Hospitality businesses are among the hardest hit by the fallout from the pandemic. Restaurateurs tell Positive News how they clubbed together to get through the worst – and why they’re hopeful for the future
“Infuriated” is the word chef Chantelle Nicholson would use to describe her state of mind on 20 March, the day Boris Johnson announced that restaurants across the country must close their doors as part of lockdown measures.
“We’d already ordered [the food] we needed for the week, the guys were in the kitchen prepping it,” explains the owner of Tredwells, a modern restaurant in central London. “[We were at] a complete loss of what to do next.”
It wasn’t just Nicholson feeling this way. The announcement left restaurant owners up and down the country scrambling to work out how they could keep their businesses afloat, support their staff and suppliers through the crisis, and even contribute to the response.
Here are four ways they did that:
1. Supporting staff mental health
Hospitality workers have been among the hardest hit by the crisis; an estimated 80 per cent were furloughed during lockdown. “My first thought was, obviously, my team,” explains Nicholson. Of her 45 staff members, she says, many don’t have family in London. “They’re potentially living with people they don’t really know, and they’re suddenly in these four walls that they couldn’t really get out of,” she adds.
Nicholson started a WhatsApp group for staff to stay in touch, encouraging them to share what they were cooking at home. She also shared resources for mental health support, pointing staff in the direction of volunteering opportunities for furloughed workers. “From a holistic perspective it also gave them something to focus on rather than dwelling on the enormity of the situation,” Nicholson says. “It created a little hope.”
And for all the uncertainty, the pandemic has also given Nicholson the chance to take a much needed break. “I can’t remember the last time I had a week off in the last 16 years,” she says. “This has given us an opportunity to pause, reset, and do things differently.”
2. Donating to a cause
Rather than do nothing while their businesses were unable to operate, many restauranteurs have been using their skills to to support the Covid-19 response. London Restaurant Cooperative, which was set up by restaurateur Steven Tozer, recruited furloughed hospitality staff to make and distribute meals to NHS staff and vulnerable people in the city.
Meanwhile, A Plate for London is focusing on tackling food poverty and is now delivering 1,500 chef-curated meal kits a week. As well as helping people in need, the ventures [provided an outlet for furloughed staff. “Just keeping busy and doing something with purpose drives you,” says founder Dominic Cools-Lartigue, who also launched the Street Feast night market in 2012.
3. Found innovative ways to keep the business afloat
Despite being unable to serve people in their restaurants, many business owners have found alternative ways to make money and keep a handle on their overheads. Some, such as Nicholson, turned to delivering their meals to customers at home. While the money made didn’t completely cover the restaurant’s overheads, Nicholson says, “it did provide necessary income for the team when there was no certainty as to what Government relief was available”.
Some restaurateurs even pooled their skills to launch new products for people eating at home. In May, the teams at north London restaurant Wander and sustainable seafood supplier Henderson Seafood joined up to launch an at-home meal kit, complete with wine pairings. Meanwhile, Burger & Lobster has joined forces with a trio of steak restaurants – Goodman, Beat and Zelman Meats – to launch a range of meal kits.
The way we’re looking after each other and supporting each other – I want to hold on to that
Elsewhere, others began selling restaurant-quality groceries. Carole Bryon, whose wine and tapas bar Lady of the Grapes is also in central London, set up an online shop within two weeks of the lockdown being announced. “Even though it didn’t cover all our [costs], it helped to make ends meet,” Bryon says. “And now we have quite a big online store, which we’re going to keep.”
4. Looking out for one another
According to Bryon, her fellow restaurant owners nearby have been a source of invaluable support, sharing advice on how they are planning to adapt to the “new normal”.
“There’s more empathy, more solidarity,” she explains. “Before, we were always busy, so while we knew each other because we were on the same street, the contact was just saying hello. Now we’re exchanging tips on how to do outdoor tables, and finding out when we’re each reopening.”
Meanwhile Cools-Lartigue says that while the pandemic has been extraordinarily challenging, it’s also recentered people’s lives around their local communities.” Communities are alive,” he says. “People are in their communities doing what they can, where they can.”
He says that many restaurant owners are now figuring out how they can continue giving back to the NHS and local communities. “This time last year people were saying there wasn’t a sense of community. The way we’re looking after each other and supporting each other – I want to hold on to that.”