It’s clear now that the new normal that has been instated across Britain won’t be disappearing anytime soon. Strict regulations on the hospitality industry and the fact that we are all being asked to stay at home, means the future of many of those in the food industry is rather bleak. And yet, this is a sector filled with people that will do anything to carry on and help each other through.
Look around at your local restaurants, and you’ll find many doing creative and kind things. We’re not just talking standard takeaways that were on offer before coronavirus hit either – here we applaud those that have gone above and beyond.
There’s Tom Brown who has been instrumental in raising money for the thousands that lost hospitality jobs, James Sommerin who is making meals for NHS workers in Cardiff with his family, and the fish restaurant Oystermen, which has reverted to delivering raw ingredients to support their supply chain and those desperately seeking ingredients that have disappeared from supermarket shelves.
Set up a new charity fund
“It dawned on us at some point that we needed to close the restaurant down, and we had no way to support staff. I don’t think I have ever cried that much. I’m not normally an emotional person, but it all felt so wrong,” Tom Brown of Hackney’s Cornerstone told me of the decisions he was forced to make in the wake of coronavirus, when all trade literally disappeared in a matter of days.
"Our staff work their butts off every day… At that point the government had done nothing at all to help our industry, literally nothing." It was then that he decided he could either just sit tight and be upset, or try to do something to help.
A crowdfunding campaign seemed the obvious choice, and he has since joined up with Hospitality Action to be the face of their new initiative that aims to keep people in the industry safe and able to pay their bills. They started by recording little videos, and asking others to do their own – encouraging the public to donate what they might have spent on a pint of Guinness on St Patrick’s day at the pub, or as a tip for a Mothering Sunday lunch. “The response was amazing. No one in this country doesn’t love going out for dinner, or a spot of lunch, or a pint at the pub. Everyone could relate to it. Everyone could see how hard we had been hit. Hospitality and tourism is the third biggest industry – and we had been completely hung out to dry by the government," Tom said.
The new initiative has so far raised more than £250,000 and offers £250 to anyone who has lost their job in hospitality to tide them over while they work out a long-term plan. The government has since brought in the 80 per cent wage retention scheme, but Tom told me: “It came too late for a lot of people. Many had already fallen on hard times. Some businesses have already had to go into administration.” hospitalityaction.org.uk/donate; cornerstonehackney.com
Feeding the NHS
Restaurant James Sommerin
At the point James Sommerin realised he would have to shut up shop on his restaurant, he knew that they had already ordered in quite a lot of ingredients. At first he decided that the best course of action would be a takeaway style business – but his wife would be doing the deliveries and he decided it wasn’t a good idea in terms of her safety to have her visiting lots of different houses. As there was still a huge amount of food to use up, he started cooking for the NHS, which involved just one drop per day. “Last week we did about 3,000 meals,” James explained to me. “This week we’ve actually teamed up with the National Health Trust and a few other local businesses, which has set up a GoFundMe page. That means we now have access to the funds to keep this going as long as they need us too.”
It’s just James, his wife (normally front of house) and his daughter (usually sous chef) in the kitchen now – and they are busy cooking, labelling and delivering simple, nutritious food including stew, lasagna, vegetable bakes and sticky toffee puddings. On April 3 they may deliver up to 1,500 meals in one day. “It’s quite hard work,” laughed James. “I look at what is achievable for mass production; this is like feeding the army. We’re a 50 cover dining room normally. But we can cook anything and make it taste good.” He also shared the amazing feedback they have been getting from doctors and nurses, and added, “they’re the ones putting their lives at risk, all we are trying to do is give them something to eat.” jamessommerinrestaurant.co.uk
Build a strong support network
Bristol Food Union
It would have been easy to see a whole host of new regulations as a time to batten down the hatches and get even more competitive. Many people are spending less money now: that’s obvious and necessary. What is so heartwarming, though, is that for the most part, local businesses have come together to support each other through this time.
A strong example of that is the newly formed Bristol Food Union, an informal collective of restaurants, food businesses and community organisations that have come together under the crisis of Covid-19. It was set up by three leaders of the Bristol culinary scene – Aine Morris of Food Union Media, Josh Eggleton of the Pony & Trap group and Steph Wetherell of Bristol Food Producers. The site includes a directory of the places locals can still source food – from restaurants doing takeaways to vegetable boxes direct from nearby farmers – as well as the option to donate a meal to a NHS worker (£6). In 10 days, they have already secured six production kitchens to deliver to the homeless, vulnerable and key workers. supportbristolfood.co.uk
New collaborations Norma
Chef Ben Tish of Sicilian restaurant Norma in London’s Fitzrovia had already been in talks with nationwide pasta delivery company Pasta Evangelists before the restaurant industry was forced to completely change. They had decided to put a dish designed by Ben on their menu, and though no money was changing hands, they thought it would be a nice way to have some cross PR pollination of two like-minded brands. Since then, Pasta Evangelists, who can carry business on somewhat as normal as a delivery-only service, have decided to do a series of chef-designed dishes under the hashtag #Rallyforrestaurants.
Ben Tish shared: “Now 20 per cent of any of the sales will go back to the restaurant involved. It’s a nice thing. All of us are in the same boat, some faring better than others.” His dish will be the first of the series to launch the week of April 13. “The name of the dish will be Pasta alla Norma. It’s a signature dish of Sicily. If you go – well you won’t be able to for a while – you’ll find it on lots of restaurant menus,” added Ben. “It’s a very simple dish – rigatoni with tomato sauce, basil, lots of olive oil, fried aubergines and ricotta salata – but it’s one where all the ingredients work together and you don’t need to faff about with it.” normalondon.com; pastaevangelists.com
The Moorcock Inn in Yorkshire is used to serving refined tasting menus and matching wines, with a modern Nordic-inspired theme running through the dishes. Think the likes of celeriac cooked in beeswax with goat ricotta and alexander seeds, and preserved sardines with crispy kale. Obviously that doesn’t transfer well to take out. And so the team have quickly adapted, with a wood-fired pizza delivery and takeaway menu that runs from Thursday to Sunday. All the toppings are prepared in house, using rare-breeds for the cured meat. They had initially trialled a seven-day operation, but that just didn’t fit.
The team shared on their Facebook page, “The first thing we’ve learned is that the demand for delivery/takeaway food is significantly higher than anticipated. Which is wonderful, but makes it also impossible to run a seven day a week operation, as we need more hands than expected for services!” Locals can also order basic groceries, including sourdough loaves, milk, eggs and butter, to accompany their takeaway, as well as bespoke wine orders by the bottle or the case. themoorcock.co.uk
Delivering raw ingredients
Oystermen had never had a need to do delivery. Up until a couple weeks ago it was a busy seafood restaurant in the middle of Covent Garden. Typically their food is the type that doesn’t travel very well, and being in such a busy area with lots of walk-ins, they didn’t have the capacity to expand into delivery. But when everything changed under Covid-19, the team had a talk about how they would be able to keep going, to service the local community and to give an outlet for the local suppliers they work with. One of the co-owners, Rob Hampton, shared, “We thought about doing a food delivery service, but we would have had to change so much, we would have become unrecognisable. We didn’t want to be a fish shop, just pumping out fish and chips. But we looked at the supermarkets and they didn’t have much produce and yet our suppliers were sitting on a shedload of stuff and had nothing to do with it.”
Soon they were operating as a little mini market, but that also didn’t make much sense as not many people were still in Covent Garden. That’s when they started delivering all over London with their van and few cars. “It turned out to be a better service than the shop, as we could deliver to people who couldn’t leave their house, which obviously there are loads of at the moment,” Rob added. The team orders in fresh fish and meat for next-day delivery from suppliers, meaning it is fresher than what you can get in the supermarket. They portion it up and vac-pac it so it’s nice and safe and sealed and can be stored in the fridge for a few days. “We have basically built an ecommerce platform from scratch in a week, after having gone from having a busy profitable restaurant to nothing in three weeks. We tried to bounce back by doing something different, it’s fun and it’s all new challenges.” oystermenshop.co.uk
Have you noticed your own nearby small businesses doing innovative, creative and kind things to adapt? Share your stories below or email [email protected] with pictures.
Read more: Brave New World