Richard Bainbridge: 'We’ve had 20 cancellations this week alone'

The  Staff Canteen

Hospitality BUSINESSES ARE facing cancellations AS COVID-19 RATES ARE on the rise again

As other issues preoccupy the nation, with no more daily briefings to update us on case numbers, the virus is just one more issue weighing on operators' minds.

Richard Bainbridge, the chef proprietor of Benedicts in Norwich, has had a flurry of cancellations in recent weeks. On Thursday, he found himself recording a video letting guests know he had spare tables for the evening. 

"I never thought in my seven years of being in business, that I'd be sitting and making a video saying 'I've got tables, please come in,'" he said in an interview with The Staff Canteen. 

When the calls started a week earlier, he explained, he had wondered whether the reduced footfall was due to something they were (or weren't) doing.

"You then start questioning, 'is it us? Is it something we have done?'"

"So I started to go around asking people in the industry, looking on social media, and it seems to be more and more common now - this is happening to all of us.”

Without knowing when to expect a full restaurant or an empty one, he said, "one minute you’re turning customers away because you have no tables left, you’re full to the rafters because you’re so worried about what the rest of the week is going to look like, and then you get a load of cancellations and you can’t get people in.” 

When we spoke, Richard had lost 15 of his 40 covers for the evening.

“Again, they were just calling up and saying 'my friend has Covid, I can’t come or I have got Covid and I can’t come in. It is just one after the other," he said.

COVID STILL EXISTS AND THE NEW COVID RULES ARE 'A GREY AREA'

As it isn't a requirement to isolate anymore, the chef is unsure what he would do if he or one of his team members caught the virus.

"I was talking to my restaurant manager and thinking, 'well if somebody does get Covid, do we send them off or do you just keep working?'”

“It's such a grey area now because they have left it all to us, in terms of what you should do, what you can do and what you want to do. As a small business, it is a hurdle we have to get over," he added.

“It is another minefield for us to have to work our way through. Do we get the part-timers in, but then they need the money, so you keep them on because it if picks up pace you need them.”

The VAT REDUCTION WAS A 'SECRET SAVIOUR'

To add to their concerns, VAT rates are set to rise at the end of the month.

“It was fantastic having that reduction in VAT," he said. "It was a real underlying quiet thing that has been really helpful for our industry." 

 “It has been a little bit of a secret saviour in our industry."

The upcoming return to the 20 percent rate on April 1st would be fine, he added, "if everything was going well," but "with Ukraine and how we’re all trying to support that, the rises in inflation and minimum wage... The cost of butter has gone through the roof, a drum of oil has gone from £24 pounds to £39 pounds in about four weeks.”

'So much going on in the country' 

While it is understandable that the government has other concerns, all of the above is taking its toll on independent businesses. As a natural consequence of inflation, people would rather go to the supermarket, buy a steak and have a night in with a bottle of wine instead of going out - and it is hard to blame them. 

“Food and restaurants, even though it’s fantastic to go out and socialise and be with each other, it is a luxury," he said. "If you are trying to cut on pennies, going out for dinner will probably be the first thing to go."

The HOSPITALITY INDUSTRY IS 'A MASSIVE CHUNK OF THE DRIVing FORCE OF THE COUNTRY' AND NEEDS GUIDANCE

To curtail the effects of uncertainty, Richard is taking his operations one day at a time, ordering in small quantities and keeping an eye on staffing. But this falls on his suppliers and producers, which has a knock-on effect on the whole of the economy.

“We bring about 3.2 billion to the economy," Richard said. "We employ about 2.3 million people, in some ways the backbone of keeping things moving," 

The chef feels that the Treasury's support for the hospitality industry has always been later than it should have been, because restaurants such as his work day to day. When measures do come in, it is often impossible to make the drastic changes the government wants because the fridges might be full.  

“If they don’t give us guidance on what we could do within a space or if I can get my get my staff in on not because it’s such a grey area, well, what do we do next?"

'Difficult to wade your way through' But There's still Hope

When footfall in his restaurant fell last week, Richard drove around Norwich and saw that most restaurants were facing a similar problem; being half full on weeknights and having to cram people in on the weekends.

With circumstances constantly changing, the chef knows that raising prices will soon be inevitable across the sector. But while this a very difficult and stressful time, thanks to the support from his local community, he is ready to face the adversity head on. 

“The customers that do come in - and this is the best thing I think about having an independent restaurant - they really support you by coming, because they know how hard it can be," he explained.

"That makes your job worthwhile - when they see that the smiling faces are still there no matter what. 

This loyalty from his customers gives the team at Benedicts a sense of responsibility, that he needs to be there.

"That keeps the driving force going," he said.

"Two weeks ago when it started to happen, I felt like I was completely alienated - like, 'God, this is only happening to me,' talking to my wife like, 'what can we do with our business,' but now you're starting to see this across the board."

"So it's like, 'right, we just need to lock in, save money where we can, save money on staff where we can - but we need to support them in their livelihoods and how they work as well, and that's what a restaurant should be really." 

"We keep going in despite everything, and work on our feet. Hopefully, we'll come out the other side stronger than we went into this two years ago. Fingers crossed."

By Bianca Jashnani 

In these challenging times…

The Staff Canteen team are taking a different approach to keeping our website independent and delivering content free from commercial influence. Our Editorial team have a critical role to play in informing and supporting our audience in a balanced way. We would never put up a paywall and restrict access – The Staff Canteen is open to all and we want to keep bringing you the content you want; more from younger chefs, more on mental health, more tips and industry knowledge, more recipes and more videos. We need your support right now, more than ever, to keep The Staff Canteen active. Without your financial contributions this would not be possible.

Over the last 12 years, The Staff Canteen has built what has become the go-to platform for chefs and hospitality professionals. As members and visitors, your daily support has made The Staff Canteen what it is today. Our features and videos from the world’s biggest name chefs are something we are proud of. We have over 500,000 followers across Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and other social channels, each connecting with chefs across the world. Our editorial and social media team are creating and delivering engaging content every day, to support you and the whole sector - we want to do more for you.

A single coffee is more than £2, a beer is £4.50 and a large glass of wine can be £6 or more.

Support The Staff Canteen from as little as £1 today. Thank you.

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 27th March 2022

Richard Bainbridge: 'We’ve had 20 cancellations this week alone'