Stacey Sherwood-French, JÖRO, Cyril Baligand, Frenchie: Don't panic, Christmas isn't cancelled (yet)

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Deputy Editor

"We always thought that something was going to come about in winter, it was naive to think that we would get through this winter without any restrictions come back into play," said co-owner and director of Michelin-starred JÖRO in Sheffield, Stacey Sherwood-French.

But even since the government announced new restrictions last week, there hasn't been a significant downturn in business at any of their outlets, so her mood remains one of cautious optimism.

"It is good to remain positive," she said. "At the end of the day, it is what it is, and quite literally, there's very little we can do when these things happen, other than carry on."

While recent studies (as seen by hospitality news provider Propel) have shown a downturn in Christmas bookings since 2019 - and at least a proportion of operators across the UK have seen an uptick in cancellations and a downturn in reservations -  a fear that cancellations would continue rushing in, leaving hospitality in a dire situation similar to last year, has yet to materialise.

In fact, Frenchie London is doing "amazingly well," according to director of operations for Frenchie Hospitality Group, Cyril Baligand. 

"Obviously compared to last year it's much better, but even compared to 2019 - it's much better than expected." 

Even in contrast with the Covent Garden's Parisian counterpart, there has been little to no effect from the government's warning last week.

"In France, we saw more event cancellations and the footfall is a little bit lower, but in the UK - I'm just looking at the bookings system at the moment, it's very good, this week is very, very busy. Christmas goes without saying, but the whole month is very busy."

Restaurants are safe

Social distancing and mask-wearing have remained in place at JÖRO since the restaurant re-opened after the first lockdown, which Stacey said was not only better for the guest experience, but for the team, too. 

When they were forced to remove half of the tables in the restaurant, she explained, "I changed the service and booking structure so that we do four set services a day and there's a specific allocation on that table so we flip it at the same time. That's allowed us to keep our business sustainable, with the financials in mind - and it relieves a bit of pressure on the team." 

Guests have regularly reached out to check what safety measures are in place prior to visiting, showing that the desire is there.

"They might have a personal reason, but for them it's just good to know that we're prepared and that we're taking it seriously."

"My main focus has been that our customers know that they can trust us - and that was key from day one. 

"And that has meant that since then we have retained that custom because people have felt safe and they trust us. Hopefully they appreciate it." 

Size matters

For Stacey and Luke at JÖRO, which is built into an upcycled shipping container, along with their new chef's table concept at House of JÖRO, operating with low-covers is a plus.

"The concern probably lies elsewhere," Stacey said. "We've got Konjö now so we're in The Food Halls, and they're probably going to be where we're going to see the biggest hit for us personally - purely down to the fact that that's where the large, 50,70,100 cover business reservations and corporate Christmas reservations are being held in Sheffield."

But even there, she said, "I've been speaking to them continuously over the past couple of days to find out if we're seeing any effect at the moment and there's nothing too bad dropping." 

"We're going to keep a close eye on it - I think for the most part, everyone is introducing cancellation policies, and quite rightly so," she added, hoping that lots of last-minute cancellations don't come in before when people's deposits hang in the balance.

"That could be quite difficult for us in terms of stockholding, staffing and planning ahead in the next month, it's something we're going to have to be really on the ball with," she said.

The larger venues will also be first in line when it comes to requiring support should further restrictions be placed on gatherings. 

"They rely on excellent trade levels in December, they bank the cash to see them through January and February." 

"That's where there's going to be a little bit of damage - and we'll potentially need some support there, in January," such as a furlough scheme or an extension of business rates relief.

Staffing is a bigger problem 

But January will only be a massive concern for businesses should December drop off, and at Frenchie, bookings are heaving until Christmas.For them, the limitations aren't coming from demand, but from the ongoing staffing crisis. 

Only open four and a half days a week, he continued, "I personally, my colleagues or co-workers within hospitality haven't seen anything big [cancellation-wise]," other than a handful when the new restrictions were announced last weekend.

"Even now, if we were open seven days a week, we would have the people to fill the seats, but we just don't physically have enough staff to do that." 

Que Sera Sera

Ultimately, as the national health situation continues to evolve, Stacey said: "We just have to wait and see don't we - at the moment, from what they're saying, the cases aren't that bad." 

As has often been the case throughout the pandemic, she added: "it's just going to have to be a gut reaction." 

"But I think if enough people make enough noise about it, we'll be okay. I think that's one good thing about hospitality - everyone does stand up and shout very loudly."

For now, her advice would be this: "Don't panic and stay calm. Just focus." 

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Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Deputy Editor 3rd December 2021

Stacey Sherwood-French, JÖRO, Cyril Baligand, Frenchie: Don't panic, Christmas isn't cancelled (yet)