Pak Wai Hung of 288 Bar and Wok in Cheltenham was in his kitchen at home last Monday, when he heard the news. “I had tuned into the press conference because I thought something was coming,” he says now. He hadn’t anticipated that the prime minister would encourage people to stay away from bars, clubs and restaurants. “I had a panic attack,” Hung says. “It was the way it was done. It was announced with no clarity or backup. That wasn’t leadership.”
Immediately chefs and restaurateurs took to social media to complain that they’d been left hanging: they hadn’t been told to close but because of the coronavirus, their customers had been told to stay away. They understood the need to fight the virus and save lives, they said. But surely there had to be something in the way of support? In the days that followed, restaurant after restaurant announced it was closing its doors for the foreseeable future.
Chef Angela Hartnett’s London restaurant Murano went dark. All of the D&D Restaurants group, which includes Quaglino’s and the Bluebird Cafes, shut down. Le Gavroche turned off the lights. But these are well-financed establishments. The group behind the Wolseley and Brasserie Zedel, for example, announced that its restaurants were also closing, but staff were staying on some form of salary for now. Most hospitality businesses, however, are independents, without the financial heft to do that. Thousands of chefs and waiters posted that they’d lost their jobs.
“Footfall was already down by 70% in central London over the first two weeks of March,” said Kate Nicholls, chief executive of UKHospitality, which represents the sector. “Overnight it fell off a cliff.”
Hospitality is worth £72bn a year to the economy and is the UK’s third largest employer, providing direct work for 3.2 million people. Nicholls estimates that 200,000 of those people lost their jobs in the two weeks before the press conference and that another 300,000 lost them during the rest of last week.
The following day’s announcement by chancellor Rishi Sunak, of support for small businesses including rates holidays and underwritten loans was, she says, too little far too late: “If you were following a logical path, you’d have signalled to these businesses that you were about to make a statement but don’t panic, help will be coming.”
What’s more, for the workers who’d lost their jobs, she says, the help for companies was irrelevant. They no longer worked for them. “Virtually every other European country has provided a percentage of payroll payment for companies,” she said. Norway is paying 100% of wages for 20 days. Austria is replacing 80-90% of net wages. By Friday morning, Nicholls was still waiting for a similar announcement from Downing Street.
Facing an existential threat, the restaurant sector spent the week looking for ways to change its business model. “We’ve always done a little takeaway on the side,” says Pak Wai in Cheltenham. “But for the past week we’ve plastered our windows with click-and-collect offers. We have a lay-by opposite, so customers can text us and we can bring the food out. So far it has worked really well.”
Bistrotheque, which has traded in East London since 2004, has moved to delivery and takeaway. “We’ve decided to reduce our menu down to greatest hits and food that will travel well,” says co-owner Pablo Flack. “We’ve had to let people go. We want to keep our remaining core team engaged.” Chef Adam Byatt, a regular on the BBC’s Saturday Kitchen, has turned his restaurant Bistro Union in south London, into Bistro Stores, serving meals and groceries to the local community.
Lunya, a small group of tapas restaurants/delis in Liverpool and Manchester, has increased its range and started preparing dishes including a decidedly un-Spanish shepherd’s pie for takeaway. “I know the shepherd’s pie is great,” says chef-owner Peter Kinsella, “Because it’s my mum’s recipe.”
Social media generally has thronged with announcements of new delivery and takeaway offers, as well as community efforts to feed both the emergency services and the disadvantaged.
Finally, on Friday night came the chancellor’s announcement of European-style support for individuals, including payments of up to £2,500 a month for those no longer working for companies but still employed. “This is a big package,” Kate Nicholls of UKHospitality said. “But the money doesn’t flow through until the end of April. The lack of urgency and immediacy will cause real problems. No business has yet got their hands on a loan, and companies in hospitality – now told to close – will run out of cash.”
The question at the end of a terrible week for the UK’s restaurants, part of one of Europe’s most dynamic hospitality sectors, is how many of them will be in a position to reopen when this crisis comes to an end.
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