London restaurateurs react to tier three ruling

After only two weeks of trading since the last lockdown, hospitality businesses across London have been forced to close yet again, with just over 24 hours’ notice. Eloise Feilden speaks to four restaurateurs in the UK capital to find out what being moved into tier three will mean for their businesses.

Chef Adam Handling lost four restaurants in the first lockdown

Tier three rules mean that no seated dining is allowed, and restaurants are only able to offer a takeaway and delivery services. Some restaurants have been able to alter their business models in order to deal as best they can with the constantly changing government restrictions, but for others a move into the higher level of coronavirus restrictions means closing up shop and waiting out the storm.

Restaurateur Sam Hart co-owns a number of London hotspots, including tapas bar chain Barrafina and Quo Vadis in Soho. He calculated a loss of almost £400,000 across his ten restaurants this week as a result of the new restrictions, which came into force at 00.01am on Wednesday.

Sam Hart (left) with his brother and business partner Eddie

“It’s absolutely crazy – 24 hours is nowhere near enough time to successfully run your stocks down or plan for a closure, particularly not in what would have been the busiest week of the year. We would have taken something like half a million pounds this week. Now we’ll take £100,000. Wednesday, Thursday, Friday in the run-up to Christmas are the busiest three days of the whole year. It makes the most enormous difference,” he told db.

Apart from a nationwide delivery service for finish at home tacos from El Pastor in Borough Market, no other at-home ventures from the Hart brothers will be ready in time before the restaurants close, and the cost of producing the food is much higher when it is not already being cooked everyday in the kitchen for in-house serving. The only thing left to do is shut down for the most part, in the hopes of opening again as soon as government rules allow.

Adam Handling, chef and owner of a number of upmarket restaurants and bars in the UK capital including Frog by Adam Handling and Eve Bar, has been forced to adapt his business model to fit the changing circumstances after losing four of his sites over the first lockdown period. At his remaining restaurants he is now making and delivering cocktail kits and food boxes to finish at home.

“About halfway through I ran out of money and was getting rent demanded for all of my sites, so I had to make a quick decision to get some money fast or lose the whole group. We lost four restaurants in the first lockdown, we couldn’t afford to lose anymore in the second,” Handling told db.

The adaption to making food boxes has been a saving grace for Handling’s restaurant group, which is now stable as a result of the success of his new venture. “We’re making between 1,800 and 2,000 dishes a week sold nationwide. During lockdown if I didn’t have that I wouldn’t have had a restaurant group at all.”

Asma Khan was due to open her Covent Garden restaurant Darjeeling Express on 18 November, but with the arrival of the second lockdown in November, restrictions meant that she was forced to adapt, opening only the deli counter within the site to serve passing trade.

Asma Khan’s Darjeeling Express only got to trade for two weeks

Now, after less than two weeks of the restaurant’s eventual opening, Khan is having to revert back to this same model as restaurants are forced to close their doors yet again. She described the return to the deli and closure of the dining area as her plan A, knowing that going back into lockdown was highly likely.

“I knew that this was not going to be the normal Christmas that Boris Johnson was talking about. Saying it was going to be normal was not going to make it normal because they had not put into place the policies. Financially it is devastating. I have staff I have to pay before Christmas; the fact that we cannot trade in the restaurant is going to be crippling.

“We are heavily booked up until next year, and all of those bookings have to be moved around as well. It is incredibly difficult and debilitating because you know that it may not be the end of the story, and it may just drag on through the whole of January as well,” Khan told db.

Although the time spent trading through December has added up to less than a fortnight, for all three business owners, trading was going better than expected once they were able to open. Handling and Khan’s restaurants were both fully booked, and Hart noted that one day last week his restaurant group made more money than on the same day last year.

However, not all business owners have been so lucky. Richard Bigg, the founder and managing director of Camino, a small chain of Spanish tapas restaurants in London, made the difficult decision earlier this year to close one of his four branches, Camino Bankside, which ran almost entirely on trade from nearby office workers who have been advised to work from home.

Within the remaining branches, the business’s current turnover is as low as 35% compared to last year, as footfall has been greatly reduced and the lunchtime rush has stalled. He said: “We’ve battened down the hatches as far as we possibly can. We’re trying not to lose too much money and trying to get through to spring where we can utilise the outside spaces much better and hope that enough people will have had the vaccine by then and that the restrictions will have lifted to some extent,” Bigg told db.

Richard Bigg was forced to close Camino Bankside

But despite the devastating effect the pandemic has had on his business, Bigg remains focussed on prioritising public health above anything else. “The number one priority of course is not to overwhelm hospitals and NHS staff,” he said. “That comes before anything.”

For Khan, who runs a team of home-taught female chefs, trying to keep people safe has also been of the highest priority. In the first few months of the pandemic, Khan lost three family members to Covid-19 in a 40-day period, and her perspective on the virus has changed as a result.

Her personal experience of loss within her family has made her highly cautious, and she holds the safety of her staff and customers as the most important factor in any of her decision-making. “I can say with confidence that when we were open and people came in they sensed the careful planning that had gone on,” she said.

But there is growing frustration within the industry that hospitality businesses are becoming, yet again, the scapegoat for government legislation, as data from Public Health England published back in October revealed that just 2.7% of coronavirus cases were linked to hospitality.

Sam Hart aired his frustration on the topic, noting that within his team of 300, there has been just one case of the virus since reopening in July, compared with the myriad of cases coming out of his children’s school. Hart remarked on how essential it has always been for hospitality businesses to be trained to deal with sanitation, well before the pandemic began.

“Restaurants, pubs and bars are expert at keeping people safe because we do that from all sorts of diseases,” he said, “from norovirus and food poisoning and e coli, all the normal coughs, colds and flus. So we’re well set up and expertly trained in keeping people safe because we have to be. If you’re not keeping people safe serving food then you poison them,” he said.

Tuesday was the final day of in-house trading before tier three restrictions came into force in London, and with no knowledge of when they might be able to open their doors again, hospitality workers remain anxious of what the new year might hold.

Khan, who will keep running Darjeeling Express Deli for the foreseeable future, spoke of her need to keep working despite the changing restrictions and economic strain it is forcing on her business. As she put it: “It’s not even financially viable what we are doing, but I wanted to open, because for me it is a way of coming back to life. I need to serve to feel that there is light, that we are getting out of this incredible darkness.”

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