For decades, city centres have been the key driving force of the economy. Each day, millions of people flow in and out, for work or play, from the metropolis of London to smaller cities around Britain. Consequently, restaurants and other hospitality businesses have largely focused on the centre.
The pandemic has led to an outward shift. According data from property website Rightmove, inner London renters are beginning to look further afield to suburbs and commuter towns. Similarly, a survey by online letting agents Mashroom found 60 per cent of Londoners are considering moving away from the city.
Will restaurants follow suit, favouring neighbourhoods, suburbs and commuter towns over previously fashionable inner-city spots? Emma Davies of Faithful+Gould, a project management consultancy, says the urban exodus is a long-term trend exacerbated by the pandemic.
Davies agrees this could have a knock-on effect, with hospitality spots beginning to favour non-city centre locations. With cheaper rents and rates, these locations can be appealing, providing there is consistent footfall (especially during the day) to make it viable.
Here, three restaurants share their stories of suburban success.
Hern, Chapel Allerton, Leeds
Owner and chef Rab Adams opened Hern in Chapel Allerton last autumn, six months before lockdown. About two miles north of Leeds city centre, Adams describes the area as residential, populated by middle-class professionals; his restaurant has a strong local following with plenty of regulars.
Adams, a Le Cordon Bleu-trained chef with a background in both Michelin-starred restaurants and bakeries, wanted to open a restaurant that was affordable, encouraged repeat custom, with regulars who’d come every couple of weeks, and provided the flexibility to change menus regularly. “It made sense to do that outside the city centre,” says Adams.
During lockdown, while the dining room was closed, Hern operated as a bakery and shop three times a week, which helped keep things ticking over. “We kept in contact with the people who were supporting us already, and had some new people came who’ve now come to eat,” says Adams.
For Adams, a neighbourhood restaurant doesn’t inherently have more atmosphere than one in a city centre, but with more working from home than usual, “people are saying it’s nice to be able to pop in.”
Since lockdown Hern has only served dinner, with two sittings of four tables each; due to the safety measures, its biggest night has seen just 22 guests through the door. It will soon be opening for lunch on Fridays and Saturdays. “I don’t feel like we’re in a lunchy area," Adams admits, "but that might have changed. I hope that works out for us.”
Harborne Kitchen, Harborne, Birmingham
Three miles south-west from the city centre, Harborne is a tranquil suburb with a pretty high street, independent shops and a good supply of food and drink spots. It has a real neighbourhood vibe, only strengthened since lockdown, with many working from home and spending more time in the area.
Harborne Kitchen opened in 2016, offering “a contemporary and playful” menu, according to its owner and chef Jamie Desogus. Since reopening, the food has become more focused on small plates rather than just a tasting menu, and Desogus has noticed a change in dining habits, with more people coming for special occasions – perhaps instead of heading into town.
Local food blogger Bite Your Brum is a fan: “The people who run the place are so nice, they genuinely love the community and want to be useful and good within it. They adapted the whole place to suit Covid measures in an attractive way.”
Desogus wouldn’t be surprised if restaurateurs increasingly sought out-of-town spots rather than city centres. “As more people continue to work from home and travel into the city centre less it goes without saying that suburbs and smaller commuter towns will get busier across the board.
“We’re really lucky to have a solid base of loyal customers that have been with us from day one of our journey, but we’ve also noticed new customers both from the local area and further afield.”
Chuku's, Tottenham, London
Ifeyinwa Frederick and her brother Emeke opened Chuku's, a Nigerian restaurant, in February, just five weeks before lockdown. Many looking to open restaurants in the capital aim for central locations, such as Soho, Fitzrovia or Covent Garden, but that wasn't the case for the Fredericks.
“We never had an interest in having a central London location,” Ifeyinwa explains. “We always wanted to be in a neighbourhood, where we could both become a destination and also belong to that community. We wanted to create a home from home, to be in a place where we felt we could become part of the local fabric.”
A lockdown so soon after opening wasn't ideal, but Ifeyinwa says the location, on the Tottenham High Road, not to mention the restaurant's bright, colourful shutters, kept the restaurant in people's consciousness.
Since reopening, local demand has risen above their expectations, and several customers have become regulars. “We've been open for six weeks, and had some guests four times. That's quite significant, we're seeing even more repeat custom than when we first opened, especially from people in the local area. It's really nice.”
While Ifeyinwa doesn't think there will be a wholesale shift towards suburban locations, there could be a rebalancing across the restauarant industry.
Does she feel their decision to open in Tottenham has been vindicated? “I think the word is grateful. I think community really matters. Sometimes local areas are seen as less glamorous, but there's a real beauty in small, tight-knit communities.”