I’m A Restaurant Owner. Covid Has My Entire Industry Hanging By A Thread

The end of furlough, ‘rule of six’ and 10pm curfew have combined to obliterate restaurants like mine. It’s hard to know how many will survive past Christmas.

Owning and operating a restaurant is like riding a rollercoaster. There are days of absolute highs, but there are also days of complete lows, when you’re just not sure what to do next.

March 20 was one of those low days. A few days prior, Boris Johnson had announced that Brits should avoid going to restaurants, bars and pubs, for fear of spreading coronavirus. Then, on the Friday, he delivered the death knell: we would have to close indefinitely.

I opened Tredwells in Covent Garden, the heart of London, back in 2014. Since then, we’ve seen times of great prosperity and popularity, and we’ve weathered Brexit and suggestions of a recession. But this was something else all together. It was heartbreaking, and incredibly stressful.

My first thought was that 45 people relied on me for their income and livelihood; how was I supposed to take care of them with no revenue? It was a very anxious time until the furlough scheme was announced, alleviating some of that stress.

I was determined to adapt to the situation as much as possible, so we initially pivoted to a meal and grocery service, with my team working around the clock to create something we’d never done before. However, after just a week, I felt too conflicted asking the team to travel in so we decided not to continue.

“To effectively close something that was such a huge part of me was incredibly surreal, and it felt very lonely.”

We officially ‘shut up shop’ a week later. Leaving the restaurant that afternoon was indescribable. To effectively close something that was such a huge part of me was incredibly surreal, and it felt very lonely.

I then began to adjust to the daily routine of being at home – something that, being a chef and restaurant owner, I had not done much of since I moved to London 16 years ago. Adjusting to a different pace, and a different world, took some time but I got to a point where I really enjoyed having time to do many things I had neglected for so long. Cooking for myself was, ironically, one of those things, and I jumped on the sourdough starter bandwagon and enjoyed having time to learn more about food.

The furlough scheme was a lifesaver at the time, and the process to apply for the funds online was prompt and efficient. However, it wasn’t without its faults. The functional aspects of it weren’t thought through and in some cases, had the impact of discouraging people to work. Similarly, the rates relief has also been a welcome reprieve, although covering rent and other overheads, and now contributing to employee wages is a little challenging. Rent should have been addressed – it’s such a huge cost for hospitality businesses. I know this is much further reaching than just tenancies but it will be the root cause of a lot of closures, and job losses, that are yet to come.

We re-opened Tredwells in August and had a very positive month. The added bonus of Eat Out To Help Out really helped both the morale and the reservations. The social distancing measures definitely affected profit levels but it felt positive to be back doing what we loved.

Chantelle, at Tredwells
Chantelle, at Tredwells
HuffPost UK

In contrast, September was very challenging. Covent Garden has the triple effect of no theatregoers, no office workers and no tourists, so we have a long way to go to get footfall and visitor numbers back up. We are operating in a very limited capacity and, with the furlough scheme previously set to finish at the end of October, we’re not sure what’s next.

The new ‘rule of six’ and 10pm curfew has almost undone all the support and positivity in August. It felt as if the general consumer confidence, which was building at a steady rate, was obliterated within days. The latest measures have squeezed things even further, perhaps to breaking point for many. It is really disheartening to see so many livelihoods being challenged like this when the evidence I have seen surrounding infection from hospitality venues is minimal.

At present, we’re staring down the barrel of limited Christmas dining, which traditionally is one of the biggest revenue drivers for most hospitality businesses. Without group dining and larger groups, it’s hard to know exactly how many will survive past December.

Looking past that to the long term is just too difficult to fathom right now. Things are moving at such a swift pace in all directions so it is impossible to make any assumptions about the long-term future.

“The next three to six months are going to be some of the most trying for restaurateurs all over the country.”

I have a feeling there are many, many more casualties to come in the restaurant industry, in terms of businesses, jobs and livelihoods. I am grateful for the support we have received, but it just won’t be enough in many cases. This is a wonderful industry where a plethora of practical skills are learnt, and where delight is experienced. It is heartbreaking to think of where things may be in six months time. I am constantly telling myself to take things day by day and week by week, otherwise the anxiety and stress becomes unbearable.

I don’t think there’s a restaurateur who hasn’t had any sleepless nights over the last six months. My mental health has been a boomerang – just when everything was looking okay, something would cause a landslide into sadness. It’s the usual recommendations that I found most helpful – exercise and talking to others in particular – but the multiple mental health charities that support the hospitality industry have also been instrumental. Pilot Light, Hospitality Action and Me, Myself in Mind have all been doing fantastic things in such a trying time.

The next three to six months are going to be some of the most trying for restaurateurs all over the country, but at the end of the day we can only do our best. And that is what I intend to do.

Chantelle Nicolson is chef patron at Tredwells in Covent Garden, London. Follow her on Twitter @chef_chantelle

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