'The last thing an already struggling industry needed' – how coronavirus is affecting British restaurants

The coronavirus crisis has hit the UK restaurant industry hard, with bookings up to 50 per cent down

Chinatown 
Restaurants in London's Chinatown are experiencing particularly sharp drops in footfall Credit: Andy Rain /Rex

From nationwide lockdowns to stock-market collapse, cancelled sporting events and, most tragically of all, over 4,700 deaths and counting, the coronavirus outbreak is wreaking havoc across the world. And amid stories of stockpiling pasta and hand sanitiser rationing, the restaurant industry is taking a huge hit. 

According to a survey by Barclaycard, in February restaurant takings were down 6.4 per cent. Meanwhile, UK Hospitality (UKH) announced a seven per cent drop among its 700 businesses, and says bookings have fallen by up to 50 per cent. Many chefs and restaurateurs are reporting similar decreases in footfall, with last-minute cancellations rife and a sharp decrease in tourist trade. 

“It’s worse than anything I’ve seen in 28 years,” says David Moore, founder of Pied à Terre in London’s Fitzrovia. After a strong January and a record-breaking Valentine’s week, Moore says the end of February saw a drastic year-on-year decline in footfall. “The beginning of March was 23 per cent down, and the first to days of this week was 53 per cent down like for like.” Claude Bosi, head chef at Bibendum in South Kensington, says there are five fewer table reservations each evening. 

The British restaurant has survived, in many parts even flourished, despite the multiple threats of taxes and business rates, financial crash, terrorist attacks and previous epidemics like Sars or foot and mouth. Nothing has had the impact, or potential impact, of coronavirus. 

James Ramsden runs Pidgin, a fine dining restaurant in Hackney, and Sons + Daughters, a sandwich shop in Kings Cross. His weekly podcast, The Kitchen Is On Fire, features a different chef each week. “No one’s talking about anything else,” says Ramsden. “We’re extremely concerned. If people are formally advised not to go to places with lots of other people, we’re in genuine, serious trouble as an industry. 

Pidgin, London  Credit: Geoff Pugh

At Pidgin weekend numbers are down, with last-minute cancellations causing an existential threat to this 28-seat neighbourhood restaurant. Just 40 lost covers a week, Ramsden says, can be the difference between profit and loss. At Sons + Daughters, Ramsden hasn’t noticed much difference, yet. 

In Belfast, Jenny Holland runs Bia Rebel Ramen with husband Brian Donnelly. The morning we speak, a man tested positive in a nearby call centre. “It certainly feels like it’s going to get worse before it gets better, we’re definitely concerned,” Holland admits. “It feels like the dominos are falling near us. For a small business, we have absolutely no leeway, no margin for error.” 

The St Patrick’s Day parade, which was recently cancelled, provides a big boost to small local businesses. “Belfast is a small city, and restaurants are very vulnerable,” says Holland. “It’s discretionary spending, not essential at the best of times.” Holland explains that being forced to shut, even for one weekend, would have a “huge impact” on turnover. “If we were put on lockdown like Italy, that would be devastating. One weekend we can recover. Longer? It actually did keep me up last night.” 

Back in London, Chinatown has seen a particularly sharp decrease in custom. Pho & Bun, a Vietnamese restaurant, says that since late January sales are down 30 per cent. Martin Ma, general manager of Jinli, announced his restaurant is losing £15,000 a week, while yesterday Big Hospitality reported many Chinese restaurants closing down for several weeks due to “renovations”, “internal maintenance” or “refurbishments”. Baozi Inn’s sales have dropped 40 per cent across its two Chinatown sites. 

A decline in Chinese visitors has been cited as a key reason, as has another factor: prejudice. “It’s not like people are swerving Italian restaurants to the same degree,” Ramsden bemoans. “It’s a slightly sad reflection of people’s psyches.” 

One London restaurant PR consultant told the Telegraph the past two weeks have seen a particularly sharp decrease in footfall, as businesses increasingly ask employees to work from home.

“The longer term impact is continued low footfall, supplier issues and increased food prices on businesses, which already operate on incredibly fine margins. A total lockdown in London would have disastrous consequences. Some establishments would be forced to fold completely, which is very sad indeed.” Those the Telegraph spoke to admitted there’s a fine line between respecting government directives on, say, not venturing out, and putting restaurants at risk of extinction. 

Restaurants have long warned of the impact of Brexit, that it is becoming harder and harder to attract foreign staff. Having just one or two waiters quarantined for two weeks, for a small restaurant, can be tough to mitigate.

Tom Brown, of Cornerstone in Hackney, has seen many last-minute cancellations, particularly from outside London, but insists on telling staff with minor symptoms to stay home, “which is of course putting us through further strain when the restaurant is busy.” 

Currently chefs are doubling down on hygiene practices, ensuring doorknobs are disinfected twice hourly, and avoiding unnecessary contact. “My hands are destroyed from frantically washing them,” says Ramsden. But waiters wearing masks, for example, is not really an option. “It’s a bit off-putting,” Ramsden admits. 

Due to the spread of COVID-19, chefs are doubling down on hygiene practices  Credit: KOEN VAN WEEL

One mooted saviour could be deliveries, with couriers encouraged to leave food at the door and avoid contact. According to the Barclaycard survey, takeaway sales have risen by 8.7 per cent since the virus kicked in. Great for fast food companies, then, but can a fine dining establishment take this risk?

While Ramsden says Pidgin couldn’t do takeaway (it doesn’t quite fit the multi-course taster menu structure), Moore says “this might be the moment [to enter the takeaway market]. We will examine every possibility if that helps us get through it.” Bia Rebel Ramen recently signed up to Deliveroo, something Holland is “quite happy about now.” The Telegraph asked Deliveroo how coronavirus has impacted business, but it declined to comment.

Not every restaurant has reported a decline, particularly outside London. Thackeray’s in Tunbridge Wells, Kent, has just enjoyed its busiest ever February.

Nevertheless, executive head chef Richard Phillips has taken precautionary measures, such reinforcing rigorous hygiene procedures and advising staff not to work if experiencing symptoms, and will be following government guidelines. “In the meantime, our feeling is we just stay cool, keep clean and carry on doing what we do best,” says Phillips. 

Likewise on the Isle of Wight, Ben Cooke of The Little Gloster hasn’t seen any negative effects. “The ferry to and from the island is very busy and morale seems high. I know London is really struggling with out-of-towners avoiding mass crowds and tourism at a low, and I really feel for my hospitality friends taking the hit,” says Cooke. 

In Edinburgh, Paul Wedgwood, chef patron of Wedgwood the Restaurant, says since the outbreak larger tour groups from abroad have cancelled bookings, up to the end of 2020. “Of course, this has an impact on revenue,” Wedgwood explains. “However, we are luckier than some, as we are not wholly reliant on tourism spend. I am confident we can fill these bookings with our regulars. There’s one thing I can’t stress enough, and it’s to advise people to support small independent restaurants.” 

 Historic Soho restaurant Quo Vadis addressed effects of the virus directly in a recent newsletter  Credit: Quo Vadis

Anouschka Menzies, co-founder of Bacchus, a luxury hospitality communications agency, agrees that restaurants with a strong local clientele can maintain footfall. But those reliant on international clientele are up to 40 per cent down. Corporate bookings are crucial to many of central London’s restaurants, she explains, and they cannot survive a prolonged period of low revenue. 

Menzies has been lobbying the chancellor and local governments to reduce business rates and to halve VAT for the hospitality industry. “It needs to happen or they will not have any tenants,” she insists. UKH has also pushed for a reduction, to incentivise bookings. “This is now an emergency for our sector. If Government doesn’t act to mitigate the impact and give us support, businesses are in danger,” says UKH CEO Kate Nicholls. 

Yesterday, chancellor Rishi Sunak announced plans to cut business rates completely for a year, but only for companies with a rateable value of less than £51,000. The government will also cover sick pay for up to 14 days for businesses with fewer than 250 employees, and is offering temporary coronavirus business interruption loans. 

While Menzies acknowledges the rates cut is “very welcome” for those that qualify, “it will not affect many of the much-loved restaurants in the West End of London who have a rateable value of over approximately £75,000.” Menzies wants to see the threshold reconsidered, “to support the dining community that contributes to making London the culinary capital of the world.” 

Holland said: “In general, I absolutely applaud rates relief, but it seems it is not applicable to businesses here in Northern Ireland. If that is true, I can’t for the life of me figure out how that is fair.” Ramsden says while it’s a “start”, “until we know what the future holds it’s a crack-papering move. The threshold seems arbitrary at best and extremely undercooked in all likelihood.” 

Pretty much everyone the Telegraph spoke to agrees coronavirus has emerged at the worst possible time for the restaurant industry. Brexit has reduced the pool of staff, while business rates, taxes and food prices are crippling.

Large international restaurant groups with resources to weather a storm should be fine, Menzies says, but what about the “small, independent entrepreneur who’s mortgaged their house?” For Ramsden, “it’s the last thing an industry that’s already struggling needed.” 

On Monday, the historic Soho restaurant Quo Vadis, in a newsletter to subscribers, said it was “staying informed and cautious, while also keeping things in perspective. For our hospitality sector though, coronavirus has the potential to be devastating.” 

It went on to plead “healthy diners” to “continue to dine out, particularly when your doing so is crucial to restaurants at the moment.” Moore agrees, urging customers to “keep calm and carry on dining.”

Ways you can help your local restaurant

Write a review:

  • In the days of TripAdvisor and Google Reviews, customer feedback is more powerful than ever. Some positive comments after a nice meal, whether on social media or on a website, can help encourage others to visit a restaurant, while providing a morale boost during tough times. 

Buy a takeaway:

  • Not all restaurants offer takeaways or deliveries, but if you are worried about the coronavirus, many places now offer the service via companies such as Deliveroo or Uber Eats. If you are self-isolating, you can ask the delivery driver to leave it by the front door, avoiding human contact. 

Avoid last-minute cancellations:

  • The current risk, if you maintain hygiene and avoid touching your face and human contact, is low. Keeping up to date on Government advice is recommended, so you can decide if your cancellation is necessary. Last-minute no-shows can place a heavy burden on restaurants. 

 

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