“The rituals of eating and drinking together are at the heart of our civilisation, of our very humanity, yet now they are what make us all most vulnerable.” In just one sentence Kate Hawkings, a former restaurant owner herself, captures the dilemma we are now faced with. The desire on one hand to support our local on-trade, but the knowledge we might be putting each other risk if we do go out eating and drinking. Here she shares her personal feelings towards coping with Covid-19 and talks to her contacts and friends in the restaurant trade about what impact it is having on their businesses.
The new business support measures announced by the government – including a 12 month business rate holiday and £25k cash grants for smaller businesses without insurance cover – is at last some good news for the restaurant and hospitality sectors, but it still leaves many owners and operators in no man’s land, says Kate Hawkings.
The relationship between restaurant and customer is one of the most intimate imaginable. The chefs who chop herbs for a garnish and lovingly plate our food; the waiters who lay our tables, carry our plates and pour wine into glasses shared by so many lips; the KPs who sort our dirty napkins and wash our dirty cutlery; the bartenders who polish our glasses ’til they gleam.
We are tied to them all through these threads of physical contact but also by the more profound links of hospitality, of cooking and sharing each other’s food and company. The rituals of eating and drinking together are at the heart of our civilisation, of our very humanity, yet now they are what make us all most vulnerable.
“It’s like watching a car crash in slow motion,” said a restaurateur friend last Friday of the coronavirus crisis. “And it’s a multiple pile-up with a huge amount of casualties.” As I write now, four days later, that sounds like an understatement of the highest order. Nobody knows quite how deeply coronovirus will cut but what is already clear is that the hospitality industry, as so many others, is facing catastrophic consequences.
Last Saturday on March 14 I started writing this, a piece that was intended to be as upbeat as possible, to find out how restaurants, their staff and suppliers are coping, and how their customers can best help them ride this terrible storm. How massively the world seems to have changed since then.
“As far as possible we would like to trade through this,” Nick Gibson of London’s Draper’s Arms told me on Sunday. “We provide our employees with an income that keeps them afloat so will continue to be here for as long as we can. Within the constraints of government advice and your own health considerations, please do continue to go out.”
“Finding the balance between protecting our staff, our customers and our business is so hard,” said Tessa Lidstone at Bristol’s acclaimed Box E the same day. “I’m incredibly grateful for thoughtful customers – those staying away if ill, cancelling in good time if they need to, and those still coming if well and spending money.”
On Monday afternoon Tessa messaged me to say they were closing immediately. “The final factor were some lovely older regulars asking to book to combat the cancellations and I just thought how devastated we’d be if something happened to them here,” she said.
Moments later Boris Johnson made the announcement that everybody should stay away from pubs, clubs, theatres and restaurants but, crucially, did not make it a legal requirement for those places to close, which meant even if they did have insurance against such eventualities (most don’t) they would not be covered by his friends in the insurance business.
[Editor’s update: The issue about whether to stay open or not for health reasons still remains but at least the new measures by the Chancellor to guarantee insurance cover or cash grants is some relief]
Twitter went into predictable overdrive, with a petition on Change.org demanding government support for the hospitality business reaching nearly 20,000 signatories by midnight, 75,000 by 10.30am on Tuesday March 17 and 155,000 by 5pm today.
Last Wednesday’s budget – how that seems a lifetime ago – delivered a welcome rates relief for those with rateable values under £51k (which excludes almost every London restaurant) but that won’t touch the sides when businesses also have rent, wages, VAT, PAYE and utility bills to cover and little or no income coming in.
And what of their suppliers? Those carefully rearing animals, catching fish, growing plants, baking bread, making cheese; those importing produce from our neighbours, including wine and other essentials? What are they do to with slashed demand for their goods and customers on credit who can no longer longer afford to pay their bills? The cleaners, the florists, those paid to empty bins that don’t need emptying; those supplying glassware, cutlery and napkins?
What of us all, in hospitality and beyond? Richard Vater, who grows salads in Spain for UK supermarkets and wholesalers, told me this week: “We’re inundated by orders, far more than normal and far more than we are able to supply. My real concern is what comes afterwards – this is going to have a far more devastating impact on everything than the last financial crash.”
[Editor’s note: More measures are being promised later this week by the government and the WSTA and UK Hospitality are calling for action to be taken to help suppliers and employees].
But whatever is offered many hospitality outlets, if not all, will have to stop trading very soon. Whether that will be permanent or not remains to be seen.
Some restaurants are offering vouchers to be redeemed at a later date, but there is concern about being able to honour them, and anyway it seems few people will have cash to spare in the coming weeks. Some are offering take-away or delivery food, but it is unclear as to how feasible this will be in the long run.
As Freddy Bird, at Little French in Bristol just said to me on the phone: “If the Tories can afford a £500bn bail-out for the bankers, what are they going to do for people who actually work for a fucking living?”
Thus he speaks for an industry in crisis.