'The vast majority of the home delivery stuff, certainly the high end will subside significantly'

The  Staff Canteen

At the height of the pandemic, restaurant owners turned to inventive means to make up for lost earnings. After exhausting the possibilities of takeaways and grocery deliveries, fine dining chefs realised their customers didn't just miss going out: they missed the skilled cookery that, until then, they had only ever has in restaurants.

But as the much-awaited date of June 21st draws closer, and with it the prospect of restriction-free dining, does the 'At Home' trend still have its place? 

We spoke to chefs Chantelle Nicholson, Phil Howard, Aktar Islam, Philli Armitage-Mattin and Nigel Haworth about their makeaway boxes: will they be glad to see the back of them, or are they here to stay?

“There’s only reason why we engaged with the process,”  explained the award-winning chef and co-owner of Michelin-starred London restaurant Elystan Street, Phil Howard.

"I was needs must. At the end of the day, business collapsed and we had to do everything we could to keep a revenue stream for our restaurant.” 

They kept delivery in-house - his wife, daughter, business partner and GM acted as courriers - he explained, because “with all the will in the world, you give a box to DPD, it’s just a box. It could be anything.” 

The chef took the challenge on the chin and even enjoyed some aspects of it - fewer distractions than the day-to-day of running a restaurant, and the creative challenge of making dishes simple enough to be delivered as intended.

That having been said, the aim is always to get back to, he says, "what we do best:" 

"Here we are, staring at May 17th, and the reality of it is, personally, I hope that business bounces back and is fantastic and the restrictions are completely eased and private dining rooms can get back to what they should be.”

They will keep it going, he said, “so that we can see what happens,” but it seems an almost impossible challenge to do both. 

Should you stop doing delivery boxes when you reopen your restaurant?

That is the case for chef patron at Tredwells and All's Well, Chantelle Nicholson, too, who will continue run her delivery operation even when the restaurant reopens, at least until she can be sure the business doesn't need the extra income anymore.

Her at Home boxes came into their own when she took out the services of finish at home meal delivery company Dishpatch, who take care of "the bits you don't want to do - or have time to do when you’re not geared up."

With packing, shipping, orders and marketing out of the way, she and her team get to focus on the cooking. 

“I’m going to see how the first month goes being open whilst still doing it," she said. "I would like to keep going because it’s been great. They’ve been very good to me and the fact that it was even happening was a God send, I just need to see if I can make it all work.” 

Looking ahead to the summer, with the many variables in terms of restrictions, potential staffing issues and the realities of paying off debt, meeting rising food costs and the return of VAT rates, she said: “It’s going to be a lot of hard work. We’re definitely in the fight but whether or not we can sustain it is a case of waiting to see what happens.”

“People just think now that places are open, ‘oh you’re absolutely fine,’ but there could be a lot of places that won’t be fine actually.”  

Separate production sites

Owner of Michelin-starred Birmingham restaurant Opheem Aktar Islam didn't even want to do takeaways, and was content to sit out the restrictions in the summer sun.

"We were just enjoying the beautiful weather, and then towards the last four weeks, we realised that there's only so much you can drink," he laughed. "We did them to stave off boredom really." 

They tapered them off when restaurants reopened in July, he said, "but we were getting four or five hundred emails a week asking for them, so Andrew [Frost, director of Operations at Opheem] convinced me to do 50 boxes a week. 

"He would say: 'these people missed out, blablabla,' then he'd be like, 'I've messed up, can we do 100 this week,' and he basically snowballed and put me in it." 

"It spiralled into something massive," he explained, and because the product is so different to the food at Opheem, "we've decided that we are going to keep it going." 

He has secured a dedicated production site for the boxes, creating 20 jobs in his home city. He is so sold on the concept that he has been convincing his peers to jump on the bandwagon; including industry veteran and co-founder of one Michelin star restaurant Northcote, Nigel Haworth. 

Nigel said he was swayed by the opportunity to use Tom Parker of the White Swan at Fence's space. 

"Without Aktar and Tom, I wouldn't have done it," he said.

"I'd looked at it because a restaurant box company had asked me to do it - I looked at it and thought, 'it's too hard work this,' but after a long conversation [Aktar] finally persuaded me to do the boxes and so I did them."

The chef capped the boxes at 80 a week, "which doesn't sound a lot but it was a lot because we were running it single-handed." 

"I went over and did mine early in the week, [Tom] did his later," he explained, a system that only worked thanks to Tom's rigorous organisation. One good thing about the space, and something to consider when deciding whether or not to do boxes, he said, "is that he's got a really great kit in there."

"The equipment you use is so important." 

Fine dining far and wide

For MasterChef: The Professionals 2020 finalist Philli Armitage-Mattin, boxes aren't a way of salvaging a restaurant business, as she doesn't own one - it is, however, a good way for her to get her food to the public in the meanwhile of hosting pop-up events, a worthy option for chefs to test out concepts and get their food up and down the country. 

Serving her food direct to customers from a restaurant kitchen isn't on the cards right now, but thanks to her new box offering, she can fulfil her desire to bring her creations to people. 

Though not all of the finish at home boxes deliver nationwide as some are pick-up only, "That's what I think is beautiful about the restaurant boxes," she explained, "it breaks down the barrier of region or area." 

"If you're wanting to go to a restaurant up in Scotland or somewhere it's very difficult for you to get to, you could order that box to your home. It's not going to be exactly the same, but it's an experience, you get to taste that food and it's lovely."

Here to Stay

For Phil, as much as we talk about the world having changed, punters can't be expected to sit at home and cook (or heat) their own dinners forever; and when they do go back to Elystan Street, there's a strong chance they'll favour paying for that than for a makeaway box. 

"It’s almost inevitable that most of everything that has changed will quietly and perhaps over a period of time slip back to the way it was before,” he said.

“On the whole people would rather have a meal at Elystan Street than buy it and have it at home, so I think the vast majority of the home delivery stuff, certainly the high end will subside significantly."

That doesn't mean we're going to regress to the binary eating out versus eating takeaway model we knew before the pandemic. Phil and his team have come up with an offering that may be more able to stand the test of time, which is a more humble pasta delivery service called OTTO.

Still sticking by the rigorous delivery standards, (no private courriers, everything sent at the last minute for the sake of freshness), and, although simpler than the multiple-course boxes, the chef believes that the nature of the product will allow for restaurant-standard results at home. 

“Luckily, I'm at an age where I see it as great food is great food, it doesn’t matter whether it’s a burger, cacio e pepe or roasted lobster. Great food is great food - it can be an epic piece of toast."

“I’ve really enjoyed the home delivery thing because it’s really rewarding to do a thing well. I am pleased, I’ve enjoyed it, it’s been rewarding, it’s kept us afloat, it’s made us some money, it’s kept people busy and kept me fulfilled.

"Looking forward – whether the home delivery will be a part of our business, I just don’t know."

“I am looking forward to reopening the restaurant, because there’s a buzz about a restaurant that’s really special.

"I’m sitting in a dining room that’s been dormant for a long time and it would be great to have a pulse back in.” 

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 7th May 2021

'The vast majority of the home delivery stuff, certainly the high end will subside significantly'