'We're turning over some good money at the moment, so long may that continue - and I think it will'

The  Staff Canteen

All indications point to the fact that the British economy is on track for recovery, and that restaurants are speeding up the process.

According to data published by the Financial Times, in the second to last week of May, UK consumer spending hit its highest since the first coronavirus restrictions were implemented in March 2020 and was 10 percent higher than during the same time period in 2019, indicating an even faster recovery than anticipated. 

Meanwhile, even with restrictions still in place, sales in restaurants, cafés, pubs and takeaway were up 36 per cent on Saturday 22nd May compared with the same day in 2019, and restaurants bookings were 65 percent higher on Friday 21st and Saturday 22nd May than on the same two days in 2019.

To compare, footfall in retail outlets was only a percent higher than the week before, and down 39 percent on the same week in 2019. 

Whilst we're acutely aware that the reopening of indoor dining was bound to see an enthusiastic return of the British public, we spoke to head chef of The Grill at The Dorchester, Tom Booton, chef owner of Vice and VirtueJono Hawthorne, and chef patron of Top 50 Gastropub The Swan in Bampton, Paul Berry, to see if their experience of being back reflects the industry's contribution to the country's economic recovery.

Good, as long as it lasts

"Busy, busy busy tonight," Jono said, jubilation in his voice. 

The MasterChef: The Professionals 2020 finalist recently took over the business at Vice and Virtue, where he was formerly the head chef. 

"We're fully booked every night, I've just been pumping, coming in every day, it's just relentless. 

When everyone stopped, Jono and his team took up a takeaway service, then he went on his MasterChef adventure, so he and his team haven't stopped. 

"I'm sure it's a big step for a lot of people who have been on furlough, but for us it's just busier." 

Having his name above the door, "makes me so happy." 

"It's everything I've ever worked for. I've spent my whole life working in Michelin-star restaurant so this is the dream - to have my own restaurant and be my own boss. I'm well happy, even though I'm working ridiculous hours, the dream is complete."

Almost fully booked up for the next two months, he said: "I feel like it's going to be really good." 

Should (God forbid) there be another lockdown, he said, "we would have to go back to takeaways. It would be catastrophic, not just for us but for a lot of restaurants." 

"I did them at the beginning," he said, and being one of the first places to do a five-course fine dining menu, "they were doing really well." 

The problem, in Jono's opinion, is that the market was saturated. 

"All of a sudden, a month or two later all of the Michelin places started kicking in with theirs.

"Their takeaways will survive because people will go to them straight away.

"If you're a small restaurant that doesn't have a Michelin star, it's hard to sell takeaways - especially at the same price as them."

But with all fingers crossed that it doesn't come to that, he said, "I just want my customers to be happy, enjoy the food and go away happy, with a full stomach."

Happy team, happy guests, not enough seats

Paul Berry, asked if his restaurant is indeed as busy as the headlines, said: "Very! And I'm not complaining."

As for how the past year has been for them, he said, "poo really." 

"We opened after the first lockdown and it was all good, then things started to take a turn for the worst. It affects you. You start becoming more wary so they stop coming out and you're sitting there twiddling your thumbs thinking 'well I haven't done anything wrong, this is just because no-one wants to come out,'"

"Whereas now, they're out in abundance again."

"It's been an incredible 15 months or so we've experienced, he said. Never again! If we were having to go through it again, I don't think we could do it, mentally or financially, it was just too hard." 

It is a relief then, to see the numbers reflected in the real world. 

"It's good, because it could've been like 'oh it'll be busy,' and then there's no-one coming in. Our phone and booking line at the moment is just constant, I open my email and it's just a constant flow of emails coming through - it's really nice to see at the moment." 

"Problem is, I feel like I need a place twice as big at the moment," he laughed. 

It certainly joyous to see the British public cherishing hospitality, but that comes with the understanding that "if you get places that have a heartbeat and passion, your customers will come and support you, as much as you want them in, they're as keen to get back in." 

The contrast between retail and hospitality and their respective impacts on economic recovery are such that it is almost undeniable that people have missed their local bistro more than they've had a hankering for clothes shopping. 

"I haven't missed shopping," Paul laughed, "and I like shopping."

"It's the last thing on my mind at the moment," perhaps echoing a widespread sentiment. 

"The last thing I want to do is go into a crowded shopping area. I can pick and choose where I go now and I'm quite happy with that."

Feeling good about the future of the pub and the likelihood of sustained footfall, he said: "obviously we've taken on a little bit of debt through it, but if I feel like I can't make headways with this in a couple of months' time, then I'll look at the situation and assess it again." 

"Until that point, I'm going to feel positive about it." 

"I don't think there's any reason for me not to - we're turning over some good money at the moment, so long may that continue, and I think it will. I think we'll just get stronger in the summer.

"We probably all feel the same in that we've got to give this a crack and be positive and let's see if we can get ourselves out of it." 

'A little boom'

Head chef at The Grill at The Dorchester Tom Booton has had a busy year too, from takeaways in lockdown to introducing The Dorchester's first ever rooftop pop-up on April 12th. But nothing takes the shine off of having a full team in their own kitchen.

Luckily, the chef said, The Collection held on to all of its staff, and on top of that gave an additional £25,000 to Hospitality Action. 

"They really look after their staff, which is amazing," he said. 

"Everyone is super happy to be back - a lot of them have been with me for a long time," with at least six out of his team of twelve that have been working in the same kitchen as him for three years.

"We're pretty tight - which is most important. You can't do anything without your team."

As for the outlooks in terms of footfall, he said: "We're positive at the moment, we're an industry which is having a little boom now and it's only going to get massive.

"This winter, everyone is going to want to come out and have their Christmas dinner and where people didn't spend money last year - I've already had people messaging me trying to get tables for New Year's Eve." 

"It's what they say, after the second world war there was a baby boom, so maybe we might have a little restaurant boom." 

"You can see it already - what's really nice is that every guest is really super happy as well. We haven't had a negative comment at all, everyone is just so happy to be out."

R.E.S.P.E.C.T

"I think that as an industry we're getting more respect than we did before," he continued, "not that we weren't respected, but I think everybody appreciates going out and eating now, whereas before it was just the norm for everyone." 

"People understand that it's a privilege, which is good for the front of house, the back of house and everyone." 

There is something to be said for the businesses that won't survive the new office habits, the chef said: "I feel sorry for the little coffee shop people, the little sandwich shops where all the business people would get their lunches - they're going to really suffer," acknowledging, however that many managed to adapt to the circumstances in a very narrow window of time.

"It just shows you the power of hospitality. We adapted, every single hospitality business did. We have a saying here, and it's that we can adapt to anything." 

"We make anything happen, I don't think there's anything like us - it's only us, the NHS, the army and the police. It's also made us all closer together as a team; we're tighter as a unit, which will hopefully last now."

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 1st June 2021

'We're turning over some good money at the moment, so long may that continue - and I think it will'