The City’s fanciest restaurateurs see signs of hope as ‘cataclysmic’ lockdown eases

Chris Galvin just wants to get cooking again. The chef and co-founder of the group that owns Michelin-starred La Chapelle in the City and Galvin Windows at Park Lane worries it might be September, or even 2021, before diners return.

In December, La Chapelle had celebrated its highest monthly sales for 10 years; in January and February, Galvin said the restaurant saw 0.4% growth.

“It’s a cataclysmic issue that the City isn’t coming back,” he said. “Any table is the last bastion of civilisation: we talk, we laugh, we cry, we make up and break up, and we make deals.”

The last few months have been devastating for the hospitality sector in the UK, and played a big part of the record 20% plunge in the economy in April. Rolling three-month services growth also dropped, driven by falls in nearly every industry including food and beverage service activities, which fell by 38.8% as bars and restaurants were forced to close.

Hospitality and tourism sectors have been two of the hardest hit by Covid-19. Just 11% of hospitality businesses have been able to operate normally during the lockdown and international tourist arrivals likely to be down 59% for the year, according to UKHospitality.

The lobby group also noted the sector’s 21% decline in trade in the first three months of the year, a figure that is 10 times worse than the average across the economy. A third of businesses may never reopen, it said.

“I cannot wait to be able to see my guests coming through the door,” said chef José Pizarro, who has three tapas restaurants in London and one in Surrey. “But we don’t know yet what the new normal is.”

On 10 June, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced during a briefing that the next phase of lockdown lifting – when restaurants, bars and pubs hope to open again — will not begin until 4 July “at the earliest”, dispelling earlier rumours that had hinted at 22 June.

“We’re finding out day by day,” said Galvin, adding that the still-empty office towers in the Square Mile are an extra concern. “It’s quite a pressured situation.”

One metre or two?

“We’ve got to get rid of this two-week quarantine and we’ve got to get down [from two metres] to one metre,” said Galvin, referring to the government’s social distancing and the fortnight quarantine imposed on people arriving in the UK from 8 June.

The World Health Organisation has recommended one metre, other countries like Spain have adopted 1.5 metres. The British government is advising people to stay two metres apart to prevent the spread of the disease, although Boris Johnson has now commissioned a review of the two-metre rule, according to 14 June reports.

In an analysis on the sector’s preparations to return to normal, accounting firm PwC highlighted that the discussion over the required distance between people will be “critical” to the industry, determining at what capacity a site can operate — and thus impacting their revenues.

PwC hosted a roundtable with 27 hospitality sector business leaders on 26 May, and reported that just 7% of them believe they will be able to operate at full capacity in the “short- and medium-term”. Further, 86% expect to operate between 50% to 70% of their capacity.

Petite menu, limited service

While these question marks over social-distancing and capacity persist, City workers venturing back to their favourite haunts for their first post-lockdown business lunches can expect to see precautionary measures in place.

Venues that FN spoke to, including La Chapelle, The Ned, and the famed members’ club The Walbrook, near Mansion House, all said they were strengthening hygiene procedures.

Philip Palumbo, managing director of The Walbrook, said: “The new normal would look like a slightly pared-down operation with stringent hygiene measures underpinning every movement.” He added: “[Staff] will be full briefed on health and safety and maintaining personal hygiene. Things like not placing bowls of nuts or crisps on the bar.”

At La Chapelle, staff will be asked to sanitise their hands every 20 minutes. Customers will also have to get used to pouring their clients’ or guests’ wine because waiters will visit the tables less frequently. They might also find menus with fewer options than before.

In Paris, Guy Savoy, the world-famous Michelin-starred chef, also stressed that extra hygiene measures will be put in place. But he pointed out that health and safety have always been part of the DNA of the profession and the sector. 

On 14 June, French President Emmanuel Macron announced that restaurants and bars in the capital, which until then had only been allowed to serve food and drinks outside, could now welcome customers back indoors.

“Part of the joy of the hospitality industry is that we are hospitable and we want to give people an experience – to feed you and make you feel welcome,” said Angela Malik, partner at strategy consultancy Think Hospitality.

“Is that possible with plastic screens and behind masks? How do you create that sense of welcome when everything so distant and sanitised? These are big questions that we are all struggling with.”

Most are planning to maintain the measures introduced during lockdown to keep the business afloat — including delivery services and DIY meal kits, as well as virtual events to stay connected to customers. Many hope these will provide a bridge as people get comfortable with the idea of casual dining again.

The Ned, the former banking hall opposite the Bank of England, said it plans to reopen gradually, “starting with a few public restaurants and areas of Ned’s Club, such as the roof, and a couple of bedroom floors in the hotel,” Gareth Banner, the managing director, said in an email.

During lockdown, Ned’s Club has hosted virtual events, such as hair maintenance tips from the head barber, wine tastings and yoga masterclasses. “We’ll be continuing digital events until the members feel comfortable coming back into The Ned,” Banner added, explaining that they would have to be “very adaptable” as government policies are updated.

In Paris, Savoy also plans on launching a service that sees one of his sous-chefs cook in a customer’s home.

“The challenge for hospitality operators like ours will be creating the atmosphere and sense of occasion that is so special,” said Banner. “There is going to be a real art to making service attentive and personal whilst at the same time, recognising that many guests might prefer to have less contact than in the past.”

‘A real social need’

There is hope, though. Some chefs and executives report that regular clients have been in contact, letting them know they are looking forward to enjoying a meal at a restaurant once more.

On Monday 8 June, Palumbo at The Walbrook got an email from a member asking him if it would be possible to host a breakfast for 10 people.

The email was welcome since the 1950s-era red-brick townhouse, which is tucked away down a small alley in the heart of the City, has been closed since 23 March like other clubs and restaurants.

“I started my day with a Cheshire cat grin,” Palumbo said.

During lockdown, members have had the option to buy Wal-bonds, securing a meal or a drink at the club within the first month of it opening its doors again. At £100 for two people, a Churchill’s Carousal bond includes eight classic cocktails and canapés.

A poll by YouGov, conducted earlier in the period of lockdown, signals pent-up demand. Of 1,763 people in the UK surveyed on April 21 and 22, the polling firm found that around a third said they would spend more on dining out once the virus-control measures ease than they did before they began.

Guy Savoy is also confident that restaurateurs will find a way to get back on their feet.

“There will be evolution as there always has been, since I started this profession, my way of working has always evolved,” he said. “I have always celebrated gourmandise, so I will continue to celebrate it in a warm atmosphere.”

To contact the author of this story with feedback or news, email Bérengère Sim

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