London’s restaurateurs have opened up to WLC’s Lucy Shaw about the difficulty of trying to trade under tier two restrictions, with co-founder of The Wolseley, Jeremy King, describing the situation as “like being cut off at the knees”.
The UK capital was put under tier two restrictions at midnight on Friday 16 October. Since then, diners in London have only been able to eat inside restaurants with members of their household or support bubble.
The rule of six applies to outdoor dining, but with temperatures plummeting, eating al fresco is becoming increasingly unviable.
“Just when we were establishing some stability in trading, admittedly on a truncated basis, the arrival of tier two restrictions was like being cut off at the knees,” King, co-owner of The Delaunay, Brasserie Zédel, Fischer’s and Colbert, told WLC.
“We could just about manage at 65/70% of last year’s turnover, but the single household edict saw an immediate reduction of 50% of what we had been trading at – that’s at best 35%/40%, which is untenable.
“We were in the worst of both worlds without either trade or government support. Interestingly, the hitherto resilient neighbourhood restaurants were just as affected as the West End, but we are slowly seeing growth back to reasonably acceptable levels. What we need to know now is how we get out of tier two,” he added.
Adding salt to the wound is the 10pm curfew, meaning restaurants lose an entire second tranche of covers as the latest they can take bookings is around 8.30pm in order for customers to have time to dine before closing time.
For Gearoid Devaney, who runs Burgundy-focused restaurant Cabotte in the City and The Black Book in Soho (which used to be Trade – a private members’ bar for the hospitality industry), the worst element of tier two is the mixed messages people are being given and the resulting confusion in what the rules actually are.
“Our reservations fell off a cliff when the tier two restrictions were introduced. The strength of the industry relies on confidence and people are being given very mixed messages. Customer confidence has been knocked and we’ve had a lot of cancellations as a result,” he told WLC.
“Customer numbers at Cabotte were down 70% last week on the week before, which is keeping me awake at night. The uncertainty is the worst thing as you don’t know what will happen from one week to the next.
“It feels similar to back at the end of March when Boris stood at the lectern and told people not to go out but restaurants weren’t told to close – if anything it’s worse now; like a slow death of a thousand cuts.”
One of Devaney’s biggest frustrations is that the hospitality industry has been one of the hardest hit by the tier two restrictions and yet, according to recent data from UK Hospitality, Covid transmission rates in restaurants and bars remain very low.
“The hospitality industry has gone out of its way to make sure its customers are safe, through masks, hand sanitiser, social distancing and table service. The transmission rates in hospitality venues are tiny.
“No one is making light of the public health situation, but the industry as a whole has made great strides in making it safe for people to dine, so it’s a shame that we’re getting bashed,” he said.
Devaney, like many others, would like to see the 10pm curfew scrapped, as he believes it is “illogical” and “not based on scientific facts”.
He also admitted that the rule on people only dining with members of their household is impossible for hospitality venues to police. “We can’t ask people to show us their marriage certificate or utility bills,” he said.
The glimmer of hope is a loophole allowing for indoor business lunches of up to six people, with up to 30 people allowed to convene for a business lunch in a private dining room.
For Sam Hart, co-owner of a slew of popular London restaurants including small tapas chain Barrafina, Borough Market taco joint El Pastor and Quo Vadis in Soho, outdoor dining options have been a key factor in a venue’s success in recent weeks.
“Every extra layer of regulations takes an extra percent off our turnover. Tier two has affected our venues differently. In our smaller Barrafina with no outdoor space, it’s taken a big chunk off our revenue, while Plaza Pastor, which has heated covered outdoor seating for 150 people, smashed it last week,” he said.
Having recently closed Parrillan, an outdoor dining concept where customers cook their own food over charcoal at their table, Hart said it is likely to reopen soon with a simplified offer.
While the restaurant group suffered “a huge amount of cancellations” since tier two restrictions came in, he’s also witnessed the resilience of Londoners determined to go out and enjoy themselves.
“People are fed up of being locked in, so they’ll eat outdoors with their coat on and try to make the best of it,” he said.
Hart said it was too early to tell whether the business meetings loophole will have a positive effect on sales, as it only recently came to light.
Events used to account for 15% of the company’s business, with an average of 30 events taking place across the venues each week, but that side of the business has been “killed stone dead” by Covid.
He also revealed that the industry’s usually quieter trading times – Monday and Tuesday lunchtimes – had been most affected by the tier two restrictions, with trade over the weekends remaining more resilient.
Like Devaney, Hart would like to see the 10pm curfew scrapped. “When the curfew came in, we lost 20% of our business overnight,” he admitted.
As to whether his staff are checking if diners are from the same household or support bubble, Hart said the situation was “impossible” to police.
“We cannot be and would never wish to be a police force trying to investigate our customers. It’s their responsibility rather than ours to ensure the single household rule is adhered to. It’s an impossibility to think we could police that. Even the police are saying they can’t police it,” he said.
Devaney hopes the appointment of a minister for hospitality within the UK government would give the industry more of a voice in parliament.
“We need a minster for hospitality who understands the trade. It’s such an important part of our social fabric and our economy, it’s negligent not to have a minister at the moment.
“As a species humans have got to where we are through socialising – we’re not solitary beings,” he said.
Hart hopes that misguided government decisions don’t end up doing lasting damage to London’s culinary landscape.
“It would be a tragedy to see London lose its status as the culinary capital of the world due to misguided government policies and bad decisions, which are ruining livelihoods and the reputation of city. We don’t need bail outs – we need our customers to be allowed to return,” he said.