Ahead of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s coronavirus lockdown roadmap revelation in the House of Commons today, 22 February, Eater London spoke to several chefs and restaurateurs across the city: To understand how the year so far had been, what operating for seven weeks in lockdown is like, what lessons have been learned, and what direction they hope to get from today’s announcement.
This is the first of a two-part interview feature in the week that London restaurants, pubs, bars, and cafes learn of the proposed timeline for their reopening.
The below answers have been edited for clarity.
How has trade been since the start of the year?
Asma Khan, Darjeeling Express: “Very patchy. As we are in central London we are very vulnerable to government announcements. Stories about police stopping and questioning people, and of course the rapidly changing virus with different strains concerning people and inevitably prevents people from coming in to collect from the deli.”
Jeremie Cometto-Lingenheim, Brut Restaurants (Primeur, Westerns Laundry, Jolene, Big Jo): “Trade has been okay and we are deeply grateful for everyone who’s been coming to support over the past two months. But it’s clear both patrons and staff are deeply fatigued and energy levels are low.”
How was Valentine’s Day — did you do big numbers? What were the logistical lessons learned if any?
Mitshel Ibrahim, Ombra: “For us, it was the biggest one we did in terms of volume, in terms of operations, nationwide shipping, collection, delivery all over London.
“We did 100 boxes and two didn’t make it. But once it’s sent... it’s in the clouds, it’s in the matrix. Still, [guests who didn’t receive] Genuinely thought we were trying to ruin their Valentine’s.
“All this new aspect of the day to day that restaurants don’t know how to deal with — amount of the stress going into the packaging...it’s part of a new job description.”
AK: “It was very exhilarating! The best part was seeing all the pictures of people who celebrated with the biryani on social media. Some had celebrated Valentine’s Day at the supper club in my home in 2013. One couple from the supper club would come to my restaurant in Soho to celebrate every year after, so it was nice to continue the tradition.”
What’s the evolution of delivery been like, more generally?
Ed Wilson, Brawn: “It’s been an interesting evolution for us. We have managed to keep all our local deliveries in-house using a cargo bike we purchased specifically for that purpose. That way we have managed to include the team as much as possible and keeping them engaged with the business. During the November lockdown, we extended our delivery radius which opened up a new layer of business, but had to reduce it back in December when we reopened the restaurant.
Louis Wainwright-Vale, Element Coffee: “It’s been the first time we’ve run a delivery service and it’s been a great success. It’s kept me sane and out of the house during this lockdown.”
John Devitt, Koya: “Dishpatch have been amazing — I think as they behave as a logistics company it is super easy to work with them.”
AB: “We’ve noticed a marked increase in inquiries and in the numbers compared to last lockdown.”
AK: “It’s been a very steep learning curve. We quickly realised the ‘fragile’ sticker is very essential if you don’t want the boxes to be thrown around. Our experience has been very painless in many ways because we have gone in with a delivery partnership for our nationwide delivery with Big Night [...] I think it’s much harder if you try to do this on your own and I’m glad I didn’t try to do the delivery myself. It’s a completely different logistical challenge from running a restaurant.
Is nationwide delivery a significant market for the restaurant: what’s the split between London and nationwide? How much are both growing? And do you expect these to be something that you continue to offer after reopening?
Daniel Morgenthau, Woodhead Restaurants and Quality Chop Shop: “National deliveries now account for 50 percent of all of our orders. It’s so difficult to predict how this will change when restaurants reopen and whether we’ll retain the level of trade that we have built up over the past 12 months. But we’re increasingly of the view that much of what we offer will be of benefit to our guests in a post-covid world and won’t necessarily be mutually exclusive to the in-person dining experience. So we’re looking into ways we can run the different parts of the business in parallel. (Space being the limiting factor!)”
AB: “Most of our kits went outside London. It’s something we are hoping to explore when everything opens up again.”
EW: “We launched national delivery at the end of November to capture the Christmas market for hampers. We had lots of interest and one customer wanted gift hampers sent across Europe and all the way to Dubai for her clients. Quite surreal to be printing out delivery labels and sending Brawn items across the globe. Not something we would have ever predicted at the beginning of last year. I would say its about a 60/40 split between London and nationwide...
“We are looking at what we would continue with and how we can maintain an element of the Store, after reopening.”
J C-L: “Frankly, we did not go into the restaurant game wanting to capture the delivery market. These are two very distinct businesses and we can’t wait to just focus on being a restaurant, not a delivery service or a farmers market. All our efforts at the moment are put into shaping up all our dining rooms into the best possible versions of their pre-Covid selves.
“We want to hear the laughters, the clinking of glasses, and the clatter of crockery. We want to see people deep in conversations and see four generations at the same table sharing a meal and a magnum of wine. We want to smell the subtle fragrances and admire the outfits of a Saturday night, we want to be the architects, the witnesses, the accomplice of a great dining experience and for that we must focus on how we deliver that in-house, not in a cardboard box on the back of a zooming moped.”
On the subject of which, what is your expectation on the reopening “roadmap” from the PM on Monday? Maybe what’s more important to ask at this stage is: what do you hope he will announce?
DM: “As we’ve said all along, the most important thing is clarity and consistency. Hospitality businesses have been hugely resilient and have found brilliant ways to adapt to the challenges they’ve faced. But you cannot simply turn restaurants on and off like a lightbulb in the way that the government did last year. So above all else, we’d like to know that when we do reopen we’ll stay open. We’ve come this far and whether it is April or May is less important to us than knowing that we’re able to make plans that we can stick to.”
JD: “I don’t hope anymore, better to sit and be patient, if you can afford it.”
AK: “I really hope that the prime minister makes a decision on opening based on the science, and not on the pressure of the pubs and libertarian fringe of the Tory party. The worst situation would be if hospitality opens prematurely before it is safe and then we go into another lockdown. I would rather sit it out and open when I know we can.”
L W-V: “I think that is the sensible course of action. Sit down restaurants and pubs must wait until the vaccine rollout is very broad and the infections are very low before resuming normal trade. I expect the PMs roadmap will reflect this because no one, least of all him, can afford another lockdown.”
There seems to be an overwhelming sense this time around that restaurants are more willing to wait to reopen to ensure that they can stay open once they reopen — to ensure that this is the last lockdown. What is your view? Do you hope the PM is cautious with his “roadmap”, as he’s indicated he will be? Or rather, how cautious can you afford for him to be?
Normah Abd Hamid, Normah’s, Queensway: “I am for the restaurants to reopen and stay open. So I do hope the PM and his team will have very thorough and cautious guidelines for the general public to follow — it’s very costly for the businesses to reopen and close again.”
EW: “It’s crucial that once we can trade again that we are not subject to further lockdowns, therefore it’s imperative that those timings are measured and precise.”
JD: “I hoped the PM was cautious and didn’t open up the country back in December, so yes I would prefer to wait and be more cautious and only step towards less restrictions and never return.”
MF: “I think that is the sensible course of action. Sit down restaurants and pubs must wait until the vaccine rollout is very broad and the infections are very low before resuming normal trade. I expect the PMs roadmap will reflect this because no one, least of all him, can afford another lockdown. ”
Maybe a specific question to ask here is: What is the cost of reopening?
NAH: “Minimum £2500 excluding salary.
“It’s a question of whether to order supply in bulk where you can get a good bargain and you will face with the uncertainty of lockdown. Or order less you and will face short of supply or your supplier doesn’t have the stock to supply. The cost is more than what we had expected. Due to some price increases.”
DM: “It takes us about four days to reopen each one of our restaurants. So that’s a labour cost of about £15,000 or so across the group.”
AK “The last time, a lot of money was spent on training, uniforms, and practice service which all came to nothing because we were only open for eight days. I do not ever want to go back to that situation again. It is not just devastating for me but also for the new hopeful recruit who suddenly finds that their new job is no longer viable.”