After lockdown 2.0 and four weeks of enforced closure, restaurants in London reopened their dining rooms on 4 December. 10 days later, and with just 48 hours’ notice, they were told they must close again on 16 December. And close, they did.
That closure means that businesses enter what is normally the busiest week of the year, at the end of this year — this most unpredictable, unsettling, and difficult of years — fixed in a state that has by now become all too familiar: one of profound uncertainty. Restaurants across London are now largely cutting their losses and winding up for 2020, equipped with faint optimism going into a new year that looks no less sure-footed for businesses in desperate need of a clear run at trading.
After a year of compliance, efforts to empathise with difficult decisions, and an indefatigable spirit of innovation, restaurant owners and their teams are tired. Those that have made it this far end the year beleaguered, looking upon the new year in hope, much less with great expectations.
And this story is far from over. If the vaccine and thus the end of the pandemic is “is in sight” for political leaders, it hasn’t yet come into view for restaurants: The spring, and any resumption of normal trading by Easter, is a long way away for an industry with no cushion; an industry that fully expects winter restrictions on the other side of New Year. 2020 as a calendar year may end, but the losses and abject uncertainty that have come to define it look set to continue into the first quarter of 2021.
For the last time this year, Eater London has surveyed a range of chefs and restaurateurs across the capital to get their read of the last month, the current situation, as well as how they feel about the future.
The below interviews have been edited for clarity.
Were you preparing to enter tier three and therefore close again? If so, when were you expecting this?
Clare Smyth, Core: “Absolutely not, we had only just reopened Core for two weeks after the last lockdown. It has cost us a lot of money (that we didn’t have) to open up, decorate the restaurant for Christmas — to then be shut down with such short notice. Seeing the amount of produce wasted, as a result, was heartbreaking. Not to mention what this sudden closure has done to the supply chain.”
James Lowe, Lyle’s, Flor, ASAP Pizza: “I thought it would come in from the 21 December perhaps. I just can’t believe they did it so last minute [...] It’s no exaggeration to say that it’s probably the busiest week for restaurants in the whole year, and certainly this year! So to lose it...well, it’s just really saddening.”
Normah Abd Hamid, Normah’s: “I am not shocked nor surprised with the recent announcement ... to close again. In fact I won’t be surprise if this won’t be for the last time either even with the vaccine coming. So I am not expecting anything until and when I see there is a clear and constructive action plan by the government. And I am not even talking about a ‘perfect plan’.
“We or the world for that matter have been in this situation since March this year, I am sure some short, medium and long term thought should have been in place so that the public / business can make their own plan along those lines. We cannot be in this period of uncertainty for too long. Because by now we have embraced the idea of the new normal in every expect of our everyday life.”
Jeremy King, Corbin and King: “We were but I was convinced that the government wouldn’t be stupid enough to before Christmas and would give us at least three days notice.”
Dan Morgenthau, Woodhead Restaurants: “As ever, we were finding out about our fate via newspaper headlines and seeing that this has become the government’s de facto preferred means of communication, it has certainly looked like the writing was on the wall for a while now. However, we’d never envisaged moving into Tier 3 so quickly or with such little notice. This coming Saturday 19th was our working assumption. To be given a day’s having purchased stock for what should traditionally be the busiest week of the year felt like a big blow — in what’s been a year of fairly harsh blows!”
Charlie Mellor, The Laughing Heart and Big Night App: “There were rumbling about this happening, so we had made some preparations. It is a horrible feeling when you begin to trust a trail of breadcrumbs that start with rumour from Brexit rags, especially when this is how we receive our information from the government.”
Nia Burr and Jack Lloyd-Jones, Esters: “In planning to re-open after the first lockdown, we had a very good idea of how uncertain the coming months would be. We put in place robust systems for online ordering and take-away, built out a full window bakery display as well as little shop of essential goods from our suppliers, and created a menu that would work just as well as on a plate as wrapped up to take home or to the park.
“We’d never really relied on take-away food before and the bakery sales have more than doubled. We’re lucky to have been able to stay open during the November lockdown with a very similar turnover overall. We retained a lot of the take-away trade from our incredibly supportive locals throughout this time due to them working from home.”
What does this mean for the rest of the year?
Adejoké Bakare, Chishuru: “We have decided to close for the rest of the year. Hoping that we would not remain in the tier for too long into the month of January. And also planning to scale down the menu and provide a click and collect service from the restaurant.”
DM: “We all need a break. It’s one thing the restaurants being closed but it’s another thing really switching off, spending time with loved ones and reflecting on the past year without the pressure of responding to a recent closure or preparing for a new set of rules and guidelines. The recent changes won’t impact that and all of our businesses — including the shop and deliveries — will be closed between Christmas and the New Year.”
Trevor Gulliver, St. John: “WE AWAIT THE GOVERNMENT’S ANNOUNCEMENTS, AS EVER, THEN THEIR DISANNOUCEMENTS, THEY ARE THE CHAPEL OF THE FOOLS, HAVING MADE THE DECISION THEY
“SHOULD EXECUTE IT WITH RIGOUR, RIGHT NOW YOU HAVE TO PLAN FOR ANOTHER LOCKDOWN IN JANUARY, NO IDEA WHAT THE GOVERNMENT’S PLAND ARE BUT, TO BE FAIR, NOR HAVE THEY! AND YES, BACK INTO PIE PRODUCTION AND, OF COURSE, IN THE BAKERY IT’S ALL HANDS ON DECK FOR THE
“MINCE PIES AND THE OTHER SEASONAL GOODIES, MORE ONLINE WINE SALES TOO, GOOD TO KNOW WE WILL STILL BE MAKING PEOPLE SMILE!”
Based on your decision for the rest of the year, what are you expecting business to be like?
Faye Gomes, Kaieteur Kitchen: “We’re open for takeaway, but we’ve not been busy at all and we’ve got overheads to pay. All the bills to pay. If we’re not making enough money then it’s not a business. I’m really finding it difficult, but I’m trusting god and carrying on.”
Andrew Wong, A. WONG: “ZERO for 2020. Going into 2021, it’s a bit of a lottery currently on what will happen.”
Asma Khan, Darjeeling Express: “Very dire. We had no notice. Everybody stocked up for Christmas trade. There was also all this uncertainty over delivery due to Brexit and most restaurants I know had ordered their alcohol and meat in anticipation of serving people a festive meal.”
JL: “Hoping that the meal boxes continue. It’s the same story as for the rest of the year so far: take each week and make sure you don’t lose money. Survival mode will continue through ‘til March next year.”
CM: “This will of course be the worst December in history for restaurants.”
TG: ”2020 IS A BUSTED FLUSH, Q1 2021 WILL BE THE MOST DIFFICULT QUARTER TO DATE WITH CASUALTY RATES RISING.”
Can you afford to stay closed?
Jeremie Cometto-Lingenheim, Westerns Laundry, Jolene, Big Jo, Primeur: “NO.”
John Devitt, Koya: “We cannot really afford any of this. This will cost us at least £200,000 if we ever get back to trading as before.”
CS: “Realistically no, we have lost a fortune this year already and have had no rent relief. The bills keep coming meanwhile we cannot trade.”
What do you now need from the government in terms of support, and what do you expect?
JD: “We need sensible decisions.”
CS: “We need adequate support such as a percentage of revenue similar to what they’ve done in Germany and France, which would allow us to cover our overheads. The government has asked us to stand by our staff, which we’ve done and of course want to do. We have managed to keep the whole team so far. However we are still having to pay their national insurance and pension costs, which is considerable with a large team. The government are not standing by us in the same way as businesses. The insurance companies have not paid out a penny, we continue to pay our premiums every month, the landlords won’t reduce the rents and yet, the government is not stepping in.”
AK: “Basic common sense is what I expect from the government. Sadly they lack it. The way in which tier 3 was announced — at the same time, the government talked about a new variant of the virus was as if they are talking to children who are punished and put into a corner. There has been no attempt to engage with hospitality and if there has been I am not aware of who they were speaking to.”
AW: “Grants aside, we need some form of clarity. I think that there needs to be a sub dividing of what the gov currently simply refers to as ‘Hospitality’, as an industry it encompasses so many different types of businesses, each with their own risks with regards to Covid-19. It’s not particularly constructive or even economically sensible to put everyone under a single umbrella all the time.”
DM: “Hospitality businesses have been unbelievably resilient and have continually adapted to the challenges they have faced this year. But, for all the brilliantly creative ways in which they have pivoted to delivery or retail, one cannot gloss over the fact that the majority of restaurants are uniquely built around looking after guests in person: sites in high footfall locations staffed by hugely talented individuals with a passion for providing hospitality. And we rely on revenue to sustain both of these. Yet the reality is that most businesses have turned over less than 50% of their 2019 revenue this year. Moreover, most businesses have invested heavily in creating a Covid safe environment - only to seemingly be told that these measures were not sufficient. So cashflow is the problem that every hospitality business will be facing and this urgently needs addressing by the government.
“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.”
Did last week’s rent announcement make much difference to your negotiations with landlords?
FG: “For the first month and a half after opening in late September, we didn’t have to pay rent [at our new premises in Castle Square.] Now they’re asking for rent for December and January already. 20 percent more [than we paid outside the shopping centre before we had to relocate.]”
AB: ”We were due to negotiate with our landlords but we have had to postpone it to the new year.”
Louis Wainwright-Vale, Element Coffee: ”We had already negotiated the terms of a new lease before the announcement. However, the extension of the moratorium is the bare minimum the government can do to prevent our cafes and restaurants from turning into luxury apartments kept vacant for years by Russian oligarchs.”
TG: ”I’LL HAVE TO TELL YOU HOW THE DECEMBER QUARTER NEGOTIATIONS GO!”
AK: ”It doesn’t because I was very fortunate to have a very understanding and compassionate landlord. I am grateful to not have to take on the additional worry of liability building up with the landlord at the moment.”
Do you feel represented by trade bodies and lobby groups? If not, what representation would you like to see for restaurants in the future, which you wish you’d had this year?
JD: “No. We all need a Hospitality Minister to put our case forward. It doesn’t make sense to keep so many things open whilst we suffer.”
AK: “I absolutely do not feel any of the hospitality organisations spoke my language. I felt a complete disconnect in the early days of the first lockdown when there was so much discussion about not paying landlord rents.
“I think we should have been raising issues about how the virus could be managed, how we could contribute to a safer dining experience, looking after the physical and mental health of our teams. Instead, there was this obsessive conversation about table service for alcohol and the diversity of hospitality was not at all reflected in the conversations. It seems as if the entire agenda was hijacked by loud voices who were not talking enough about supporting their community and workforce. It has not been our greatest hour.”
JL: “Absolutely not. I can’t help but feel like we’re an easy target and have been taken advantage of. The government know that we’re a generally low average income industry and on top of that the furlough doesn’t cover our full salaries anyway. People are going to end up having been on furlough for a year while every restaurant has increased their amount of debt. It will take a long time to come back from this financially and emotionally.”
CM: “Not really. Hospitality Union has been a wonderful source of information but ultimately that’s it. UK Hospitality seem to be rooting for Nando’s and all the big players and in the pocket of the Tories, so they can fuck off.”
NB, JLJ: “Friends in other industries always expect us to have insider information as to what’s going on, that we have people communicating with us. But no, you get it all through the grapevine, the news, searching Government websites and so on. We need a centralised resource for the industry - we’ve always just felt like we’re out here on our own.”
On a scale of 1-10, how bad would you say the situation is now versus what it was like at the end of October?
NAH: “I give it a 5. From March to October we should have learnt something. We should have action group in place by now to discuss or brainstorm ideas and a plan to put forward to the relevant authorities and say this is the real situation on the ground as a group not individual or in isolation instead of just waiting for any outcome.”
JCL: “1 being bad 10 being good, I would say a 1 rates the decision making as well as the current state of affairs accurately. I am really angry this time around.”
I realise I’m sort of asking you to gaze into a crystal ball, but what do you think is going to happen to restaurants in the new year?
JK: “We are going to lose probably 30 percent and I think a lot of the heart and soul will be stripped out of the survivors. However the Landlords needing to find new tenants could open the gate to a lot of new talent who would normally have struggled to start a restaurant. Landlord and tenant relationship needs to be more of a partnership.”
AW: “Lots will close, but I maintain that offering heartfelt, personal, luxurious experience for guests is timeless.”
DM: “If the government does not step in with further support measures and Tier 3 continues throughout the winter then I think many good businesses will end up being forced to permanently close. This is devastating and, in my mind, so short sighted by the government. There’s hopefully an end in sight to this crisis and if urban centres are to recover in any meaningful way then businesses that bring character and vibrancy to an area will need to survive.”
CM: “I think the the end of March will be when it all comes crashing down. I consider it to be highly unlikely that the moratorium on rent will be extended again. Those without deals, many of whom will owe a year of rent by then, will be evicted. Those that find a way to pay will experience a knockoff cash-flow problem that will prohibit growth and a life free from anxiety. After the year we have has this makes me feel sick.”
If you could have one guarantee, what would it be?
JK: “At the moment I crave transparency and collaboration. If we had been consulted and worked with rather than treated as children we would have been better space. We all know that bans and constraints lead to dissent. When Prohibition was introduced in the States to ban drinking all that happened over the next 12 years was a massive increase in drinking and a breakdown in public order.
“If I was the Minister I would have not sought to appease the north but told them that they could move to Tier Two and London could remain on condition that everyone showed responsibility and restraint – and if not then they would go to Tier Three at 12 hour notice. We need more opportunity to determine our future — restaurants are safer than almost any other public venues.”
AK: “If I could get one guarantee from the government it would be to talk to operators in hospitality. A diverse group from small family restaurants to high-end Michelin star restaurants. We want to share our experience and knowledge which would hopefully help them make more educated decisions.”
JD: “Extend VAT reduction.”
JL: “I’m just desperate for some consistency. I want to have a run of a few weeks where we know what we can operate and know that we won’t be forced to close again.”