'This is an example of collaboration, of people working together for the sake of the industry'

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 27th May 2020

The Scottish hospitality industry is banding together to help save the sector and its supply chain - and is hoping the government will take its advice on board. 

Yesterday, we held a live discussion with chef Tom Kitchin of Kitchin Group, Dale Dewsbury, restaurant manager at Restaurant Andrew Fairlie, Peter Lederer, chairman of Taste Communications, Louise Maclean, director of sales and marketing at Signature Pub Group and Chris Shepardson CEO at EP Business in Hospitality, to clarify what they are striving to do, and how. (Click here to watch the whole video.)

Each of the virtual panellists recently signed a letter to Nicola Sturgeon, pleading to be involved in putting a plan together to reopen the Scottish hospitality industry.

Their argument is that this being new territory for everyone, industries which will be logistically complex to reopen safely - and in a way that will reassure customers that is the case, in a country so reliant on tourism - should be working closely with the government to put the right measures in place. 

And this dynamic goes both ways, Peter explained, making constructive advice all the more important.

"Government really does want industry input into a lot of these decisions but what it tends to get is a lot of inconsistent solutions and recommendations, or complaints."

Hospitality will be the last to reopen, but is it the last thing on policymakers' priority list?

The talks with government are like a negotiation of sorts - weighing the 'what ifs' against each other to settle on the approach that ticks all the boxes. 

Peter explained: "This is an example of collaboration, of people working together for the sake of the industry. Nobody's ever been through anything like this before.

"We've got to take a clean sheet of paper and look at our spaces where it doesn't work and say: 'well, how can we make it work?' And if we can do that, I think we've got good businesses.

"Not everybody is going to survive unfortunately. Some people won't be able to do it. But let's at least come up with the ideas."

What is a workable solution?

With what Dale calls "self-imposed limited capacity," it's hard to imagine how restaurants like his will reopen and be viable. 

One of the sticking points has been the decision to impose a two-metre physical distance between people at all times, when the World Health Organisation recommends just one metre. This could mean the difference between most of the United Kingdom's restaurants remaining closed or having the ability to open again. 

Louise, whose company oversees 20 venues across Scotland - including the famous Queen's Arms on Frederick Street, which has a capacity of 300 without accounting for social distancing rules, just 86 seats otherwise - and 21 with a two-metre distance between punters.

While there are rumours that this may be reduced to a metre, no government spokesperson has confirmed it as of yet. 

1 out of 3 jobs in the sector are under threat

While the furlough scheme brought some comfort when they were introduced, the news that employers will be asked to contribute towards it is a daunting probability for many businesses.

The tentative suggestion, Chris explained, is that employers will be allowed to bring back staff on a part-time basis if they can pay 25% of the furlough pay - which could see employees doing a fair bit of work whilst still being supported by the government.

Dale: "I don't want to lay anybody off, I'm determined that we won't, but if we're going to be forced to limit our business, the only way that we can do that with a team in place is if we have ongoing support." 

With the threat of the furlough scheme coming to an abrupt end in October - despite claims by Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak claiming that there will be 'no cliff edge for the hospitality industry' - it may be that the current scheme is just delaying the inevitable.

"I think that would be suicidal for our industry," he added.

A rent-free period, VAT exemptions and other ways for government to support the industry

Whatever happens with the furlough scheme, a rent-free period could be the saving grace of many flailing businesses, as could a VAT decrease, such as that which has been put in place in Belgium - which has seen rates halved for restaurants. 

But a rent freeze would have a knock-on effect on landlords, said Tom: "It's like dominoes. Everyone's got these wounds, and they don't know whose are the worst. Rent free rates, business rates, VAT, these are the things that are going to save businesses."

Tailored protocols

One absolutely essential point will be to make sure that customers feel safe to return to restaurants.

A quality assurance scheme, Louise said, would guarantee that all businesses are in agreement when it comes to the protocols, putting them on a level playing field and encouraging customers back through the doors. 

"Then we're not competing on who's got the best hand sanitiser. We've all just got the best regulated hand sanitiser on the market. 

Peter added: "It's not rocket science, we don't need a government department to be set up to run it, I think we can do it ourselves. But if government wants to help us with a green tick and say they've looked at the scheme and they've approved it, great. But again, we don't want a government scheme, because it would be very bureaucratic, very complicated and you won't like everything in there I suspect."

Even if there is no one-size fits all protocol, he argued, businesses should have the freedom to implement the measures they see fit to reassure their customers. 

Similarly, Chris said, a solution may be to launch a pilot project in Edinburgh to regain public confidence before rolling it out to the rest of the country.

But crucially, the industry needs to be part of the conversation, he said.

"We spend all our lives in our businesses, worrying about people's health, safety and wellbeing. It's no different now."

Is there hope?

Asked whether he remained optimistic about the industry's ability to get back on its feet, Tom said: "Of course we have to be positive that it will come back but it's going to take an almighty dent and I think it will take a long time to come back from this. 

"But we're fighters, we all love hospitality, we live and breathe what we do and we're not going to give up."

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 27th May 2020

'This is an example of collaboration, of people working together for the sake of the industry'