After lockdown 2.0, London restaurants reopened for 10 days before entering what were then the strictest coronavirus restrictions, just before what would ordinarily have been their busiest period. Many closed and used the Christmas holiday to take a break after a taxing and relentlessly uncertain year.
On 6 January, England reentered national lockdown. Restaurants, already closed, have felt the change in different ways. But for all the situation is grave: On top of a devastating public health crisis, restaurants are without a clear sense of when they will reopen. Instead, they’ve been left to interpret off-the-cuff remarks or leaks, while they continue to wait for their representatives to secure further support. Others realise that it will be through innovation, adaption, and resilience — in spite of government messaging — that secures their survival.
Looking ahead not just at when they may reopen, having implemented yet more new ideas to get them through this winter, restaurants in London contemplate what’s changed, what’s new, what they’ll do, and what Brexit will mean in a post-pandemic capital.
The below interviews have been edited for clarity.
Is there a big or any difference between tier 4 or national lockdown for your restaurant?
Jeremie Cometto-Lingenheim, Brut Restaurants (Primeur, Westerns Laundry, Jolene, Big Jo): “The tier system in different parts of the country is confusing and illogical. I wish the government could just call things for what they are and be clear. from an operational point of view this crisis is much easier to navigate if the restrictions don t change every two weeks, for us and our patrons so we welcome the lockdown and anticipated it.”
John Devitt, Koya: “No difference for us in Soho or City. Nobody was going to the high street in Tier 4 or Lockdown. With Tier 3, we had a hope of staying open but we closed once Tier 4 was announced.”
Normah Abd Hamid, Normah’s, Queensway: “The market is fully closed and we cannot do our take away. So I am trying to think of the alternative...”
James Lowe, Lyle’s Flor, ASAP Pizza: “It’s absurd that we’re ‘not that busy’ but also ‘crazy busy’ at the same time!”
How do you expect this will affect your business — generally and from a staff point of view? With fewer customers on the streets, do you expect to have to reduce the team?
Mitshel Ibrahim, Ombra: “[As well as the online business], we’re going to concentrate on wholesale this time, which could potentially result in a production site [later in the year, after reopening.] It will include pasta, sauces, and vacc-packed Parmesan — it has the potential to expand. I’d rather do that than loads of people coming in and out of Ombra — maybe it’s a savvy move for the business but it’s more about the health and safety of the staff, minimising contact but keeping them employed.”
JL: “My hope is that people get more and more used to the idea that ordering a meal kit / box is ok and that restaurants get better at producing them...meaning more get ordered. We desperately need this revenue. With less people at Borough, we need to see growth in the retail from Lyle’s and a change in the style of retail at Flor to provide as many hours as possible for the team.”
How has it affected the business so far — what does such reduced trade mean in real terms? In addition to the inability to pay full rent, have you reduced salaries; cut the staff?
Budgie Montoya, Sarap BAon: “I guess as consumer confidence drops so do the sales. I think for us being such a niche product, it will be much harder for us to reach new audiences. People tend to stick to what they know in times of crisis.”
Asma Khan, Darjeeling Express: “Reduced trade meant that I could no longer afford to keep the entire team which I had hoped to have. I have not reduced the salary of those people who are working for me but we have very few staff now. I have my family helping me at the moment!”
J C-L: “We are paying our rents, we have not reduced salaries and have made no redundancies. we have actually hired more people. We just manage our staff rotation between team using flexible furlough.”
How long are you now planning for the dining room to be closed? And how much longer can you afford to stay closed?
Gabe Pryce, Rita’s, Soho: “I think it’s most likely that outdoor dining is going to take off first as restrictions are eased and we will be able to apply for a bit of street seating on Lexington Street. We also have a courtyard out back that we can’t wait to have guests in. We’re very lucky in that regard.
“It’s impossible to put a date on opening for eat in, we just won’t do it until it is safe. Our landlord has been very supportive up to this point and we hope that continues as we all try to navigate this year, we see a light on the horizon but we’re only going to get there together.”
Missy Flynn, Rita’s, Soho: “We can’t afford to stay closed! But realistically the dining room, like most dining rooms won’t be seating guests till April or May, right? We have the advantage of a really great, cozy little garden out back and the pedestrianisation of Soho gives us a target to work towards — we definitely want to be making use of outside seating as soon as the weather is mild enough.”
BM: “For as long as we’re told to and as for how long we can afford this, let’s just say I’ve never spoken to our accountants on a more regular basis.”
NAH: “Yeah we are going to reopen again in February as the [Queensway Market] management agreed to open again only for take away.
“I will update you as we progress.”
What have you got planned for the coming weeks?
Daniel Morgenthau, Woodhead Restaurants and Quality Chop Shop: “Given the high transmission rates at present, one of the biggest considerations in planning for this lockdown has been to think about how best to spread our teams across all of our sites to ensure anyone coming to work can do so in as distanced a way as feasibly possible.
“Until now Quality Wines had been sharing a kitchen with the Quality Chop House team so it seemed like a good idea to think about using a separate kitchen this time around. And given the relocation we thought it would make sense to have a bit of fun with the offer — so that’s how Arrosto came about.”
JD: “We have a fresh noodle box coming very shortly, with Dash. It will be nationwide and posted out into letterboxes...”
AK: “We have decided to start a ‘Biryani at Home’ delivery service which should be online in the next couple of days. Because of the way in which the Biryani is made, in a large pot, we are only offering a meal for four with the accompaniments. We have trialled the delivery and the reheating of the Biryani which will be sent out within a 5-mile radius in London very soon.”
Sirichai Kularbwong, Singburi: “We’ll probably open up late Jan, early February. At the moment just resting and cleaning and maybe next week finding out the state of what ingredients in terms of availability/ pricing.”
If you are tweaking your offering for lockdown 3, is that based on lessons learned during both lockdowns — which themselves seemed quite different — last year?
AK: “Every lockdown has had a different impact on my business. In the first lockdown I moved restaurants, in the second I opened the deli, and as we find ourselves in yet a third lockdown — this is the first time that I had an operating restaurant which had to be closed.”
J C-L: “During lockdown 2 we’ve made short terms and long term changes to our infrastructures in all our restaurants during to enable us to be operationally elastic operationally as we foresaw the crisis to last until April. We should be able to operate effectively until then.”
BM: “The core of what we do at Sarap BAon will remain the same, the concept was born after the initial lockdown and I guess taking notes from those who pivoted early so as far as I’m concerned we’ve already done the bulk of the tweaking.”
MF: “We’re not really tweaking anything, in fact if anything the lesson we’ve learned is that we don’t need to jump at every opportunity. It’s deeply worrying and anxiety making to feel ‘out of loop’ and not doing enough, especially when we started a deli brand in 2018 to sell product that is perfect for this kind of environment, but where last year we felt maybe stressed out by that, we’ve realised now that we’re playing the long game. It sounds like a luxurious position to be in but trust me, I’d much rather have my shop open and my team at work!”
Do you stand to receive any monies in this latest round of grants from the government? If so, will it help? If not, what makes you ineligible?
AK: “Unfortunately for me the current grants being given out by the government are to registered ratepayers and as we are on a rate holiday which ends in March, I am ineligible at the moment as I’m not registered for rates as yet.”
JD: “Grants have been well received. It’s not enough if rent is still being demanded...”
JL: “They amount to bugger all.”
J C-L: “we would welcome any grants our ways but again we have factored them in into our survival as the government has already done a couple of u turns on promises. So if we can get grant money, this will only pay back the investments we ve had to make during the previous lock downs to adapt the business on our own terms.”
Appreciate this might be a hard question to answer, but what needs to happen between now and March for you to make it to spring? It seems like there’s very little room for much more to go wrong, unless the government really digs deep into its pockets?
J C-L: “As a nation, we place too much trust in the competence of our government and we are too dependent on its whims. The last 12 months have shown resilient businesses are built on decisions they make autonomously, on a controllable level for themselves. So we’ll stick to our model for now and provide our teams and patrons with clarity and continuity.”
JD: “Some sort of understanding between landlords and tenants and haircuts on outstanding [rent].”
JL: “It’s not a question of how long can we go on for, or can we make it to spring. Lots of restaurants have taken the option to close and simply furlough people, defer payments etc. rather than risk losing money through trading unsuccessfully. The longer it goes on, the more debt you accrue. The questions on the other side are — how do we pay this back? And more importantly for the survival of the business — ARE WE ABLE to pay this back?
“The thing I’m most concerned about are the people in my restaurants. We’ve endured months of changes to our operation week on week. It’s too much for people to take.”
AK: “I have no faith in this government as they clearly do not understand hospitality. Now that we are all closed, I think nothing else can be done to hurt us further at the moment. The yoyoing of opening and closing has been devastating. Ironically, knowing that we are now closed for an extended period of time brings with it some certainty which we have not had since March of last year. It’s not a great place to be at the moment, but at least I know that there are no more shock announcements ahead. I least I hope not.”
GP: “I wouldn’t count your chickens just yet, these clowns do have a real talent for falling short. And let’s not forget their acute ability to give half-assed information and build mistrust.
“I personally think there is a big but simple task at hand, get everyone vaccinated. Get it done. But I wouldn’t blame anyone for questioning taking a Mars bar from these self-serving idiots, let alone a jab in the arm. To me it is clear though, get vaccinated from the virus that is killing millions of people and you will be able to go back to work, go to the gym, go have a pint, go to a rave, go out for dinner, go hug your mum. Let those doctors and nurses that have been fighting every day for every one of you step back and go home. Save their lives and give them a break. Get it done.”
Maybe a better way of asking this question is: what’s the most important thing that needs to happen between now and the spring in order to give restaurants the best chance of surviving?
JL: “People in the industry need to stay motivated and willing to fight. What can we do? We have made a decision to think about what productive things we can do with our time, so that it doesn’t just feel like we’re working only for survival. What can we learn while in the restaurant? What kind of training can we offer? How can we do something for the team that doesn’t have a large financial cost?
“From the outside — a change to the furlough policy for the industry, a proper solution on rents, some consistency from the government and an alternative plan to ‘wait for the vaccine rollout.’”
MF: “I think rent relief is the big thing, it’s just unrealistic to expect an industry that operates on such little margins at the best of time to suddenly produce money to pay for what will be over a year of uncertainty. Businesses who have made it this far should be supported and celebrated ( the good ones anyway). It’s only because of their determination to see this through that there is a restaurant city to re-open. Otherwise we’ll be starting from scratch with no independents and nothing of genuine interest. The worst thing recently has been seeing people forced to make a choice between people and property — saving money for rent or fronting the money for furlough. That sucks and it’s a choice I wouldn’t like to make myself.”
BM: “I think the government really needs to roll out this vaccination quickly and efficiently, and in turn boost consumer confidence. Extend the VAT reduction til the end of the year and our industry needs representation in parliament through a dedicated and appointed minister. Someone that will champion our industry and protect and fight for our interest.”
It’s odd to think about anything other than the pandemic, but the effects of Brexit are presumably going to dawn on the restaurant industry come the summer. Do you fear that if you make it through the pandemic, you’re suddenly going to find yourself staring another monumental obstacle right in the face?
MF: “Things will undoubtedly be more expensive. They have to be. Our restaurant space is not cheap. But do we want to make Rita’s prohibitively expensive? No, never. There have to be ways to engage in dialogue with people who love restaurants and want to visit them that help them understand the predicament many restaurateurs are presented with and separately, ways in which the business can represent value beyond what’s served on the plate and in the glass, for example, being socially minded, giving back to community, offering greater employment opportunities etc.
“I saw a sign in a juice bar recently that said “ginger now 50 pence more because of unprecedented price rise” — I liked that, I understood it and I appreciated it. And I had the ginger. I think we are going to need a similar level of transparency.
“So here it is: Wine is going to be more expensive! And if you voted leave, you pay double in my house.”
AK: “We were already feeling the pinch of Brexit at the end of last year. When fearing a potential lockdown, I tried to order packaging material for takeaway and it turned out that a lot of containers were stuck in the ports and in lorries. Because of this, we had to buy much more expensive and smaller quantities.
“I think that Brexit will definitely impact recruitment when we all reopen because many hospitality workers have returned to their families in Europe and beyond. We will be in a position where all the restaurants will be scrambling to recruit from a very small pool of people.”
J C-L: “Our food chains are sustainable and based mainly on small producers whose business model doesn’t rely on import/export. we have nurtured these relationships and we feel solid. Wine is a more complex issue, I guess it’ll be a great few years for the very well deserving Sussex-based Tillingham farm estate!!!”