
Like so many other decisions Ibrahim has made during the course of this year, it paid off. The confidence and self-assurance that guided Ombra’s pandemic trajectory didn’t just give Ibrahim a platform to respond to profound uncertainty. It gave customers belief too — not just in the quality of the food but the integrity of the restaurant — which kept its existing customer base coming and persuaded a new market to come along for the ride.
“We had so many bookings — I wish we’d had another week to ride the wave before closing,” an accepting but exasperated Ibrahim said at the time.
The subsequent November lockdown was a totally different story to the one foisted upon the country in March. In late October, in a phone call, Ibrahim had predicted “more competition” and less enthusiasm from the customer. “Lockdown one reminded me of parents giving [their kids] an allowance — easy money, sitting at home. Now, people are being more cautious. There was a distinction in the mood of the lockdowns,” he said two days before the measures came into force.
He was right. Many others reported a similarly apathetic public. But the main difference for Ombra was that people didn’t want ingredients to cook at home; they wanted dishes to assemble or finish instead. Lockdown 2.0 saw the meal kit phenomenon take off, and Ibrahim noted a greater willingness to eat “on the street” or when working from home. He swiftly introduced a daily changing pasta with the option of two sauces, but regretted only getting Ombra’s full online shop up and running half way through November. Once it launched, he said it had been “very busy” but that it’d “been a bit late.”
Despite repeated interruptions to business, Ombra managed never to break the relationship with its customer — the dining room was closed but the restaurant never went away; there was no time for anyone into food and wine in east London or on Instagram to forget about Ombra. And so, December was like July: As soon as Londoners were allowed back into dining rooms, the restaurant and its terrace were packed (with two-metre spacing). “People are spending money like there is no tmrw, just mad [busy],” Ibrahim wrote in a text on Monday 7 December. “Not as good as aug / sept as we are missing the whole afternoon/early dinner drinking crowd. But ye we doing unseen numbers for december.
“And i think covid/lockdown is the best thing that ever happened to ombra.”
To understand Ombra and its pandemic story, the restaurant’s new tongue-in-cheek strapline “Hackney’s favourite pastificio since 18th March 2020,” is a useful place to start. Like its Instagram strap, “your 4th favourite italian restaurant,” part of its charm is that it does not take itself especially seriously, even if it takes food much more seriously than many realised before March.
Its success certainly feels earned. Two years before the pandemic, Ombra was at the centre of a social media row about a Parmesan surcharge, which served eventually to raise its profile but at the time felt to Ibrahim like an injustice. It was then that the chef was forced to explain that his kitchen was ordering ingredients from the same places as cult-followed and Michelin-starred restaurants across the city; that he had worked in a raft of London’s best kitchens. Ombra wasn’t afforded the respect Ibrahim felt it deserved.
When discussing the reputation the restaurant had earned during lockdown, in August, the chef said: “I think what I meant [in 2017] was I don’t think that if any other ‘respectable’ restaurant [like Brawn or Bright] would have done what we did then it would have never become the thing that it became. Us being nobodys gave [the blogger] fertile ground to... bully…I’m a non-white who grew up in Italy in the 90s so like I’m used to bullying. So it wasn’t happening.”
“People that had never heard of us now have [...] I don’t think we reinvented the wheel but we were fast reacting and adjusting — has gained us a certain respect in and outside the food world,” he thought. More recently, Ibrahim reflected: “We grabbed the situation by the head.”
So after nine long months, Ombra is having a break. This time, with London suddenly placed under the strictest coronavirus restrictions on 14 December, it felt different. “We’re a little bummed out,” Ibrahim said on the phone in mid-December. “I knew we were going to close, but at such short notice...it feels like [the government is] taking the piss. It feels a bit unfair.” The restaurant will be fully closed, with a much reduced online offer, over the holiday period.
And yet, after the small celebratory Christmas market, which brought together a number of Ombra’s corona-time collaborators on Sunday 20 December, Ibrahim has one final plan for 2020. For New Year’s Eve, Ombra will sell a one-off cook-at-home feast. “In Italy, it’s a big meal, bigger than Christmas; we stay up, eating ‘til midnight,” he explained. Although he’s yet to confirm the menu, he says that lentils and cotechino are typically eaten as the clock strikes on a new year.
“It’s meant to bring you luck,” he says, laughing. “Italians are very superstitious.”