At the midway point of lockdown 2.0, and with a fortnight left until restaurants may be able to reopen, Eater London checked in with chefs and restaurateurs across the city who have been forced to close, pivot, and await clarification on what happens next.
News of England’s second national lockdown at the end of October might have been a little less shocking, but it’s been no less disruptive for businesses already contending with unprecedented challenges. Restaurants, by and large, have been hit hard by the COVID-19 crisis, with fewer staff and reduced trade now the norm. Chefs and business owners have had to frequently adapt — introducing takeaway, meal kits, and provisions, while at the same time lowering expectations and preparing for the next surprise.
Takings, for the past two weeks, have been down as those in the city are faced with more choice than they were in March. On the cusp of winter, before Christmas and a new year of new surprises, restaurants are in survival mode. And they can only guess what comes next.
Here’s where they’re at, what they’re doing, and where they think they might go.
The below interviews have been edited for clarity.
How have the last two weeks been?
Adejoké Bakare, Chishuru, Brixton: “We’ve just battened down the hatches praying we will reopen on the 3/12.”
Daniel Morgenthau, Woodhead Restaurants and Quality Chop Shop: “During the first lockdown it felt like many of our guests were turning their hands to cooking and baking. We were selling flour straight from the van as it was being delivered. Many of our guests found themselves with time on their hands and were looking to fill it as creatively as possible. But we don’t get the impression that the pace of people’s lives has really changed this time around. What we are seeing is people looking for ready prepared comforting dishes instead. Cottage pies, steak and ale pies, fish pies. Pies… lots of pies!”
Jeremy King, Corbin and King: “We have been steadily building and developing the ‘Home Dining’ aspect which have been really well received. I am not a fan of delivery. However Bellanger, Soutine, and Fischer’s are all doing takeaway for collection — including Wolseley cocktails!”
How is business: above or below expectations; above or below what you need it to be?
Missy Flynn, Rita’s, Soho: “We aren’t really trading, we sat out the last few months because we didn’t have a site to operate really and we’ve been in deep planning phase but now we are going live with online sales this week and ready to open a stripped back deli / wine offering in our soho space if the lockdown restrictions are lifted on 2nd. We’re nowhere near where we need to be and honestly, we need a bit of a push online to get us over the line and into 2021, but who doesn’t.”
DM: “Growth of nationwide delivery had probably been the most significant change. We managed to get systems in place for nationwide delivery back in October and the demand from guests outside of London has taken us all by surprise. Currently over 40% of all of our orders are national deliveries.
“The two weeks before closing were (with the exception of a couple of busy days before lockdown began) the quietest we’ve ever experienced. So in some respects this lockdown has come as a bit of a relief and I’m sure that this sentiment is shared by others too.”
What’s selling and what isn’t?
Jeremie Cometto-Lingenheim, Primeur/Westerns Laundry/Jolene/Big Jo: “More people in North London are working from home it seems so all our sandwiches and pizze are doing really well. With schools still open, there are a lot of breakfast items demands as well from 9 — 11 a.m. We sell about 400 loaves a day between the two bakeries and the Westerns Laundry market at the moment.
“Kale is a particular bestseller from Flourish Produce and the Vacherin Mont D’Or from Mons is also selling very well. But really, people are just happy to be in a setting that appears “normal” so you can see customers stray from the more usual items with confidence and venture into more niche/celebratory items like, merchandises, our home made vermouth and negroni mix and a lot of our pickles and chutneys.”
Michelle Salazar de Rocha, Sonora, London Fields: “Our packaged tortillas were selling like crazy, but we’ve had to shelve them again to meet the hot food demand. The big difference for us is most people would normally order a round of tacos, then a quesadilla, then a michelada and another couple tacos type thing, whereas now with takeaway only and queuing etc. people have to fit their orders into the one transaction, which naturally ends up being less.”
AB: We have just used it to hone our processes and doing some R&D; we are trying to collab with a meal kit delivery company at the moment we are still in discussion stage. [Bakare has just launched a Chishuru meal kit, on Dishpatch.]
Normah Abd Hamid, Normah’s, Queensway: “Malaysian food is best eaten in, instead of delivery or takeaway. So it’s not a question of whether I have the agility to make changes or to adapt, it’s a question of whether I am willing to compromise. Like Normah’s curry laksa: even though we separate the noodles and gravy in different containers, I’m not satisfied. It’s very much related to the very reason why I enter this business in the first place. We prefer to do dine-in. We want our customer to feel at home while enjoying the food and at the same time enjoy the atmosphere, like the songs we played, customers chatting at the next table. And myself — if I have time, I will have a chat with the customer: I want them to feel the value of Normah’s.”
There was a lot of talk about restaurants being unable to take more than one lockdown and that the second would be worse than the first. That doesn’t appear to have been the case, from the outside. Is that really what’s going on?
James Lowe, Lyle’s / ASAP Pizza, Shoreditch / Borough: “The current situation IS crippling, I want to be very clear about that. Only a small percentage of people in the restaurant industry are currently being paid their normal salary. No restaurant is turning over anything close to what they turned over at the same time as last year. It’s too early to tell what all the outcomes will be, and when viewed from outside the industry it can seem that all is well. It’s no different from the usual public perception that restaurants are busy and therefore must make loads of money. Just because places are operating now, it doesn’t mean they’re necessarily doing well, an awful lot aren’t, they’re just doing something in the hope of surviving.”
John Devitt, Koya, Soho / The City: “I think it’s way too early to tell. There is still a lot of support from the government, with business rates relief, five percent VAT on food, furlough, and if landlords are supportive, there is hope to get through to spring. There will be lots of debt pilling up which will only really come in to play when rates, VAT relief, and furlough come to an end; coupled with interest and repayments on CBILs becoming liable, and moneys owed to [the tax office] being repaid by the end of March [end of the tax year].
“We have learnt to push the pain down the road for now. If operators have been nimble, kept as close to the black as possible, they will survive. If not, who knows…”
MF: “I believe we have seen some of the most astounding examples of human resilience and determination in the restaurant industry these last few months. I hope everyone is watching. People just acted instinctively and did what they need to do because there is so much at stake. I have to say the extension of furlough until March has been a big help for a lot of people, us included and I think the sheer willingness of people to invest in businesses they like has been a huge part of it. Many have come to know the people behind those businesses more intimately as they see them working alone every day in the space or sharing more about their experience on social. It’s a very direct relationship that is being built and I think that’s great.
“I also think people are freaking out about a city without restaurants. Rightly so. It’d be tragic and I mean that across the board, right from the local independents to some of the swankier places owned by arseholes you might go to once a year.”
Assuming reopening takes place as planned on 2/3 December, what do you predict is going to happen next?
JD: “It is possible, but I do not assume reopening on 2 December. My hope is to never go back into a lockdown again. Unfortunately, I can imagine an extended lockdown 2.0 further into December; then allow travel for Christmas to see family; with vaccines coming in the new year, start the process to unlock. I just don’t want a casual approach to 2 December and another lockdown in the new year. January is normally quiet, but with a quiet Christmas, I’m sure trade would be good and working to be great again in 2021. Predictions are that 2021 will not be as difficult as previously considered. Nobody will want lockdown 3.0 and thus we have to do whatever we can to avoid that...”
JK: “We need confirmation that we are re-opening ten days before the 3rd (assuming it is 3rd because some claim it is 2nd!) and the basis upon which we do. If too restrictive January & February could see the industry forced into redundancies because furlough is still expensive.”
AB: “If the lockdown ends on the 2 December we might be back to the tier system; hopefully we will not have a curfew imposed as well. It is understandable for the government to do but at the same time frustrating for operators. Just like everything else this year Christmas will be unpredictable but we are hoping to be able to weather this until the new year.”
What’s in store for Christmas — and what the hell happens in January?
JC-L: “What usually happens in January, people will stop drinking and start looking after themselves and each other a little better. I hope the stillness of January invites a little introspection and we can all take a deep breath, take a moment to digest 2020 and re invent ourselves as better more resilient selves. 2020 has shown that answers and solutions don’t come from high office and therefore it’s up to us as individuals to build up resilience by eating better produce from healthier soils and build up our own biological defences against future viral attacks. 2021 is very exciting for many reasons, the main one being that it’s no longer 2020.”
JL: “My feeling is that the lockdown will get extended in an effort to reduce the likelihood of restrictions over Christmas. So maybe we’ll be seeing way more ASAP [pizza] at Flor and Lyle’s at the weekends! We are going to be opening reservations for Lyle’s and Flor over the new year for the first time, because I think there will be fewer people leaving the city than usual. I hope that we sell lots of mince pie kits for people to make at home, featuring our special mincemeat, which has this year been made with the meat and fat from a retired Jersey dairy cow.
“I just want to make sure that we’re busy enough to keep paying people, because right now, most people in the industry are nervous about what happens in January.”
NAH: “Christmas is about celebrating and sharing. Like Muslims every year, we celebrate Eid after a month of fasting during Ramadan. We will decorate the house and invite family and close friend to enjoy the food together. This time Christmas won’t be the same, the least we can expect is for everyone to be safe and can move forward. The most worrying thing is people have lost their jobs and some have lost their loves one too. I hope this Christmas Normah’s can contribute something. Like offering a discount and bundle promotion so at least we can create smile for customer.
“January will be hard for everyone, although vaccine has been announced. Still people need to start having a new way of living. May 2021 be a good year for us.”