Ten days into indoor reopening, after five months of closure, London’s restaurants are looking forward: First, to the 21 June, when all restrictions are scheduled to be lifted; and then, well, they don’t yet know. The future for all of hospitality is indeterminate.
Ahead of time, restaurateurs and chefs expressed great hope that once they’d opened, they’d be able to remain so; with a stack of reservations and no small amount of relief, dine-in came back. Among restaurateurs’ greatest concerns are rent — for which a solution to debt accumulated during the past year still remains unfound — and staff, not only keeping them safe and motivated, but finding them in the first place. The pandemic, remember, has only temporarily delayed the staffing crisis in-waiting that will arrive as a result of Brexit.
Now, they look ahead. As Sambal Shiok’s Mandy Yin put it last week, “The most important thing we’ve learned is to plan for the worst and hope for the best.”
As well as Yin, Eater London spoke to Iré Hassan-Odukale, owner of Ikoyi, the West African-inspired fine dining restaurant in central London; Ellen Chew, the restaurateur behind Singaporean restaurant Rasa Sayang in Chinatown and Covent Garden bakery Arome; Ashik Ali, of Delhi Grill in Islington; Modern European cafe-bakery-restaurant group owner Jeremie Cometto-Lingenheim; Queensway’s Normah Abd Hamid of Normah’s; and Ferhat Dirik of Turkish restaurant Mangal 2. Mitshel Ibrahim, of the pandemic restaurant, Ombra in Hackney, makes a cameo.
The below interviews have been edited for clarity.
What’s the most important lesson, if anything, you’ve learned in the last year?
Jeremie Cometto-Lingenheim, Brut Restaurants: Kindness and patience towards others in the face of adversity.
Normah Abd Hamid, Normah’s: To adapt to ‘new normal’ in every aspect of business operations.
Mandy Yin, Sambal Shiok: To plan for the worst and hope for the best.
Mitshel Ibrahim, Ombra: Business plans are waste of time. No operation is bullet proof. Flexibility/adaptability is the only way. Wakanda forever ✊
Iré Hassan-Odukale, Ikoyi: Adapt. Everything is possible, even if you think something is crazy and not going to happen. You have to be flexible and able to change things quickly to respond.
Ellen Chew, Chew on This Restaurants: The biggest takeaway is having the flexibility and ability to evolve quickly and to meet the industry’s demands. As a small business, we were able to manoeuvre quickly and make changes literally overnight. Staying nimble is key to staying relevant in this day and age.
Ferhat Dirik, Mangal 2: To live, laugh, and love. I jest. But to not take our simple liberties for granted. We absolutely love what we do, and I did not realise how incomplete I feel without having a restaurant full of hungry, happy punters to serve.
What have you missed most and what are you looking forward to?
NAH: I am a “people person” as my children like to “brand” me with. And cooking is one way of me engaging with people. It gives me great pleasure seeing smile on my customer face when they enjoy eating my food. And that is the very reason why I open the restaurant and leave my corporate world. To my regulars I am Aunty Normah.
FD: Genuinely, I miss working a service. I miss the adrenaline and fun of a busy, successful shift. The pre-service silence, the service itself being vibrant and time-flying, and the post-service, for want of a better word, emptiness. Because you give your all, and then you go home and recharge for the next day. I can’t wait for customers to try our new menu and our new wines. It will reaffirm all of our decisions this lockdown.
I H-O: People. The routine, the guests, being in a busy restaurant. Having that atmosphere in the restaurant again, being busy, having people come in and be happy, enjoying the experience.
What are you dreading?
MY: The B.1.617.2 variant scuppering social distancing restrictions being lifted next month and/or this variant outsmarting the vaccines currently on offer.
EC: The past year has been enough of a dread. I’m only looking upwards at this point. Being able to open up our restaurant to the customers who have supported us over the years is reason enough to eliminate the dread of 2020.
IH-O: Any more outbreaks.
NAH: Another close down.
If getting open again is the first hurdle to overcome in the period of recovery post-lockdown, what are the other hurdles you’re expecting to face in the coming weeks and months?
IH-O: The coming weeks and months should be fine. It’s just ensuring the demand is sustained, and people keep coming out and supporting restaurants. At Ikoyi, we’re going from zero to a hundred with bookings, so it’s important that we’re ready. It’ll be a rude awakening I’m sure, so we just need to ensure we’re all prepared.
MY: Nothing more than the normal headache of running a restaurant. Which would be very welcome!
NAH: Please no increase in rent, no price hike on raw food supply. We don’t want to increase our price too. We do understand a lot of people are in great difficulty.
What’s your topline prediction for the rest of the year? For your own restaurant but also the industry at large?
IH-O: We’re just going to keep going! Pressing forward and making each service count. Too many people rely on us to look at it any other way. Farmers, fishermen, suppliers, staff, guests. If restaurants recover and can survive this reopening phase, I’m sure they will do well, but some may not make it and that will be sad.
EC: The fact that we have rolled out three different concepts during the pandemic speaks volumes of the team that I’ve had the privilege to work with. If we continue with such tenacity and grit I believe that we will flourish even more in 2021.
NAH: Hospitality is in a slow phase at the moment. I believe this industry will fully recover when we receive outbound tourists again.