'One person's pain is not diminished by anybody else's. We're all suffering.'

The  Staff Canteen

On Monday, Londoners were told that they would be going into the third and strictest Tier of restrictions in England three weeks after emerging from a second National lockdown. 

A government review has been promised on the 23rd, but alongside this, the mood seems to be leaning towards tighter restrictions for Christmas - meaning that a loosening of the rules seems highly unlikely.

We spoke to business owners and chefs across the capital to understand the specifics of how the government's approach is affecting them - as well as the hospitality industry at large. 

No notice, again

David Moore, chef and owner of  Pied à Terre, which first opened its doors on London's Charlotte Street 29 years and eleven months ago, is devastated to say the least. 

"Outwardly, it looks like I'm fine. Inwardly, I'm crying," he said. 

To have the busiest week of the year snatched away is devastating enough, but nobody expected to be given just two days' notice to fold up shop, he said: "I was thinking 'they'll announce today that we close on Saturday night.'" 

The effects of lost stock will be massive - the cost of £900 of floral decorations just thrown out of the window he said and more than £1,500 worth of food 'that's going to be written off'.

"The kitchen staff are getting a lot of turkey - it doesn't quite look right on the menu in January," he laughed.

For Sabrina Gidda, who runs an exclusive members' club, much of the food waste will be going to a homeless charity that her team already works with.

"We were doing that anyway," she said, "but to be honest the notice that they gave us here really is just a complete joke."

"They really need to start thinking of some sense of logic with this, because really there isn't any. For anyone to be shut before Christmas would have been a sucker punch, but it did not need to be at such short notice." 

"Hospitality is there all of the time for everybody, so to constantly have this situation is really awful." 

Chef Tom Sellers' business, Restaurant Story, has taken a hit, but nothing like what it might have suffered had it been in its earlier years. 

Asked if he'd seen the new measures coming, he said: "Everything is very reactive at the minute, and that's why everything feels more damaging. To give no notice - it shows that's there's clearly a lack of care or a lack of understanding of the damage that is put on us when we have to act so quickly. 

"In an industry that people openly know is very much built around cashflow and the supply chain, from growers to producers to farmers to restaurants to customers and what's perishable, it shows a lack of care. It's very frustrating." 

What would make the restrictions and the short notice more palatable, he explained, is better support, but he doesn't see this as being delivered.

"As a business, if you're going to force my closure, that should be the time that you provide me with what support you're giving me, right?"

Currently, he said, "the support is not enough. No offence but £1,000 or £2,000 grants a month doesn't even pay my fisherman." 

To reopen or not to reopen

Adam Byatt, chef and owner of Michelin-starred Clapham restaurant, Trinity, is reluctant to even reopen in January, as he fears that more restrictions will inevitably follow after Christmas.

"I think January's gone, we have to write it off," he said. 

"If they do take us out of Tier 3 into Tier 2, you just can't trust them that it won't happen again," which, if it did, "the cost and work and energy that goes into that, I might just say: 'd'you know what, the furlough scheme is there, just leave it.'" 

"I'm going to come back when I think it's ready, not when they tell me it's ready. I don't trust them anymore." 

David, on the other hand, will open as soon as possible, but not knowing when to tell his team to return puts a spanner in the works.

"I can't tell my staff to go back to France, go back to Italy, just in case we have to pull the trigger and reopen," he said.

What's more, to be deprived of the most busy - admittedly frantic - period of the year is devastating for the team, Adam explained. 

"That last two weeks are absolutely ram-stacked - and it's hard and the business is stretched to its maximum and the cooking is hard and the guests don't leave early so they're there all the time. 

"Yes, it's a very pressurised time, but the camaraderie and the sense of working together as a team is extraordinary." 

"That's part of who we are and what we do, we facilitate people's festive cheer - and to have that whipped away from us, I can just see that in the team, and it's really difficult."

That's without mention for the bookings teams, who have spent the past month meticulously arranging reservations, dealing with requests and dietaries and vouchers, to a value of £190,000.

"That should have been turned into profit which would have seen us through what inevitably will be a very dark January-February," he said, not to mention the loss this will incur for HMRC.

"I've got no idea how they think they're going to get these funds back without using hospitality because we are one of the key contributors of tax." 

"You have to wonder whether they've thought this through properly, it's lunacy." 

London-centrics?

As the news hit the headlines in the broadsheets that London would be going into Tier 3, hospitality professionals around the union decried the sudden impetus to talk about the issues the industry is facing - when other parts of the country have been under the toughest restrictions for the best part of a year. 

Knowing that London is one of the world's culinary capitals, and the location most understood in Whitehall, one might expect that the city would indeed be better off than elsewhere, but it isn't quite so simple. 

Tom explained: "London is the capital city so there's a light that shines brighter on it, naturally. There's more operators, it's more condensed so there's more competition and the rents and rates are way higher than anywhere else in the country, but that doesn't mean that we're any more important." 

"I feel for every single chef, owner, proprietor, businessman that's had to close their business and I feel for the supply chain all the way through." 

"We have to stick together and be unified in our message, that's really important." 

"Every chef out there deserves more support. Whether they're in a small rural village in the North East or in the capital city, they all deserve the right level of support," suggesting the introduction of a sort of balance system on the government's part. 

"It's not rocket science," Tom continued.

"Any business can provide numbers and turnover and costs and PNLs, because that's what they do. So the government - like they've mapped out the furlough scheme," he continued, "why not do the same for businesses and base it on where they're situated and what their running costs are."

"You have to ask yourself, for the hundreds of years that the small men have paid their taxes, why do we not have an infrastructure that can provide that?" 

"If you look back at history, whenever the top tier of society make mistakes - the banks, the global bluetooth companies, whoever it may be. The little man always pays, the people who work very hard to try and have what they deem to be a successful life." 

A minister for hospitality

What it boils down to for Tom, and all of the chefs in this conversation, is that "we don't have a voice for our industry to even say: 'C'mon guys, we're not saying that you need to give everyone the same, but you need to support an industry that you're forcing to close." 

"Out of every bad situation comes good. If out of this we get a minister for hospitality and we can start to make steps forward, then hopefully we can start future-proofing, because I think it's one of the best industries in the world, it's one of the most giving, one of the most free." 

Sabrina agreed that a unified voice is more necessary now than ever, and added: "There's a bit of a lack of understanding here because of the way things are portrayed in the press. If all of the people in Birmingham see the opening sale at Harrod's and everyone completely breaking the rules, the actual reality of this is that it's one instance." 

"I'm taking an empty train to work with a facemask on to come home on an empty train. Much of this is to be blamed on the way that the press chooses to pick up on and report things."

"I think it's a bit unfair for people to cast those assumptions that it's the same city as it was in February, because it's really not. The last I heard is that London is between 25-30% of its regular occupancy, and you feel that working through the city." 

For David, the problem is more complex than there being a rigid divide, because there is so much interdependence across the industry. "London is the powerhouse, isn't it," he explained. "When something goes wrong here, it ripples out." 

This, he added, "will make all other regions poorer." 

"It gets the biggest shout because it has the loudest voice, the biggest possible upside and the worst possible downside. London matters."

"We are less than a twelfth of the population of this country but punching way above our weight in what we give to the country, and that subsidises the rest of the country so they don't have to pay as much." 

"You will be poorer without us," he said.

"London is the engine house and people need to wake up and give us a little respect for that." 

"One person's pain is not diminished by anybody else's. We're all suffering." 

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 17th December 2020

'One person's pain is not diminished by anybody else's. We're all suffering.'