Top eateries join the delivery era amid coronavirus outbreak
At the best of times, being in the restaurant trade is a mug’s game. That much we know.
There are the hot-headed chefs to deal with and the temperamental front-of-house staff.
There are the inordinate overheads and the problems of ordering just enough stock. Then there are the banks to satisfy, the companies that lease equipment, the landlords, the VATman and the accountants.
And that’s before you factor in the damn customers. And they can be the worst.
In this era of TripAdvisor and online critiques; every restaurateur has a tale to tell about the way they’ve been threatened by those who promise to besmirch a restaurant unless they get a freebie. From Michelin-starred restaurants to humble cafes, nobody is immune from the information economy.
And then Covid-19 happened.
And Boris dropped into a press conference the notion that people should avoid restaurants. And for five long days they did.
People lost jobs, businesses built up over decades collapsed, banks ran out of patience, accountants ran out of money, chefs ran out of hope.
The Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, threw a lifeline eight days ago when he promised to pay furloughed workers 80 per cent of their wages after his Prime Minister had told restaurants to close. And while that saved a few venues, a number had by then already closed.
The West Midlands has an extraordinary dining sector. During the past 20 years, it has been at the forefront of a gastronomic revolution and has continually punched above its weight.
With the exception of London, no other region has been as dynamic and inventive, as vigorous and exciting.
Rewind to 2000 and Ludlow was the Rural Capital of Gastronomic Britain, boasting four Michelin stars. Fast forward to 2020 and Birmingham is now the most important culinary centre in the UK, outside the Capital. It has five Michelin stars, its chefs regularly host BBC TV’s Saturday Kitchen – still the nation’s favourite – and there are pop-ups and book deals, glitzy functions and boundary-breaking food.
Two weeks ago, you’d have been able to choose from hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of restaurants across the region. Their annual turnover would have exceeded £100 million, they were providing employment and a sense of purpose for thousands and thousands of staff. Today, every single one is closed.
The only question is: What happens next?
Claire Bosi is based near Ludlow. She is better placed than any to comment on the state of the region’s restaurants.
She formerly co-created and ran Hibiscus Restaurant, in Ludlow, before successfully transferring it to London.
The restaurant achieved two Michelin stars in Ludlow and won them back when it moved to Mayfair. In recent years, Ms Bosi has edited Chef Magazine, which speaks on behalf the industry’s chefs. She has never seen anything like it in her 25 years in the industry.
“My heart goes out to all of the chefs, the waiters and waitresses, the kitchen porters, the accountants, the suppliers – all of the people in the supply chain. It’s a massive effort to get a good quality plate of food out to customers and that’s what these people do.
“A lot work for low wages and to see all of that taken away is deeply traumatic.”
Ms Bosi’s message is that people will survive. Now is the time for innovation, creativity and determination.
“We’re positive. Yes, this is catastrophic. We know that. We have to be there for each other, look after one another’s mental health and make sure there’s a way through this. But we also have to be resilient and make sure that there’s light on the horizon. This isn’t the end. This is just the beginning.”
The Michelin-starred chef Brad Carter was cooking for an audience of two million people two weeks ago – now he’s delivery food parcels across Birmingham.
Brad, chef-patron of Carter’s of Moseley, has no grumbles. “This is my new reality. We’ll be back. We know we’re going to take a hit and we know we’re going to run up debt. It’s unwanted, it’s not our fault but that’s the hand we’ve been dealt and we’ll come through it.”
Brad cooked on BBC TV’s Saturday Kitchen three days before Mr Johnson told people to stop visiting restaurants. When that Government announcement came, the bottom fell out of Brad’s business. Instantly, he lost 60 per cent of his bookings – turning his business from being profitable into being a loss-maker headed for the exit.
“I was watching the statement every day and when Boris Johnson told people not to go to restaurants – but restaurants could stay open – it was a disaster. There’s no two ways about it. Our covers fell off the face of the earth. The pre-booked ones cancelled and we were down by about 60 per cent overnight. It made it not viable for us. We were thinking about what to do over and over. Every day we were having a meeting.”
Brad is in an elite group of cooks who hold a Michelin star. A man with a burgeoning public profile, he got on the phone to his friends to see how they were coping. In the coming days, they decided to play a waiting game, even though they were hemorrhaging money. He came up with a plan. “We were looking at all the likely outcomes and putting contingencies in place for everything.”
When Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced that 80 per cent of wages could be paid to furloughed staff, it provided all regional restaurants with a ray of light.
Brad adds: “I hung onto everyone. I was determined to keep my staff. On Friday they announced everyone was closing and we would get support. The restaurant was never going to make money after what Boris had done.
“We’d dropped half our trade on the Saturday night and that wasn’t happened for 10 years. I’m more business-driven than some chefs so I was looking at the building blocks to stay afloat. We were sharing information through a WhatsApp group. We were having late night calls. But the problems started with people giving us stick socially for staying open. We didn’t have the money to close down and we were getting bad press for staying open. It was badly managed and in the end they had to come up with money to keep us afloat.”
The challenges of the present position, however, are huge. If restaurants stay open and furlough their staff, they still have to pay their rent, their utility bills, their overheads. They still have to pay bills to their creditors; the suppliers, the cleaners, the administrators and others.
Brad continues: “We couldn’t go down the takeaway route because we’re a Michelin-starred restaurant. We can’t compete with people who sell burgers for a living. So we had to come up with a new idea, which is luxury hampers.
“Basically, we’re trying to give people the Carter’s experience but from their own home. So they order a hamper and it’s got one set of raw ingredients, for them to cook, and then another cooked meal, for them to eat straight away or freeze.
“Everything is super clean and super healthy. We drop stuff off on the door, so there’s no social contact. Whether we’re still able to do that after Boris introduced lock-down is something we’re working out.”
That means people can buy food, such restaurants as Carter’s can stay open, workers will have jobs to return to and there’s hope for the future.
“We still have the fixed costs to keep the business going. We need to find a way and diversify. In the hampers, we’re putting a video in there, it’s me showing you people to prepare what we’re doing in the box. We’re coming back, but with some unwanted debt. I’ve been through all the emotions and now we’re just keeping our heads down and going for it.”
Over in Shropshire, one of the region’s best chefs has turned to a home delivery service. Suree Coates, whose Thai restaurant is in Ironbridge, has previously been named the UK’s best Thai chef. After the order came to close, she asked her husband, Simon, to do home deliveries.
“We contacted our regular customers and told them. Then they place an order and make a payment over the phone, so we’re not exchanging cash or cards and not spreading germs. “My husband delivers to the houses and leaves it on the step. He calls it knock and run. It’s working out okay to be fair. We’re trying to avoid it being a takeaway for customers to come and collect. It’s more of a home delivery service. We don’t want people to come in and mix. We want to do what we can to stop contact. We’re very conscious that we’ve all got a role to play with Coronavirus. People need to eat. For some, it is an essential service.”
Mrs Coates says her industry is tough and will get tougher as the nation locks down. “But then I’ve been cooking for my lifetime and I know there are times when you have to adapt. We only have one part-time member of staff and she is helping, but self-isolating so that we don’t risk any infections. Simon is simply out delivering, not meeting or touching anyone. The customers are happy and they are enjoying it because the quality is good. The feedback has been great.”
While many restaurants are trying to find ways to succeed, they also realise that it will be tough to re-open. They are talking to their suppliers asking to take payment breaks so that they can remain in business and avoid insolvency.
Husband and wife team Amy and Cedric Bosi run two pubs in Ludlow, including the Charlton Arms, which has a Michelin Bib Gourmand.
Mr Bosi said: “It’s been a nightmare. From last Monday when they made that announcement we pretty much instantly lost all our bookings, they just vanished. Every phone call was a cancellation. Then emails were coming in with cancellations. That was the first wave. Then business-wise, it dropped by 80 per cent instantly.
"Then of course as business owner, the first thing we did was to try to survive. So we had to cut down the hours for our staff to see how long we could last. When they decided to close us down on that Friday last week it took a massive weight off my shoulder. We were going to have to let staff go because we could no longer pay them. The 80 per cent to keep the staff on the payroll was amazing.”
Mrs Bosi says the key now is to keep busy and plan. “Cedric works 15-16 hours a day, so he can’t stay at home all the time. He’s doing panting and cleaning, anything that is low-cost. We turned all the food in the kitchen into soups, broths and casseroles and then gave it away to charity.”
Mr Bosi added: “We are just trying to see how we will last. I’m looking forward to the re-opening. We’ve just got to make sure we have enough cash flow to re-open. I am expecting some difficulties with suppliers because some haven’t been paid. To re-open costs a lot of money. But we cook with fresh food so when we start again we’ll have to buy with new money and we presently have no income. All the beer has been wasted.
“I still need time to focus on what we are doing. It’s just hard. it’s been a whirlwind. It’s tough. It’s very messy, it’s our lives. We’re not doing takeaways or home deliveries. All the food we had has been given away. We can’t buy food for takeaway because that’s playing with the cashflow. We are counting the pennies and stopping all the costs. We have so much work to do on working out the grants and working out what we’re supposed to do. But I’m just relieved that we’ve kept the staff. I closed the church inn a day before the announcement; the staff were heartbroken. We need our staff, they’re the lifeblood of our industry. It’s heart-breaking.”
The restaurant industry, like so many across the UK, is facing the hardest time ever. And yet, the resilience and innovation, the creativity and refusal to quit means it will emerge all the stronger.
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