'It's most critical that we deal with the perceived risk'

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 3rd July 2020

With many restaurants, bars, pubs and hotels set to reopen in less than twenty four hours, we've been ecstatic to hear of those already booked up for the month of July. 

Loyal customers are eager to return for a special meal out after months of cooking for themselves, or making the compromise of eating food cooked by their favourite chefs between their own four walls. 

But is this mere hiatus? Will it last beyond July? What happens if we see another spike in infections? 

To find out, we spoke to award winning chef owner of Myrtle, Anna Haugh; Marcos Fernandez Pardo, CEO of Iberica and Arros restaurants; Paul Hackett, head of Inspections and Assessments for AA Media; Chef and owner of The Woodsman and co-owner of Michelin-starred gastropub, The Harwood Arms, Mike Robinson; Owner of Rothay Manor, Jamie Shail.

There's no crystal ball, but...

Nobody can predict the future.

But award-winning restaurateur Marcos Fernandez Pardo has done his homework ahead of restaurants reopening on July 4th.

As he sees it, there is a perceived threat spectrum, with few people at opposite ends - either very afraid or not at all - and a majority somewhere in the middle. 

The criteria that will decide where people stand will include age, the effects of the recession, as well as whether people return to work in city centres (and if so, when).

"That won't affect all restaurants equally," he said, as people are less likely to skip the business lunch at Arros than they are to pass on a Pret. 

Jamie Shail, whose team at Rothay Manor pushed back their opening date to July 16th, "not knowing we were going to be allowed to reopen on the 4th," he said, adding that they made a call on a date "to give some people who did want to book" the confidence that they would indeed be open.

"It's been a slow trickle but it's picking up," he said, adding that despite the local lockdown in Leicester, "the phones have not stopped ringing." 

Given its size, The Harwood Arms is too difficult to operate with social distancing in place, so it will remain closed for the time being, explained Mike Robinson. However, The Woodsmanwill open on July 8th. 

"I opened my books for reservations four weeks ago," he said, gesturing crossed fingers, and adding: "hoping it wouldn't change, and thank God." 

"And crickey, it's going crazy right now." 

Anna Haugh is reopening her restaurant on July 18th - even though this might not have been her favourited option.

"I don't have a choice," she said, "I still have to pay rent." 

Seeing how slow the pick-up was in Spain when restaurants were allowed to reopen there, she said:"I was really worried about opening up in July because I felt that perhaps people wouldn't be keen to eat out." 

But thankfully, in the two days since opening reservations, results have been promising. 

"Lots of people are coming back to support us," she said.

"It's really exciting to know that you're going to see these people again and that they're excited to be back in your restaurant." 

What should operators implement to boost customer confidence?

Paul Hackett, of the AA stressed that while it might seem like a minefield, "you must follow the government guidance," as well as listening to international advice, recommendations made by trade bodies. 

Risk assessments will be crucial, he added, and said: "look at your business, look at those touch points, see what works."

The company recently introduced its Covid-Confident mark, which Paul explained is hoped will help "see the industry through this really, really difficult time."

The assurance scheme, which the AA is rolling out for free, is available to hotels and restaurants, as well as to self-catering residences, visitor attractions, campsites and golf clubs. 

Businesses are asked to fill in an online assessment, where they must upload all risk assessments, a list of procedures being put in place to mitigate risk, a minimum score of 3 on their hygiene certificate and a signature of the AA's Code of Conduct. 

"It's been designed to not be too arduous," Paul said. 

At the time of our conversation on Tuesday 30/06, the group had received around 3,000 applications. 

"It's growing, and hopefully it will be a good thing for all pubs, all restaurants, all hotels. It's a little something that raises confidence, and that can't be a bad thing at this time." 

What do customers want?

The first response from customers who have booked to stay at Rothay Manor when it reopens has been that not only are they not concerned over whether safety measures would be implemented, but they want to feel like they're enjoying something 'normal.'

"They want to come and stay at the hotel that they know and they want to come and eat at the restaurant that they know, they don't want it to have changed," Jamie explained.

Mike agreed, and said: "We as operators have spent a lot of time and money creating risk assessments that are as good as we can do," he added, "but hopefully we'll let people come and all of that will be in the background, they'll be informed, but they can still enjoy themselves."

Echoing a sentiment which is likely to be shared widely, he said: "I do not want to go and eat in a restaurant where I'm in a booth with plastic screens around me with someone in blue gloves and a mask serving me food." 

"I wouldn't go out to eat that." 

Not least due to the size of her Chelsea restaurant, Anna takes a different stance on the matter of face coverings. She said: "I feel guilty for standing up and saying: 'yeah, my staff are going to wear masks.'"

"Everywhere I go I see people in masks, it's advised that it is a good idea to wear a mask," she said, and customers are likely less concerned with the people serving them than the people they're dining with.  

"I know it's not necessarily comfortable and it is new to us," she said, and her team opting for the most comfortable, aesthetically pleasing masks possible to strike a balance between safety and inconspicuous, impeccable service.  

"If there comes a time when the government says 'there's no point, don't do it' then we can stop, but I can't see a customer turning away from our business because we're trying to do the best thing we can for my staff and for them." 

Perceived risk

Operational procedures aside, a priority for Marcos has been to implement rigorous training, and to manage what he calls "perceived risk." 

"We're looking at things like putting cutlery in little paper bags," he said. "Does that reduce the risk of the spread of Covid? Absolutely not. But it does reduce the perceived risk." 

Anna said that it is only fair for restaurateurs to wait for customers to feel at ease, rather than try to coax them out by widely advertising safety measures and marketing the restaurant as a safe place to visit. 

She explained: "What we want it to be is, if somebody wants to dine, they'll book. If somebody feels unsafe, I'm not trying to encourage them to book, because you don't want somebody stressed." 

"Once they come through the door, what I'm hoping is that they feel we're taking care of them, adding that "I only want people coming through the door who are absolutely all guns blazing excited about having a delicious meal." 

To show how safe his venue is, Mike Robinson is filming a video of The Woodsman, of equipment and procedures put in place to keep people safe. "So that when you go on to book," he explained, "you can watch that and hopefully that will allay all of your worries so that when you come, you already know those things." 

Throughout the debate, the panellists repeated that it is impossible to know for certain what will happen in the coming months.

However, Mike chuckled, perhaps a sign that things will return to normal after all: "I believe that when we do open, customers are going to let us know what they want." 

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 3rd July 2020

'It's most critical that we deal with the perceived risk'