With England still in the grips of a second national lockdown, many London restaurateurs are soldiering on undeterred, turning their venues from dining rooms to delis in order to keep their businesses going during the pandemic.
Perhaps the most wide scale example of this pivot is the super savvy JKS Restaurants group, which counts Gymkhana, Lyle’s and the two Michelin-starred Kitchen Table among the jewels in its crown. Since the second lockdown hit in early November, all of its sites began offering either a delivery or takeaway service, sometimes both.
Flor in Borough Market has morphed into ASAP Pizza, a daydream of chef James Lowe turned reality, which emerged as one of the success stories of the first lockdown due to the exemplary stewardship of Flor’s head chef, Pam Yung. JKS’s wildly popular steamed bun venue, Bao, is going great guns as a takeaway outfit called Rice Error specialising in Taiwanese rice boxes, Taiwanese fried chicken and pineapple cake.
For those keen to get as close as possible to the restaurant experience, the majority of the restaurants within the group offer a selection of ready to cook family feasts and finish-at-home signature dishes deliberately designed to make it simple for a home cook to assemble.
The Gymkhana Club Experience costs £110 and feeds four, while the Hoppers Cash & Kari is flogging lamb kothu roti kits for £30, and the Berenjak Bazaar is selling kebab kits for £30. Such a huge amount of work in restructuring the restaurant group in such a short space of time is impressive, but it’s something co-founder Jyotin Sethi takes in his stride.
“We did a lot of work over the summer developing these new sales channels so that we would be ready to put them into action during the second lockdown. The idea was to develop them to be permanent parts of our business,” says Sethi, who believes that the on-trade will continue its stop-start pattern until next spring. Describing the government’s handling of the crisis as a “shambles”, Sethi says that while challenging, the first lockdown had a silver lining.
“It made us really look at our business and forced us to become more agile and proactive, and develop a more resilient model, so we’re a better business for it. Our group is pretty complex and diverse in terms of its cuisines, so it took a lot of time and effort during the first lockdown to get our takeaway plans in place, which has stood us in good stead during this lockdown,” says Sethi, who reveals that ASAP Pizza has proved so popular that the group may open a dedicated venue down the line.
Asma Khan was due to open the second incarnation of her female-led Darjeeling Express concept in Covent Garden just as the second lockdown hit. To keep the cash coming in, the venue is currently operating as a takeaway-only deli, before it has even had the chance to run a single service. The deli menu is inspired by long train journeys Khan took through India with her family in the ‘70s, and includes street food dishes like channa chaat, Calcutta chicken kati rolls, keema toasties, and prawn malai curry with rice.
Khan describes the experience of trying to open a restaurant during lockdown as “a complicated story of two halves”, which began with “crushing disappointment” at not being able to open when planned, followed by the realisation that having a few extra weeks of prep time was no bad thing.
“A lot of our kit got stuck in Europe and arrived later than planned, so it would have been manic trying to open in the middle of November. I feel like I was given a pass having these extra two weeks, but it has been financially devastating, as I’ve got to pay my bills,” says Khan, who admits that money woes have been keeping her up at night. “I had to pay six months of rent when the restaurant was closed and there was no money coming in. I had to use my entire life savings just to stay afloat and pay the rent.”
Khan takes a philosophical view of the challenging cards she’s been dealt this year. “Everything happens for a reason, so you need to look at the positives and do things that you normally wouldn’t do, or it’s a wasted chance. I’ve been thinking a lot about what else I’d like to do with the team, and looking ahead beyond the restaurant into making it a social movement focused on gender equality and increasing diversity in the hospitality industry,” she says.
Zoe Paskin, co-founder of popular, Levantine-inspired, The Palomar in Soho and North African influenced The Barbary in Covent Garden opened The Barbary Next Door deli during lockdown 2.0, offering greedy gourmands some of the highlights from the restaurant, from sesame-flecked Jerusalem bagels and heavenly hummus to whole roasted cauliflower, chicken tagine and Ethiopian fish curry.
For Paskin, the first lockdown provided a chance to reflect on how best to adapt the business in order to successfully weather the Covid storm. “Our model revolved around bricks and mortar and we have famously small sites. I noticed during the first lockdown that people were visiting their local butchers more, and that gave me the idea for the deli, which they do so well on the continent,” she says.
Like Sethi, Paskin is planning for the deli to become a permanent fixture within the business, and hopes shoppers will use it as a place to indulge in a few treats in addition to their more practical weekly shop. It’s clear that a lot of thought has gone into the offering – orders come in a chic Barbary-branded canvas bag, inside of which are a pair of postcards emblazoned with a red etching of a lion. The biggest challenge for Paskin so far has been the unpredictability of the couriers, who are prone to cancelling at the last minute.
Ruth Rogers has also gotten in on the act, launching an online store where fans of The River Café can buy Italian treats like extra virgin olive oil, tiramisu, slow cooked tomato sauce, aged sirloin steak and even a truffle slicers. Meanwhile, sommelier Bert Blaize has just opened a wine shop and deli called Bottles ‘N’ Jars in a classic car showroom in Highgate, which serves everything from coffee, cured meats and copious cheeses to salted caramel figs and squid ink fideos.
While times are undeniably tough for the on-trade at the moment, Sethi of JKS Restaurants hopes that Covid will help to reset landlord rent expectations in central London venues. “The landscape for those who do come out the other side will be a better one. Landlord tenant relationships will have to be reset and revisited. A structural shift was needed as it was getting out of control,” he says.
Sethi is “actively seeking” new sites at the moment in the hope of expanding the JKS empire. “We’re looking to grow our portfolio. There are good real estate opportunities out there right now for those who want to start up, so hopefully we’ll see a lot of newcomers next year that will help the London dining scene to thrive.
“I believe London was the culinary capital of the world before lockdown, and we still have the chance to continue that reputation post lockdown if the government helps small independent restaurants to get through this,” he says.
Paskin of The Palomar is equally optimistic that the pandemic will bring about a reduction in restaurant rents in the West End. “If Covid hasn’t achieved a redressing of the imbalance with London landlords I’d be amazed. There should be opportunities for newcomers as things level out,” she says.
As for Khan, she’s proud to be a Londoner and is grateful for the opportunities the city has offered her. “I don’t consider myself Indian or British, I’m a Londoner first and foremost. The city has given me the roots to grow my business – you can be anything you want to be here and people will support you. I try to buy all the ingredients I use in my restaurant from as close to London as possible as my way of paying homage to the city.”