'They can't differentiate between a restaurant, a bar or a motorway caff. It's a blunt tool'

The  Staff Canteen

Yesterday, the Prime Minister set out the government's roadmap to ease restrictions in the coming months, delivering crucial - but, he stressed, highly conditional - dates for the hospitality industry to reopen. 

After schools on March 8th, non-essential retail, hairdressers, and gyms will follow on April 12th, along with hospitality businesses able to serve customers outdoors. Only on May 17th will indoor dining resume, with the rule of six and two households still standing. 

If all goes according to the government's plan, June 21st will bring the end of restrictions. and the industry will be allowed to operate as normal. 

While the schedule will reassure some that they can finally start planning to reopen, the drawn-out plan could see others unable to do so when the time comes. We spoke to David Moore, Mark Birchall, Anna Haugh, Richard Vines, Alice Bowyer and Graham Garrett to find out what the consequences will be for them. 

"I was trying to count how many days until we open," said David, restaurateur and owner of the 30 year-old London institution, Pied à Terre. His tally neared the 95-day mark. 

But striking a conciliatory tone, he added: "It's good to have a date, even if it's not the date you want. It's good to have something to work towards, to run numbers on and to plan. 

Hospitality vs. non-essential retail, gyms and beauty salons

David does believe that hospitality has been given the short end of the stick, however, and said: "I don't want to be the grumpy old man, but it doesn't seem fair that our industry is being treated differently to hairdressing and nail bars. Both of which offer a personal, one-to-one service which is very upfront and in your face. 

"We've made so many changes to how we run things and we have so many different regimes in place to cope with Covid," he added, and given the industry's low contribution to infections, "by the government's own recording, that all seems very very unfair that we're now being left five weeks behind. 

"I don't see why, I don't understand it.

"Five weeks is ten percent of your year," he explained. And having only been open for 11 weeks since the first closure in March of last year, continued: "I'd like someone to give me an explanation of why indoor hospitality is not being treated the same as indoor beauty."

Mark, chef patron of two Michelin-starred Restaurant Moor Hall, shares David's bitter feeling of being tarred with the same brush as other, less safe environments.

"It's a bit insulting," he said, and shows that the government is incapable of drawing a distinction among hospitality businesses.

"This is why we need that minister in Parliament," he said.  

"They can't treat a restaurant like this like a dirty bar in a city centre - there's no comparison." 

"They can't differentiate between a restaurant, a bar or a motorway caff. It's a blunt tool, they're just tarring everyone with the same brush. There's alcohol involved and that's in their mind - somewhere serves alcohol, everyone gets pissed and they'll make a mess of themselves and all catch Covid.

Is lockdown easing too slowly, or too fast?

For Bloomberg's chief food critic Richard, the issue isn't so much that hospitality is dangerous, but that many environments are unsafe. 

Looking at the number of deaths over Christmas, and the daily infections - even now - he said: "It's probably an unpopular view, but I think the government have to go very cautiously."

That will entail strong government support for the industry - from furlough, VAT and rates, but, he said, "I don't think they can be too kind to this industry in terms of lifting the lockdown."

"I think this is an argument not to open hairdressers rather than an argument for restaurants to be open," he said.

As the group executive chef for the Butcombe Brewery's vast portfolio of pubs and rooms, Alice Bowyer feels that to err on the side of caution is wise, she said, as "we have to make sure that this is the last time that we go into a lockdown." 

"Hopefully, we can stick to these dates and then that's it forever." 

Graham Garrett, chef patron of The West House, agreed that having to wait longer than expected to reopen, at this point, makes little odds. 

"What does it matter? We're f**ked anyway, what does another month matter? As long as we've got a date and we know we've got something to work towards and we can reopen, that's all I care about at the moment."

Anna Haugh of restaurant Myrtle is very much of this opinion also.

Upon watching the Prime Minister's speech yesterday, she said: "The first think I thought, really, was 'Boris, you're a prick.'" 

"He's not to be trusted. He has let us down on many occasions with dates and timings and lockdowns and coming out of lockdowns before."

And while the first two steps of easing lockdown make sense, to her, she said, "I feel it starts to go rogue," especially stage 4 - June 21st, when he said we would be aiming to drop all restrictions.

"It's this ridiculous utopia," she said, "which we all know isn't happening." 

As for those inside and out of the industry saying the easing of lockdown isn't quick enough, she said: "I totally feel what they're saying and I really relate to their desperation but I do believe that our main focus should be watching how the virus spreads and grows." 

"The minute that we are allowed to dine inside, most people's discipline will go out of the window, I can't see people having the energy left in them to fight off the temptation to do whatever they used to do and want."

"We are not in a position at all to feel like we are out of the woods. We are really at a scary time, and most of all, we're desperate - for entertainment, and to be back earning, and that's dangerous." 

City centres and "irreversible" progress

Whilst the first lockdown was full of uncertainty as to whether people would feel safe going out to eat and drink again, David isn't concerned that people will flock back to city centres for a jolly once they are allowed to.

"There will definitely be pent-up demand," he said, from "all of the celebratory events in people's lives, people who are fond of Pied à Terre will be clicking on that widget and making their bookings, anniversaries, birthdays, all the special occasions that have passed unnoted since mid-December." 

"We saw it last time and I think we'll see it again."

However, it is likely that the pandemic has altered consumer habits, at least to some extent, forever.

Richard, who lives and works in London's financial district, the changes are likely to be drastic. 

"My hope is that it will mean a reduction in the homogenous chains up and down the country," he said, with improved quality and more focus in restaurants. 

"But it's going to be tough business, I don't think footfall is going to come back at least for a few months, and it could be a permanent shift of some sort.

Alice believes that with the end of restrictions will come a period of trepidation, "five deep at the bar sort of thing."

"But we'll just adapt, and people that have a quality offer, if people love to go there to drink eat and go out, they will come out strong." 

"There's definitely hope on the horizon."

As we await the budget announcement next week, a lot hangs in the balance for hospitality. Watch this space for information about what to expect and industry views on what the Treasury might roll out.

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 23rd February 2021

'They can't differentiate between a restaurant, a bar or a motorway caff. It's a blunt tool'