FFebruary 2020, UK restaurants were in shock. Staff based in the EU had been sent home by Brexit, no longer wanting to work in a country that gave the impression of not wanting it. The price of imported ingredients was rising, thanks to increased bureaucracy and a weakened pound. Yet, the restaurateurs told themselves, at least things could hardly get worse.
Enter the coronavirus. At times over the past two years, the pandemic has seemed like an extinction-level event for hospitality. All of the things originally blamed for the spread of the coronavirus — touching, breathing, getting close to other people — were just the kinds of things that happened in restaurants. They have been accused of not closing soon enough, despite inadequate government assurances of financial support. Then they were accused of not reopening quickly enough, before being propelled by Rishi Sunak’s ‘eat out to help’ scheme. After that, they were chastised for reopening too quickly, when the move proved premature at best and foolish at worst in the face of rising case numbers.
Absence makes the heart grow fonder and the stomach growls louder. Two years after the first lockdown, after experiencing a world without restaurants, we know what we were missing. Even if you don’t go to a restaurant often, you will have felt the thrill of being in the world again, in an elegant and sociable setting, eating dishes prepared, served and washed by others. Like the Center Pompidou for buildings, Covid has made the inner workings of restaurants clear. No one can pretend to ignore the money, the stress and the work that goes into eating out. With this new world comes new rules.
Do good with your tenants
Some of the high-profile shutdowns will be more mourned than others. Tears will flow more freely for Hix than branches of Cafe Rouge or Wahlburgers, the latter being actor Mark Wahlberg’s attempt to create a tourist trap in Covent Garden, which had barely begun before the trip to London took place. stops and he did too. “People don’t come back to central London five days a week, and I don’t know when the tourists will come back,” says Nick Garston, an agent specializing in restaurant properties. “But the market got back to normal remarkably quickly. The big new thing is the outdoor space. That’s key to what people are looking for. Before, operators might have shunned a bit of sidewalk with a few tables, but now they will try to make it work.
Although there have been deals to be struck in the depths of the pandemic, so far landlords have been reluctant to evict tenants, even those who have fallen behind on rent. Bigger agents are reluctant to write their entire portfolio, while independents mostly acknowledge the pressures restaurants are under. “If you evict someone, you have a period where you don’t collect rent, then you have to market the property. You have to do the analysis.
Offer as many meals as possible
The recent wave of new top cafes in the capital – Deco, Lighthaus, Cecilia, Norman’s – was partly born out of a desire to offer a more relaxed and flexible experience than the traditional three-course. It also naturally lends itself to meals and all-day income. Even Gunpowder, contemporary Indian restaurants in London best known for their fiery lamb chops, are experimenting with breakfast. Dishoom was prescient.
Give something special
“I think post-pandemic people are excited about an elevated dining experience,” says Jeremy Chan, head chef at the two-Michelin-starred Ikoyi in St James. “People are happy to spend on quality. We do 50 covers at £250 per person. High earners have saved so much in recent years that they are ready to spend.
Whether for business or pleasure, lunch is a moment of celebration
“We’ve seen the business lunch come back in a big way,” says Russell Norman of Brutto in Clerkenwell. “If you can afford the time and expense of having dinner with a colleague or client – especially if you have a business expense account – then it seems people are starting over after a fall, even before Covid. It’s very encouraging to see a bottle of wine and a few negronis on most of our lunch tables.” Sommeliers agree. “Thursday is the new Friday,” says Joshua Castle, head sommelier at London’s Noble Rot. “There has been a huge resurgence of interest in champagne. We thought people would have recalibrated their understanding of margins after so long at home, but that hasn’t happened. Drinkers exchange and spend more.
Adopt the technology
“Technology is now part of the customer experience,” says Mital Morar, founder of Manchester-based retail and hospitality company, The Store Group. “Covid has forced us to get things done so quickly and it’s now baked into what people expect.” The Sunday app, launched by the founders of the Big Mamma group, has grown rapidly. QR codes are here to stay, at least in casual chains, because they save staff time – five minutes per table adds up in a busy restaurant – and thus save owners money.
Appreciate the little things
The return to restaurants has made diners more grateful for the thriving restaurant offerings beyond food and drink. “People love the service,” says Molly Steemson, wine manager at Sessions Arts Club in east London. “All the thoughtful stuff you don’t get at home – glassware and oyster forks and cutlery.”
Menus adapted to customers
“We noticed that people didn’t travel that far to dine at the restaurant,” says Mary-Ellen McTague, of Campagna at the Creameries. “Before the pandemic people came from the wider Greater Manchester/Cheshire area but that just stopped. We had to completely change our business from a tasting menu to a neighborhood restaurant serving accessible dishes,” she says. “We have the same ingredients and the same quality, but a totally different delivery.” At the other end of the scale, some have taken the opposite path, following Marco Pierre White price increase rule in difficult times.
Book or don’t book. No-shows are not enabled
Before the pandemic, asking customers to book with a credit card could lead to a lot of pearls being taken. This is now the norm, at least in popular downtown restaurants. “People are much more attentive to their reservations,” explains François O’Neill of Maison François in St James’s. “I think they have a better understanding of how difficult things have been for restaurants and the impact of last minute cancellations or no-shows.” Outside of London, the reverse may apply. “Spontaneous meals seem to be back,” says Cecilia Gillies, of Number Eight at Sevenoaks. “Following the closures and having to book months in advance, people are enjoying their freedom and supporting local businesses. We have seen our walk-in visits increase dramatically.
“I noticed most people were very considerate and gave people space and space to pass,” says Jeremy Lee, chef-owner of Soho’s Quo Vadis. “There is consideration for those who still choose to wear masks. Cleaning is always a priority.
With restrictions lifted, some customers are sticking to masks while others couldn’t throw them away quickly enough. Some are happy to be pressed cheek to jowl again while others crave space. Plate sharing has become a more radical proposition, especially among people who are not in a relationship. Some customers diligently disinfect their hands, others return to soap and water (we hope).
“Post-pandemic dining seems to be about contradictions,” says Jacob Kenedy of Bocca di Lupo in central London. “Some customers want staff to wear masks, others resent it. Some want to be close and loud, others want distance and quiet. All seem to want one more drink than before.
Prepare to pay
“After the increase in VAT and corporate rates in April, prices will be more expensive,” says Hussein Ahmed of Viewpoint Accountants, who specializes in hospitality businesses. “It’s not the restaurant that’s being mocked, but the reality of rising food and beverage, staff and overhead costs. If you want to keep going to your favorite restaurant, be prepared to pay more.
Appreciate your staff
“Staffing remains a huge issue,” says Nick Garston. “Not just because of the pandemic, but also because of Brexit.” The situation may not be as dire as it was during the reopening phase, when Omicron tracked down hospitality, but the structural issues remain. For restaurateurs, this means they will have to pay their staff more; costs that will be passed on to consumers.
“We struggled to find chefs of the right caliber,” says Sola’s Victor Garvey in Soho. “You can’t just give these jobs to someone who worked in a pub. But we are getting there and we are busier than ever. Eat now; you never know when you might not be able to anymore.