'Everyone's saying let's do this for Christmas, but the whole point of Christmas for hospitality is the build-up to Christmas'

The  Staff Canteen

Jonathan MacDonald, chef patron of Ox and Finch in Glasgow, is preparing to close the restaurant doors tomorrow at 6pm. 

"It's not ideal," he said, "especially at this time of year, but we don't really have an option."

The chef and his team have operated the restaurant  - crowned the best in Glasgow by The Herald last year - under restrictions since they reopened in July, from reduced table numbers to the 10pm curfew, a three-week closure in October followed by an enforced 6pm closing time and a ban on alcohol sales. 

The new Tier 4 - the strictest of them all - will see them closed until December 11th. 

Bad timing?

"To do this to small businesses that are already struggling now," he said, is catastrophic timing on the government's part.

"Why didn't do something like this last month so that all these high street retailers could at least have a crack at Christmas?"

But even under Tier 3, or even Tier 2 restrictions, the hospitality sector, as are all of the peripheral businesses and the supply chain that relies on it, are feeling the squeeze.

Tom Kitchin, chef and owner of award-winning restaurants The Kitchin and The Bonnie and Badger, as well as The Scran and Scallie pub and bistro concept Southside Scran, said: "It's very draining, it's very tiring, you're fighting on many fronts. You're staying open but you're operating at a loss and that is not sustainable for a great length of time." 

"In a way, it's like a long, slow, painful death. 

"The joy of Bonnie and Badger having gone into Tier 2 was quickly dashed when you realise that if you don't live in that area, no-one can come into that tier. 

Should pubs and restaurants just be closed?

Asked if his venues would be better off outright closed, he said: "No, really not." 

The chef made waves across the media with this point, which he iterated on the BBC's Debate Night last night, arguing that letting hospitality trade, even at a reduced capacity, is worth it.

"At least we've got something coming in." 

His concerns go beyond his own businesses, he explained, to others that have already suffered greatly from the effects of previous lockdowns - and his willingness to stay open is also for them.

"I'm deeply, deeply worried for Scottish hospitality - and for the suppliers, and the farmers, and the fisherman and the growers," he said.

"Businesses are going out of business, suppliers are not getting paid, we're not generating enough money because we're not allowed to sell alcohol, we're not allowed to stay open for dinner service so we're not generating enough money that can then go to paying staff, to paying suppliers, keeping the whole movement going."

"It's just absolutely dire." 


Shed no tiers 

Another example of businesses with establishments across (almost) all tiers is The Signature Pub Group, explained director of sales and marketing Louise MacLeen.

The group has a lived experience of what measures give its businesses a fighting chance - and which don't. 

"We have three in Glasgow that went from Tier 3 to Tier 4," Louise explained, "but they were unviable at Tier 3 so they were already closed." 

This means they were unable to "break even" in terms of GP - not including any fixed costs or furlough contributions  - which would have meant bringing in £5,000 daily.

In their Edinburgh sites, which have been in Tier 3 and will remain so as of Friday, sales pale in any kind of comparison to before the pandemic. 

"First week of being in Tier 3, our pubs took £43,000, versus twelve months ago we would've taken £400,000," meaning they were unviable and were thus closed." 

But it is the lack of an admission that the tier system and how it restricts hospitality aren't making a verifiable difference is what angers her the most. 

She said: "The Scottish minister stood up the other day and said 'what is clear is that restrictions in hospitality are working' - well if that's the case, why have we been all but shut - and Glasgow's gone up a level and Edinburgh's gone down but we haven't dropped a level to tier 2.

"I just want someone to say, 'please can I see that' because all I can see is cases stubbornly refusing to drop - which can only mean in-home socialising and people are ignoring the rules." 

"Just please, come out and say that."  

Policing compliance

Both Jonathan and Louise agree that rather than imposing blanket closures on the sector, the better outcome would have been to crack down on businesses flouting the rules from day 1.

Jonathan said: "It just seems really backwards because we've done everything properly, we've gone above and beyond all the guidelines and studied them at length - we've had risk assessments, we've implemented things. but nobody's come in to check, and then you see the stories of other operators not doing it properly and we all just get tarred with the same brush.

"Rather than closing everyone, why not have harsh penalties for the places that don't comply, because I know for a fact that ninety percent of operations I've seen are doing things properly and beyond - so close those who aren't, don't close everyone.

"Then we are just a burden on the state."


Clarity

With restrictions possibly lifted as on December 2nd, with a guarantee that Glasgow will come out of Tier 4 on the 11th, the industry, as always, it seems, lacks clarity. 

"The whole messaging from government has been so confusing," Jonathan said. "You're already fighting an uphill struggle just to get the message out there that you've changed again.

"One week we're a takeaway business, the next we're open but basically like an unlicensed cafe, then hopefully at some point you're back to some sort of normal restaurant hours again - but each time you need to communicate that and change everything in the back.

 "The operations, the website, ResDiary and and Epos systems, setting ourselves up for takeaway and cancelling bookings you had and then hoping they can move and book it another time, but then you don't know when that time will be - the admin that goes with it all is just massive."

"You get the impression sometimes that the people making the rules think that we just switch out a light, pull down a shutter and come back in three weeks, but we're still having to be here, pivoting all the time." 

"I know it's difficult and health needs to be the priority but a bit more consistency and a bit more forewarning would've been good." 

Following the science?

What it comes down to for Jonathan is effective communication. 

"The lack of coordination is the hardest thing to take," he said. "I understand it's difficult and I understand it's unprecedented, I wouldn't want to be in a politician's shoes.

"But for example, for us all to think that we're switching to the Job Support Scheme on the 1st November and then for the PM to stand up at 7pm on the Saturday and extend the furlough scheme when we're all scratching our heads trying to work out how you can give someone 20 percent of their hours and cut them down to 67 percent of their wages, and we've spent a week on that and they just change it at the drop of a hat."

"Surely they knew before then that this was coming, that the second wave was underway, it was obvious to everyone." 

"You couldn't make it up," he smiled through gritted teeth. 

Silver linings for Christmas trade? 

The strategy, not just in Scotland but across the UK, seems to be that whatever choices we make now will make it possible to have as normal a Christmas as possible.

Louise struck an optimistic tone.

She said: "I think we'll get a couple of days of trade here and there - it'll just be making the best of what you've got." 

For Tom Kitchin, however, the damage done by restrictions in the run-up to Christmas will far outweigh what gains we get from a so-called 'normal' Christmas.

He said: "Everyone's saying: 'let's do this for Christmas', but the whole point of Christmas for  hospitality is the build-up to Christmas. This is the lifeline for businesses. This is where wholesalers can sell their produce."

"Companies that are going out - vans going all around Scotland full of produce, all these kind of things. They have nothing. But they're expected to just turn on the tap and have produce when the government want them to have produce." 

What about January?

As for rumours that an ease of restrictions at Christmas could mean a total lockdown in January, Louise said: "January 2021 was always going to be dismal in terms of trade." 

Normally taking that month to offer discounts to customers to thank them for their year-round support, there will be none of that this year. 

"Realistically, the maths don't add up for us to open unless we were in a Tier 2 state in January anyway." 

"So if we're locked down, we're locked down." 

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 19th November 2020

'Everyone's saying let's do this for Christmas, but the whole point of Christmas for hospitality is the build-up to Christmas'