'Socially-distant kitchens don't exist - it is going to get passed around quickly'

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Deputy Editor

"It was just the right thing to do," said Josh Overington, chef and owner of Le Cochon Aveugle and Cave du Cochon in York, about the decision to close his flagship after a member of his team tested positive for coronavirus. 

The number of restaurants forced to do the same increases every day, from the Clove Club to Kala Bistro, the Scran and Scallie and Daffodil Mulligan, the list goes on.

And unless you have a whole backup team on call, if a member of your team tests positive, there is a high chance that you will be shutting the doors of your establishment for at least ten days.

Yet as both Josh and Alex Bond, chef owner of Michelin-starred Nottingham restaurant Alchemilla can testify, businesses are having to front the cost of the closure of their restaurants with no financial assistance. 

"What's annoying is that we do the right thing consistently over and over again," Alex said, "we follow the rules and do what we're told, and yet they treat us like s**t."

No more furlough

When he broke the news to his team, Josh said, they were understandably fearful.

"Some of our team only joined us recently, so they aren't entitled to furlough," he explained, "So we're paying them."

"If we didn't, they would just get statutory sick pay, which is nothing -  it's like £96 a week."

Paying their teams out of their own pockets is commendable, yes, but as Alex noted, "what other choice do we have?"

"This isn't their fault. It isn't the person who tested positive's fault, he didn't do anything wrong, we're all out and about, we're all being told that we're good to go places. 

Pointing at what the scientific consensus has told us so far, high incidences of infections within teams are likely.

If you had to name examples of 'prolonged exposure in confined spaces', professional kitchens would be top of the list.

"Socially-distant kitchens don't exist," Alex said. "We're not Eleven Madison who's got a kitchen the size of a football pitch. We have small kitchens. It is going to get passed around quickly." 

And whilst it would be nice to think that the government is going to provide support, Josh said, "I think their end game is to open up on the 19th and let everything lie."

Being realistic, he added, "It's not going to be the last time Covid comes into one of my businesses in the next five years - Covid's not going to vanish come July 19th." 

"But at the same time, businesses can't just close. We're going to have to come up with a better system." 

The effects on your guests

In both instances, thankfully, guests have been understanding of the situation, though that hasn't made it much easier to manage. 

"I had to ring hundreds of tables and upset loads of people and try move people," Alex said, though they refused his offers to cancel their reservations and refund their deposits. 

"People are like 'no, we want to support you, let's move our booking, just do what you can.'" 

But like when they were forced to close for the first time in March 2020, the restaurants had to write-off a certain amount of stock when they closed. 

For example, Josh explained, some of their suppliers grow produce just for them, "so they've spent months and months growing these peas that we can't use." 

"It might sound silly," he said, "they're just peas," but it means that their closure has an effect on their growers' livelihoods, as well as their teams' and their own.

Due to the prevailing uncertainty of the past year, they do manage stock differently at Alchemilla, as Alex explained, "we run things a bit tighter. But it's the loss of revenue that's the big thing."

"It's a lot of money." 

Inside Le Cochon Aveugle - Photo credit: Esme Mai

The effects on the industry

In any case, adding incidences of temporary closures in an increasing number of establishments isn't going to do the already wounded hospitality industry any favours. 

"Hospitality is in the biggest crisis ever," Josh said, "It's probably the worst time to be employed in hospitality, it's definitely the worst time in history to own and run a restaurant business in the history of doing it - and that's not to say you shouldn't do it or to put people off doing it because I think you should, the only way we're going to carry on doing this is to get the young girls and guys in the kitchen doing it - but it's going to be a hard year."

Neither would be surprised - or point an accusatory finger - if some operators just decided to infringe the rules when one of their crew tests positive for the coronavirus.

"If you're on your arse and the financial support is gone and no-one is going to help you, what incentive do you have other than morality than to say, 'well, we have to close?'" Alex pondered.

"Even if the government gave out £1,000 grants as an incentive, it wouldn't cover costs or anything but it might encourage them to do the right thing," Josh said. "At the moment there's no support whatsoever."

Moving forward

Back open in nine days, Josh said, "we're fully booked three months down the line, so it's not the end of the world, but it is going to be a big chunk of money coming out on my side.

"I'm all clear, I feel good about the decision, touchwood that it doesn't happen again because then there will be a lot more difficult decisions financially, business-wise." 

"At the end of the day, what's most important is that the restaurants stay open in the long run, all the staff are healthy and that I look after them so they want to come back and work for me." 

After the year the hospitality industry has endured, and if the rest of the year proves to be as prosperous as it promises to be, Josh knows that he can overcome this temporary closure.

"I look back and I don't know how I've done it. I've kept both of my places open, retained some of my staff, managed to pay my rent, managed to pay my home rent - I don't know how I've done it, but I have, and the same for any business owner.

"I'm sure they look back at all the things they've done they never had to do before, selling their soul, putting things in plastic boxes and all sorts, but we've got here, so that's the main thing. 

"I didn't put things in plastic boxes for months just to give up now,"  he laughed.

"You just have to keep going, there's nothing else we can do," Alex concurred. "That's what we will do as business owners, we will just keep going."

"I have to sit on my hands 'till next Friday and we just have to pray that it doesn't happen again."

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Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Deputy Editor 25th June 2021

'Socially-distant kitchens don't exist - it is going to get passed around quickly'