“Certainly Brexit will affect us. But until we fully reopen, it is very difficult to tell.” Wait and see: That’s the message from La Poule au Pot. Like every other enterprise in the restaurant world, the French bistro in Belgravia had no idea that the end of the Brexit transition would come in the middle of a global pandemic. While sourcing ingredients for its devotedly Francophile menu has been difficult, that concern has been almost immaterial to putting together the reduced, COVID-induced takeout menu that has taken it through successive lockdowns. It’s just one small but significant demonstration of how the two crises have become intertwined for the restaurant industry.
After the referendum in 2016, restaurants, pubs, cafes, and bars, and their suppliers expected 2020 to be a watershed moment — a sudden disruption of staffing, ingredient costs, and supply chains that would reshape what it meant to operate a restaurant in the city for years to come. That disruption duly arrived, but it didn’t come from Brexit. It came from a global public health crisis. It came from COVID-19.
As a result, the impact of Brexit has been deferred by a much more immediate existential threat. Instead of the border chaos that many operators had predicted, expected, and even planned for, the pandemic brought challenges that most within hospitality never thought they would have to endure. With trading either halted entirely by lockdowns or far below capacity, restaurateurs found themselves battling to keep their businesses afloat while suspended in limbo, propped up by government grants and schemes. As the U.K. moves into unlocking, with indoor dining allowed from 17 May, many uncertainties remain about how these two crises will collide. The only sure thing so far is that the tough times over the past 15 months are set to continue.
For some restaurants, this period of suspended animation has bought time to figure out how to navigate post-Brexit reality. For the modern British and European restaurant Lorne, which opened in Pimlico in 2017, being shut down (aside from a nationwide meal kit delivery service) has postponed the impact of leaving the European Union. “Because our functionality as a restaurant is so much more reduced, the implications of what Brexit was going to be are considerably smaller than what I had thought this time a year ago,” co-founder Katie Exton says. “We’re not really feeling it yet.”
But Lorne still has to buy its ingredients. While the restaurant’s focus on seasonal British produce has cushioned it to an extent, the Brexit transition’s arrival in winter — when, for example, the U.K.-grown potatoes and mushrooms in Lorne’s coq au vin, creamed potato, and buttered greens from the “at Home” menu in February were readily available — provided further respite. Because Lorne regularly changes its menu with the seasons, it’s able to be more flexible, so reacting to pricing fluctuations or supply gaps is a familiar feeling. But Exton doesn’t expect to be immune for long, especially as lockdown restrictions begin to ease in spring in preparation for the planned full reopening in midsummer.
“The reality is that people like things that are coming from France and Italy as well. Everyone likes their Italian bitter leaves right now, their trendy Amalfi lemons and blood oranges that everyone is excited about. And they’re definitely not coming from England,” Exton said in February, when much of that blushing citrus was at its peak.
Produce might be what goes on the plates, but few imported commodities are more critical for London restaurants than European wine. For Sunny Hodge, founder of the wine bar Diogenes the Dog in Elephant and Castle, the big concern over the winter leading up to Brexit was running out of stock. But since wine has the long shelf life — barring the risk of a corking disaster — that southern European fruit does not, his solution was simple, if brutal: Buy up as many European bottles as he could afford and as his diminutive bar had space for, and hope that his stock would be large enough to ride out any potential chaos at the start of 2021. “It’s impossible to prep if you don’t know what you’re getting yourself into,” Hodge says. “The only way that you can is by stockpiling.”
Brexit has also had collateral effects for Hodge’s business priorities, and its implications on costs have begun to drive his decisions. He’s currently looking for a second site and says that now, unlike before, back-of-house storage is a priority. To mitigate some of the increased costs of importing from Europe, he is buying more wine at a time. Importing larger quantities brings down customs costs relative to the value of the wine, and it also makes Diogenes the Dog less reliant on the whims of importers. For that strategy to work, any new site has to have enough space to store these larger imports, which he hopes will offer more price stability to his customers in the long term.
Ironically, the pandemic has made that strategic shift pay off sooner than he expected. COVID-19 rules forced Diogenes the Dog to pivot away from its wine bar roots and explore other avenues of income. It opened an online shop with U.K.-wide delivery, a phone sommelier service providing customers with wine advice and online tastings, and more wine than it might have had to sell without Brexit. The changes Hodge brought to the business over the course of the pandemic have also allowed him to avoid furloughing staff; instead, he trained them to make a retail business work while the wine bar was shut, and prepared them to take on new responsibilities when Diogenes the Dog is able to reopen. Nevertheless, his biggest concern is finding more people to provide hospitality, to walk the floor and pour the wines, when the business he believed in comes back to life.
Staffing has hung over hospitality like a black cloud ever since the result of the 2016 referendum result. While the pandemic’s effects have delayed its final downpour, the intersection of Brexit politics and COVID-19 policy has compounded the problems restaurateurs have been expecting for four long years. Consecutive lockdowns have made the end of freedom of movement between the EU and the U.K. more debilitating, with an ONS study showing that 80 percent of hospitality staff were furloughed in April 2020. With the end of lockdown and the reopening of restaurants on the horizon, the landscape facing restaurants has changed: Many will have jobs to fill as they look to rehire staff, but many may will struggle to fill them as the pool of available staff has shrunk, either forced back to Europe or made to feel unwelcome by the aftershocks of Brexit.
The Turkish restaurant Oklava, run by Selin Kiazim and Laura Christie, had to furlough 12 staff members in the last lockdown. Between January 2020 and February 2021, the Shoreditch outfit lost approximately 75 percent of its staff, with many leaving London at the start of the pandemic.
Looking to rehire for outdoor reopening in April and the resumption of indoor dining in May, Kiazim and Christie are nervous about who will return to the industry. For Kiazim, “the pandemic has completely decimated the perspective people have on a career in hospitality.” Christie, however, saw the downward trend in staffing availability begin long before the pandemic. “When we opened Oklava five and a half years ago and originally placed adverts for staff, we’d have maybe 50, 60 people apply for a waiter job,” she recalls. “By the time it got to pre-pandemic, if we placed an advert for a waiter, we’d be lucky to get four or five responses.” Neither Kiazim nor Christie believe this trend will reverse any time soon, particularly while quarantine measures and travel restrictions remain in place for those looking to come from abroad. They have now started recruiting in preparation for when they reopen and have found it challenging: With many other restaurants also beginning to recruit around the same time, competition is fierce.
The impact of the past year on hospitality staff, many of whom were stressed and upset as a result of joblessness and furlough, also concerns Darjeeling Express’s Asma Khan. The restaurant moved to its new location in Covent Garden during the second lockdown in November. In Khan’s view, the imagined industry rebound this summer will not be straightforward. Hiring new staff and reopening won’t immediately resolve all issues.
“People are talking about the difficulty of hiring staff,” says Khan, “but what about the mental health of those who have been sitting it out, some for a year, and have not worked? What are the demands you are putting on them? What backups do you have to bring them in gently? Do not throw them in at the deep end.” The discussion about the mental health impact of the pandemic has frequently been sidelined over the past year, as the more immediate problems around physical health and the economy have played out. But as unlocking approaches, many are beginning to brace themselves for what is to come; the government announced a Mental Health Recovery Action Plan on 27 March. Khan believes that the hospitality industry, although raring to go and desperate to recoup losses, needs to be compassionate to returning workers. They need to be paid fair wages and given the space and flexibility at work to deal with any health issues — mental or physical — that crop up.
Where restaurants have largely seen the impact of Brexit deferred, those able to trade in the past 12 months haven’t had to wait for its devastating consequences. Rippon Cheese, based in Pimlico, stocks more than 500 cheeses, with 60 percent coming from Southern Ireland, France, Italy, and Germany. Before 1 January, it was importing directly from each country, working with a roster of suppliers who connected them to small farms and dairies, ranging from hard, nutty Tuscan pecorino to soft, aromatic Saint-Nectaire, made in Auvergne, France.
The shop doesn’t import directly anymore. In the run-up to January 1, it moved away from its network of local experts in switching to a U.K. wholesaler; it has now done the same with its French cheeses. New requirements for imports at customs, such as paperwork for every item imported and added declaration fees at the border, have forced the shop to scale back its cheese selection, with fees for its new distributors hitting profit margins on Italian and French cheeses by 10 to 15 percent. For now, commercial director Jon Harris says the shop is doing its best to maintain prices for customers, but this won’t be possible indefinitely. “Down the road there will be a hit. We’re trying to maintain our prices as they were, but it means we are now operating on an even tighter margin,” he says. “For the consumer, it will be a narrower assortment, and eventually it will be more expensive.”
This is a new reality for many small food businesses. The labour costs involved in processing new customs paperwork means they have little choice but to rely on larger U.K. wholesalers who have the experience and staff to fill out new, lengthy forms for every product they bring in from the EU. Anyone importing cheese, meat, or other foods must include specific product commodity codes, calculate VAT and duty payments themselves, and, where applicable, provide health certificates before the products can enter the U.K. For a shop like Rippon, which offers more than 500 cheeses, these regulations add up to a lot of paperwork. Meanwhile the wholesalers can shoulder the burden that would otherwise force small businesses to spend big money — approximately £30,000, according to Harris — to hire another staff member to take it on.
Not having to spend that £30,000 is offset by the downside of outsourcing: homogenisation. When import and customs costs outweigh the price of stock, it simply doesn’t make sense for either independent businesses or those larger wholesalers to order small quantities of niche products from Europe anymore. For many small businesses whose brands were previously built on their ability to import a wide range of rare or exclusive products, this turn toward wholesalers may lead to an unwanted lack of variety, where the stock range for businesses to choose from shrinks, inadvertently creating a race to the bottom where the only differential left is price.
But for some speciality retailers, the increased import shipping charges are still cheaper than trying to source products through U.K. suppliers. Delizie d’Italia, a cafe and deli in Pimlico, still buys about 90 percent of its stock directly from Italy, where it works with a local supplier. Co-owner Gaetano Lo Presti says that it is “the only way for us to go the extra mile and offer better prices to customers. If I had to buy the same products that I buy in Italy through an importer in the U.K., my prices would go through the roof.” There is no one solution to Brexit’s manifold disruption to food supply.
No one part of Britain’s food system epitomises the contradictions and complexities brought on by Brexit than fishing. Held up as symbolising the cause for independence and shedding the shackles of EU bureaucracy from the very beginning of the Vote Leave campaign, U.K. boats were promised favourable terms and a chance to reclaim British waters for British fishermen. In January, Jacob Rees-Mogg claimed fish were now happier because they were British. But in reality, 1 January brought a winter of discontent, rotting shellfish, and the feeling that the boats were sold a lie.
Jonathan Norris of Jonathan Norris Fishmonger says his suppliers have been devastated by Brexit. For many U.K. fish suppliers, their main markets are, or were, in Europe. In a story familiar to Rippon Cheese, new and extensive paperwork increased the time required to successfully process each shipment, leaving fish and shellfish destined for the Continent rotting in vans at Dover.
Additionally, according to Ben King, founder of the online fish market Pesky Fish, fish’s place in the Brexit narrative diverges from the likes of Lorne and Diogenes the Dog. Where the arrival of COVID-19 deferred the impact of Brexit on produce imports, it has compounded its deleterious effect on U.K. seas. The U.K. exports most of the fish caught in its waters (72 percent in 2019), with a large proportion going to restaurants in Europe. Even before the end of the Transition Period made exports stickier than ever, the pandemic caused European demand to drop off sharply. “As soon as those channels are immediately cut off by lockdowns, you get a guillotine for fishing businesses,” King says. Boats on Pesky’s marketplace saw their prices fall by 50 to 80 percent, and there were days when they were unable to make enough money to cover their fuel.
But King still believes that positive change may come as a result of events over the past year. “Our optimism is driven by the fact that we can see that there is a better industry model as a consequence of Brexit and COVID shaking things up, and going, ‘Well, if we were to start again, how would we do it?’” King says. But Norris is concerned that other supply lines have yet to grasp the fact that while fish’s perishability makes it especially susceptible to delays, it’s going to become the rule, not the exception. “These problems are going to be the same for pretty much anyone who exports. It’s just that the fishing industry was the canary in the coal mine because its stock is very time-critical and very diverse.”
For restaurants, COVID-19 has temporarily overshadowed many of the anticipated effects of Brexit. The three lockdowns, which have decimated revenues and put thousands out of work, were necessarily a much more immediate and devastating existential threat than the slow-burn departure that began nearly five years ago. But the irony of the pandemic is that by putting trade into slow motion, it has afforded some businesses extra, unexpected time to get to grips with issues anticipated by Brexit. It has also given owners and proprietors a chance to reevaluate how their businesses function, so that when they reopen, they can come back more resilient to the new economic reality engendered by both COVID-19 and leaving the European Union.
But the stories of suppliers and fishing boats show that the mutual reliance that supply chains depend on is already buckling; in the time restaurants have had to wait and watch, their producers have suffered greatly. This compounds the knowledge that the real effects of Brexit on restaurants have been deferred yet again. In emerging from one crisis, reopening dining rooms and terraces outside, then inside, and then at full capacity, they will be opening themselves up more and more to the full, devastating impact of another. Plan and prepare and predict as they might, the future of Brexit’s impact on hospitality can be summed up in a sentiment that COVID has made all too familiar: Wait, and see.