After Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s coronavirus lockdown roadmap revelation in the House of Commons yesterday, 22 February, Eater London spoke to several chefs and restaurateurs across the city who now have a rough understanding of their route out of lockdown.
They remain unsure of the future of their financial support systems and the extent to which they will be responsible for implementing and enforcing safety protocols as and when restrictions are actually lifted and dining rooms can reopen. With Brexit compounding the pandemic’s complications for staff retention and recruitment, restaurant owners must also ensure that when they can open, they have the teams they need to do that — and that their places of work are as safe for those workers as they are for the guests they are employing them to serve.
This second of two-part interview feature in the week that London restaurants, pubs, bars, and cafes learned of the proposed timeline for their reopening. Read part one here.
The below answers have been edited for clarity.
Now it’s months not weeks until you can reopen properly, support is surely going to need to be extended beyond the end of March and April...
Firstly, what is your minimum expectation from the Chancellor’s Budget on 3 March?
Adejoké Bakare, Chishuru: “The same level of support (furlough, rates holiday and VAT cuts) as well as looking into the people that fell under the gaps like the self employed or [businesses that opened] in between the lockdown[s]. I am all for it.”
Asma Khan, Darjeeling Express: “The minimum I would expect is for the business rates holiday to be extended for a year. VAT held at 5 percent and the furlough scheme extended to give us a buffer while we take small steps to restart again, and the flexi furlough option will let us bring people back slowly to work.”
Louis Wainwright-Vale, Element Coffee: “I think the furlough scheme will be extended well into autumn but other than that I have little expectation that there will be meaningful help for businesses.”
And secondly, what do you think he should announce?
AK: “I think the loan repayment for the bounce back and the [coronavirus business loans] interest-free period should be extended for another year as there is no business who will be able to repay when they actually have not traded for a year.”
L W-V: “I could harp on about the things I think the chancellor should announce, including massive taxes on the wealthy to pay for the economic fall out of this crisis, nationalising Amazon, and his own resignation but a guy can dream.”
It looks like the rent eviction protections are also going to be extended and there’s talk of extra intervention from the government. If you’re still at an impasse with a landlord, what can you see as being done to break the deadlock?
Normah Abd Hamid, Normah’s: “It’s like chicken and egg... the government has to be fair on both sides (landlord and tenant) and we (or me) don’t want it to look like we are expecting a handout most of the time.
“Due to the current situation, if the landlord evicts the current tenant, it will be hard for them to find a new tenant due to the current situation because many businesses have closed. Meaning a lot of people are out of job. The high street will be empty. My suggestion is for the government to workout a plan for the businesses which aren’t able to get any support from either government council — and pay grants on behalf of small business straight to the landlord through HMRC to cover owed rent.
“I believe whatever grant or support that government is giving out, it should go back to the economic cycle, where people will be able to spend, jobs will be retained, and business will be able to survive.”
L W-V: “There is nothing landlords can do to evict you right now. They will have to wait for their money. Not only is there no financial benefit to them evicting tenants, but it is immoral and must be resisted, physically if necessary. I will chain myself to the coffee machine. I need to stop before I start quoting Chairman Mao.”
Looking a little further into the future, what is the sense from staff about returning to work? How many people have you lost, either as a result of the pandemic or because of Brexit? What are your expectations for the job market come the summer?
Mitshel Ibrahim, Ombra: “If the government is interested in economy then it would be in their and restaurant worker’s interests to get them up there on the vaccination ladder.
“Most of us have been working throughout — at one time, two in the kitchen; two on the floor [while the team is on flexi-furlough.] They’re happy to come back without it being a back and forth because it’s been hard to keep focus and to remain interested and motivated.
“Now we can fully invest ourselves — we can change page and fully invest in a new chapter.”
NAH: “In the restaurant industry you can’t work from home, and if we rely on delivery many people won’t have a job in the future because only the kitchen area will be operational. We will have less workers in the future. Since March 2020 we have closed our prep kitchen, which employed four people, because we now do everything in the restaurant.
“Summer? It depends on the whether people will be able to travel again. Otherwise is not going to be much different.”
AB: “I have lost staff because of Brexit and the lockdown, but we have had an increase in job vacancy inquires...So we are hopeful to fill the vacancies with people eager to get back to hosting diners again.”
Daniel Morgenthau, Woodhead Restaurants and Quality Chop Shop: “We saw the greatest change to the makeup of our team at the start of the pandemic. A number of our European colleagues made the decision to return home to see the pandemic out with their families. But since then we’ve managed to keep our team together. We’ve been able to offer work to all of our full time colleagues during this lockdown, and though the nature of the work is of course very different, the routine and momentum as a business hasn’t really changed too much — something we’re grateful for. We’re hoping to maintain some of the more successful lockdown elements of our business once we do reopen and this will create a number of roles that we’ll be looking to fill.
“The impact of Brexit on the jobs market is of course yet to be seen. But we’ve always taken the view that experience is less important than a passion for hospitality when it comes to working in the industry. We know there will be many people looking for jobs when the economy reopens — so I just hope we can show people what a fulfilling career hospitality can be.”
AK: “[Unlike in November when Darjeeling Express opened] this time restaurants will be competing with each other to get the best talent.
“There has been a massive exodus over the lockdown from London. The presumption is a lot of them who left were European nationals who have always been the backbone of hospitality. I think recruiters also need to take this time to create clear job descriptions and start fresh in some ways.”
Lastly, there’s every chance the government is going to pass on new “policing” responsibilities to restaurants, as they did from last July. There’s almost certainly going to be social distancing in place, and there is even the suggestion that operators could be responsible for checking if guests have been vaccinated. Do you fear that you will be burdened after reopening? And what do you hope the government does to minimise any additional headaches for restaurateurs and their employees?
John Devitt, Koya: “Some form to continued Vat and business rates relief and reconsidering the term of the CBILs with an extra year’s no interest or repayment. The uncertain trade without government support may well be the end of the road for many.”
AB: “Our outfit is quite ‘cosy’ and most guests are quite willing to book in on the COVID app and specify if they were adhering to the household guidelines. If an extra requirement of checking vaccination ‘certs’ begins to impact on the experience, a tick-box integrated into the present COVID app will make it easier for operators, I believe.”
NAH: “When we reopened after the first lockdown, we only accept eight people to dine in at one time due to our space. We don’t think operators should be responsible for checking the guests have been vaccinated or not. Firstly, because the vaccine is not mandatory, it can create a scene which we very much want to avoid. My hope is for the government to vaccinate [restaurant workers], maybe after all the front-liners.”
AK: “I have no faith in this government. They have shown almost sneering contempt for hospitality and feel we can be used to do the work they are so incompetent to do themselves. I’m not sure how much hospitality will be able to push back as for many the need to open will outweigh any additional administrative burdens that may be dumped on us.”
DM: “Hospitality professionals are not public health professionals and I don’t think it’s right or fair for the burden of enforcement to fall upon them. That being said, it’s not something I’m particularly worried about. Our guests have been hugely understanding of the pressures our team have faced. And likewise our team have been unbelievably professional when it’s come to managing some of the more nuanced and difficult situations that have inevitably arisen. My hope is that with the vaccination programme well and truly under way and with rates back at levels comparable to last summer, we can go back to some semblance of normality with covid safety precautions not dominating the guest experience (as they were with the imposition of the curfew for example).