“It feels like our area of the market is being penalised and we’ve taken such a hit already.”

The Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Standard Supplier 21st September 2020

After a weekend of new Covid-19 restrictions in the North East, what has the impact been on hospitality businesses in Newcastle?

Kenny Atkinson, Michelin-starred chef and owner of House of Tides felt they didn’t have the time they needed to prepare, he explained that as soon as the restrictions, which included not mixing with other households and a 10pm curfew, were announced all of his bookings over two people cancelled and his team then had to try and fill those spots.

“It feels like our area of the market is being penalised and we’ve taken such a hit already,” said Kenny.

“It was very reminiscent of March,” said Nick Grieves, chef owner of The Patricia. “For that first week it felt like you were being hung out to dry.

“We were in a really good place; business was great to be honest and it felt like the virus wasn’t the first thought on your mind for a change. Then these new restrictions pushed us straight back into uncertainty.”

“We were watching the bookings disappear, we had been doing between 27 to 30 covers and on Saturday night we lost 27 bookings out of nowhere. We managed to get 18 back, it was terrible but not completely dead.”

He added: “We also had a couple of no-shows that night too which is mental!”

House of Tides has had to reduce covers already but now if they only take tables of two it will be down to just 38 covers and with the curfew, last orders for the tasting menu only restaurant is now 8pm.

“Yet again we’ve had to reduce covers, reduce the size of the menu and reduce pricing to try and get a certain number of people through the door. We lost about 22 covers on the Friday and 30 covers over lunch and dinner on the Saturday.

“If we had just had a bit of time we could have worked around it. But going into next week we know this is the procedure so we can work with that and extend lunch time openings and open for dinner a bit earlier.”

Danny Parker is Head Chef at Jesmond Dene House and the new restrictions haven’t impacted him in the same way, as the hotel is only operating for wedding parties of up to 30. Guests are still expected to be in their rooms by 10pm but in terms of dining the restaurant is yet to open.

“Weddings are guaranteed revenue,” he said. We know exactly how much money we will take, we can staff it correctly and we can makes some money. “As soon as we open the restaurant, the bedrooms and afternoon tea, it’s a guessing game of how many people are going to turn up each day.”

He added: “Not being open was really annoying before this but then the new restrictions came in and I saw people losing bookings – that is what Jesmond Dene House has been keen to stop happening here.

“Initially the rule of six was a worry and the phones went crazy with brides trying to find out if that applied to weddings or not. All in all, I think we are as a business quite fortunate.”

Kenny is hoping now they have had time to adjust it will take pressure off the business.

“As a business we have to survive.”

Nick explained ‘there’s no real room for having a quiet night’ and ‘dropping it on a weekend didn’t make any sense’.

“We will be more prepared this week, we have dropped tables from 6.30pm to 5.30pm but I don’t know how that will play out as who wants to come out for a tasting menu at that time? And people leaving at 10pm it has a weird feel about it.”

Danny says it’s worrying watching what’s happening to hospitality and ‘that it seems to be getting the blame’. With furlough ending he wonders ‘where is hospitality actually going to go?’.

“We’ve just been told to go and eat out and now we are getting told to be very careful when we eat out – when that eat out to help out came in I really believed we’d get back, I thought we’d open the restaurant, this is too good to be true and then two weeks later it’s gone back over. It’s like a rollercoaster.

“Are restaurants ever going to be left alone? Are they ever going to be confident they can open and stay open?”

Having spoken to friends who run pubs in Newcastle Kenny says the mentality is, if you have to leave at 10pm, you’ll make up for it quicker.

“We went out for something to eat around 3.30pm on Saturday and the pubs were packed, everyone is just going out earlier. So, for me it’s not changed anything.”

Adding: “But, I’d rather this than lockdown, at least we can still trade and support the staff and survive as a business which has already been really tough through three months of lockdown.

“Is this now just a virus we have to be used to living with until a vaccine comes?”

Nick has heard they are trying to stop the students going out at 10pm but he feels ‘restaurants are safe’.

“A nightclub or a busy bar is completely different to a restaurant, classing us as one unit is a big mistake.”

He added: “It feels like they are saying hospitality is the problem, but I’ve seen things which say it isn’t, that’s not where it’s getting spread.”

In Newcastle most of the chefs and restaurants know each other so ‘it’s hard to watch what’s going on’ and Danny said: “I’m an employee, but for a lot of people, I know they own the restaurant, that is their life and if they lose it they lose everything.

“It’s really scary and it’s really sad. We have to support them which is why I eat out as much as I can.”

Nick said: “We’re just back on our feet, we were just getting in a good position which we never thought in a million years was going to happen because in March it felt like the end of restaurants.”

As a chef running a busy restaurant pre-covid to now only doing wedding’s and breakfast – creatively Danny says it has had an impact and it’s a real miss.

“It’s difficult because I know a lot of people have lost their jobs and fortunately I haven’t. I feel like the kitchen is mine so whatever it takes to prop it up I’ll do it, if it was my hotel I’d be the one doing breakfast and washing the pots afterwards if I had to so I’ll do that now.

“From a selfish chef point of view, it’s mad, there’s no restaurant, there’s no dish development, no developing my chefs or training and looking after people – it’s cooking a wedding and going home.”

How long can businesses sustain new covid-19 measures?

Kenny said: “I really don’t know. We are already operating on 70% occupancy and it’s going to put pressure on us – our rent is due again this month, everybody back off furlough, VAT bills. We’ve done well to keep everyone on the team but there’s going to come a point where we sit back and think about if we can support 28 members of staff if we’re only operating on a 40 cover a night dinner service with reduced pricing.”

“We’ll be alright,” said Nick. “But others won’t be.”

He doesn’t believe the industry can sustain these restrictions for long and Kenny says it’s definitely the most worrying thing he has been through as a business owner.

“I’ve got 36 staff across two businesses to think about and it’s scary, we’ve never had to worry before as we’ve always been a business that turns over and has good profit margin. Even now we are a strong business but the money we are able to make is just being squeezed and squeezed an squeezed.

“Restaurants at our level have invested so much and been so careful with restrictions and putting everything in place, we are probably one of the safest places to go and eat. I feel we are being penalised when I see places like Wetherspoons, every day, with people crammed into the beer gardens and inside and they are tarring us all with the same brush.

“You only have to look outside on a Saturday night and you can see groups of people who won’t be from the same household, going into venues – but whose job is it to police that?”

Danny added: “I went out for something to eat and I drove through Newcastle after I left at 10pm and clearly everyone had been told to go home because of the curfew but everyone walking home, no one was socially distanced.

“I really don’t feel that restaurants are the places they are catching it.”

He’s also looking at Christmas and as a chef in a hotel everything from bookings to orders to menus is normally done by now. “We don’t want to over promise and under deliver,” he explained. “That’s not fair. So, we’re not promising anything at the minute which is terrible for us.”

On a positive….

“Hopefully lunch will become the new dinner,” said Kenny. “We are turning away so many covers because we’ve had to cut tables but it’s a positive people still want to come.

“We just need to be given the opportunity to survive so as a business I’ll take the curfew everyday of the week rather than a full lockdown.”

Nick is also hopeful that if the restrictions don’t last too long ‘they can get back to the new normal’ and he won’t have to lose staff or make any more changes.

“Since we’ve opened the restaurant has never been better money-wise and it gave us the opportunity to turn the restaurant into a format I wanted to for a long time but was always to nervous to do it.

“We’re doing what is good for us which translates into what is good for the guest – we’ve had the balls to do what we think will work the best.”

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The Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Standard Supplier 21st September 2020

“It feels like our area of the market is being penalised and we’ve taken such a hit already.”