After lockdown 2.0 and four weeks of enforced closure, restaurants in London can today reopen their dining rooms. They do so with a now-familiar feeling of nervousness, against the backdrop of profound uncertainty.
News today that the U.K. becomes the first country in the world to approve a vaccine against COVID-19 comes the day after the restaurant industry’s principal trade body warned that urgent government support packages were necessary to “stave off the collapse of the third largest [U.K. industry...] — a sector vital to our economic recovery.”
The reality is this: restaurants are reopening ahead of what is ordinarily their busiest period of the year, after the most difficult and uncertain year they have probably ever had — under severe restrictions, at reduced capacity, reliant on outdoor dining in one of the coldest and inclement months. And they were given less than a week to make preparations for the latest set of restrictions.
Restaurants nonetheless approach the period with a degree of accumulated resilience, aware that they’ve come this far, and that if they can get through the winter to next spring then that will probably qualify as survival.
But there are issues that are out of business-owners’ control; the most important of which, in the short-term, is the issue of rent. Unless the government extends legislation to protect against evictions on 1 January, in the words of UK Hospitality chief executive Kate Nicholls yesterday, there will be “a blood bath on the high streets.”
A month is a long time in 2020. Here’s what restaurant owners and chefs across the city are thinking at the start of this, the latest, and the last, of 2020.
The below interviews have been edited for clarity.
How would you sum up business during the last month of lockdown?
Andrew Wong, A. WONG: “ZERO — with lots of expenses.”
Normah Abd Hamid, Normah’s, Queensway: “It was terrible, we made 80 percent less than our average sales.”
Daniel Morgenthau, Woodhead Restaurants and Quality Chop Shop: “The first two weeks of lockdown were busy and felt similar in many respects to the first lockdown — a significant uplift in both our store and online trade and a large shift towards national deliveries. But the last two weeks have been quieter - perhaps unsurprising given the imminent reopening of the restaurants.”
When and how you are planning to reopen?
Gabe Pryce, Rita’s, Soho: “We’ll be opening our “pop up in our own shop” Bodega Rita’s Christmas store on the 5th and will be selling beautiful wines, bubbles, deli items, hampers, Ozone coffee and more up until the 25th.”
NAH: “For December and January we are open as usual, but we are focusing more on catering for our regular customers for Christmas celebrations.”
Were you preparing for tier 2?
AW: “YES, which is why we made a renovation to our outside dining area.”
Louis Wainwright-Vale, Element Coffee, Ealing: “Thankfully we’ve been able to move seamlessly from tier to lockdown to tier thanks to our takeaway and pre order service. It will be wonderful to have staff back though as I’ve been doing a lot of the shifts with help from my mum, who is great on the till but unfortunately not a skilled barista.”
DM: “We’re not particularly good at second guessing the government! We didn’t see this lockdown coming and given the lack of transparency with their decision making and lack of adequate warning to impacted sectors we were fearful that London would go into Tier 3. Needless to say we are relieved that we are able to go back to doing what we love most… albeit with some uncertainty as to for how long and whether we’ll find ourselves having to temporarily close our doors again in the New Year.”
What’s your view on the “business meeting” clause in the guidance? Rather, how generously will you be interpreting that?
James Lowe, Lyle’s / ASAP Pizza, Shoreditch / Borough: “People have approached this with too much optimism. In my view, it’s very clear that you can’t serve food for a large table “business meeting”, but if people want to try and run with it, good luck to them!”
DM: “In reality restaurants across the country are doing their very best to walk the tightrope of guaranteeing the health and safety of their guests whilst at the same time trying to stay in business.
“We shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that hospitality professionals are not public health professionals. And yet they are being asked to enforce these types of rules. Our view is that it isn’t the role of our team to police the content of our guest’s conversations or make judgements on how a table of guests may be related — that goes against the grain of hospitality! So where possible we are doing everything we can to clarify the rules at the point reservation and confirmation and thus to alleviate the team of this burden.”
L W-V: “The government guidance has been utterly surreal from day one. There’s so many unanswered questions and easily exploitable loopholes. I feel that businesses are now going to interpret the rules how they want in order to survive.
“We don’t have to deal with the complications of that clause in particular, but it’s been nothing but conflicted and confusing drivel from the government with regards to lockdown and the tier systems.”
JD: “It is not for restaurants to interpret. We can not be the police. It is up to the customers to regulate themselves — this is what our Prime Minister has guided us towards.”
GP: “There seems to always be one or two clauses that are open to interpretation. It might be there to help businesses, it might be there to help those that notice that the rules can be interpreted. It’s definitely there as another reminder that this government’s main focus has never been clarity. A clear message, a clear plan, a clear response, I haven’t seen a single one.”
What else will you be doing to mitigate lost revenue, if that’s what you’re forecasting in the run-up to Christmas?
AW: “We will only be open for 2 weeks effectively until we close for xmas, why didn’twe extend the opening season to extend through xmas and new year? because with longer plans, I’m looking at the 2021 and beyond, if the team don’t get to atlas end this disaster of a year with a lovely xmas with their loved ones, 2021 will be a LONG LONG year, and one that will start off on the wrong note, if they are not feeling the love!
“Our lease at A.WONG will end in a few years, and I promised my wife Nathalie that we would go ALL OUT until that day comes at which point we will re evaluate our lives. The aim is to create and achieve all the things on our list before that day comes! Nothing lasts forever and m a strong believer in making the most of the finite opportunities that we have!”
JL: “The teams are running very tight. The team is 60 percent of what it was at the same time last year. We’re just hoping for a busy few weeks and then I’ve decided to close for everyone’s mental health! I am worried about the possibility of the whole team working for six months straight, albeit on less hours, without a break. So although I think there’s a good opportunity this year for successful trading, I’d rather let people have proper time off to reboot.”
NAH: “We don’t have outdoor seating. In normal circumstances December is the month where we usually make the biggest sales of the year. Still, this year we are concentrating on small catering events for our regular customers. We have secured numbers of orders, but still, the number does not match our regular income.”
What’s the outlook for 2021 at this stage: there’s a huge amount of uncertainty still of course, but have you been able to plan for Q1 at all yet?
JL: “I’m expecting tighter restrictions on London at some point, if it doesn’t happen straight away. I am currently working on the menu for January, both in the restaurant and for the new Meal Box choices.”
JD: “2021 is still play by ear. With the Winter Scheme for Soho Al Fresco there is hope for extending this to April which could be great for Soho. And likewise in the City we have a large extended terrace so very hopeful. Not doing forecasts — that would be crazy...”
It seems that one of the major contributing factors to the ongoing uncertainty is the fact that there’s still no real solution on rent. The lease forfeiture moratorium is due to expire at the end of the year. What do you expect is going to happen with rent?
AW: “I think the important thing to remember is that NO ONE will win from this year: restaurants, landlords, developers, restaurant groups? Everyone is losing. I understand that some landlords have their own loans that they need to honour.
“The line that I try to take with our landlord is that: I don’t want you to go bankrupt, at the same time, we need to make decisions that allow our restaurant to continue trading into 2021, so the important thing is find a balance and fairness! This will sound strange but, I think that the biggest issue with the relationships between landlords and restaurants over the past 30 years (since my grandfather’s day in Chinatown) is that it really isn’t about ‘balance and fairness’ anymore...obviously a much larger conversation.”
Trevor Gulliver, co-owner St. John Restaurants: “The answer is that I do not know. Let’s see what the lobbyists can achieve before the year end or (with a more cynical view) if the government feels it is safe to turn their back once more. As a national issue you would hope that the noises made by landlords and their representative bodies would turn into positive action. It’s very much their call: rent paid monthly, no more upward only reviews, stepped turnover rents, sensible break clauses, covenant issues addressed, landlord investment in the operator and so on. How great would it be if one of the big estate owners actually did step forward!
“So far it’s been all talking shop as individual property concerns scramble for the higher ground but, granted, every sector (well not amazon, ‘er the supermarket chains, ‘er jigsaw makers, er…. etc.) has suffered and that should be understood, the pain is everywhere and the dangers real.
“There are some good and sensible things that could be finally introduced but I’m reluctant to say more, it’s part of a bigger social issue, the part that connects good farmers, real jobs in the community, education, the environment, quality of life, fair opportunity, culture across boundaries and more.”
NAH: “I’ve been doing a lot of analysing and thinking, besides rent, other real concern is delivery charges. When government-imposed lockdown number two, we were only allowed to trade by doing takeaway and delivery only. But the costs that been imposed by delivery services is around 30 percent. We don’t want to increase our price on delivery too much but if we don’t it will affect our margin. On top of this, we are offering discount to customer if they do collection.”
DM: “Support aside, the biggest problem for the sector has been the lack of clarity and communication from the government. We were given less than a week to prepare for what is traditionally our busiest month of the year and even then there was confusion as to what day we could actually open! And more pertinently there’s no transparency on the metrics by which tier systems are determined. So we need clarity and forewarning.
“Beyond this they need to address the structural problems that meant that many good hospitality businesses were struggling to be profitable even before the start of the pandemic: an outdated rental system that’s inherently tilted in favour of the landlord and business rates that only serve to diminish the sustainability of our city centres and high streets.”
GP: “I think landlords are going to have a choice. Be realistic and work out helpful solutions, or kick out tenants, close businesses, get in chains, make it less desirable and in the long run turn the property they own and its surrounding area into a turd. They could well lose the thing that makes the centres of our cities so valuable.”
On the matter of support. On top of furlough, what do you hope (and expect) the government will now do for the restaurant industry?
JL: “As depressing as it is, I don’t see why they would see the need to do more, even though they should. Changing the decision to exclude Tronc in consideration of the hospitality industry’s earnings would be great. The leading mainstream voices in the hospitality industry have been far too gracious in their responses to government ideas which has also been frustrating to see.”
L W-V: “Beyond furlough, which I expect to be tapered off as soon as the vaccine is rolled out, I have little hope that the government will offer any support to restaurants. They will pursue their traditional socially Darwinian approach and only the toughest and luckiest small businesses will survive.”
GP: “Employee support is vital, it’s so important, this is a people business, and if you run your business properly your team is everything. But VAT relief, rent support, these are the things that will help make sure there’s a business for your team to come back to.”
What word best sums up how you’re feeling about the future right now?
L W-V: “Determined.”
TG: “We are in a battle with a way to go yet, steel yourself on your mettle and… onward!”