OPINION
18/03/2020 12:57 GMT

As A Small Business Owner, I Have No Idea If We Even Have A Future

The rise of Deliveroo, Uber Eats and Brexit worries were not as taxing compared to coronavirus, writes Alex Claridge.

AFP via Getty Images
The virus makes planning for the future impossible

As an industry renowned for a rich and diverse array of daily challenges, the UK hospitality industry has never faced a crisis of this scale.  

Business has hardly been an easy ride for the sector in recent years, and the looming prospect of a total shutdown threatens to decimate restaurants, bars, hotels and venues nationwide. And just this week, Boris Johnson cleverly advised the public to avoid ‘pubs, clubs and theatres’ and other venues, rather than banning access, which means we can’t claim insurance. 

Please make no mistake: the number of businesses equipped with cash reserves to ride out a storm with no end in sight is a mere fraction. The majority of us, myself included, are — for want of a better term — up shit creek without a paddle. 

A total shut-down means a loss of around £20,000 a week which would impact not only my business, but also the people I employ, my suppliers and my savings. In the case of an extended shut down, I don’t know how long as a small business I can weather the storm. I will work tirelessly to adapt but our restaurant in Birmingham is a tasting menu, and is not focused on delivering take-aways. It makes planning for the future impossible — and right now, I’m not sure if we have one.

The government has been worryingly slow and sporadic in their support for the UK’s third largest sector, and the 3m people currently employed within it. As other countries implement bold and brave strategies to immediately reduce operating costs and save each and every business, the UK has been thrown into complete and total disarray.

We have watched the prime minister’s old man (you know, from “I’m A Celebrity…”) crash through television interviews — “Of course I’ll go to pubs.”  It’s natural that both business operators and customers feel confused. 

The chancellor has turned his focus to the industry and announcing financial measures to help businesses, comprising of at least £330bn. Some of the measures will really help. But the majority of them make rather better PR than they do business. 

I want to see my business survive, but I am deeply uncomfortable if that can only happen at the cost of the livelihoods and security of the incredible and hard-working staff that make our businesses work.

For those lucky enough to have a rateable value of below £51,000 — your value depends on what the government deems you to be worth, based on several factors, such as size, location, profit — they will pay no business rate tax for 12 months and they will also get a cash grant of up to £25,000 each. However, the majority of businesses will not fulfil the conditions. And for those that do, I have to ask how long even the maximum grant will support the almost inevitable closure that is coming. I fear the answer is not long at all, unless businesses shed staff. 

The six-month interest-free loan of up to £5m for a business is generous on face value and the gross commitment is huge as an expression of GDP.  However, given that we can’t be certain that even six months will see a return to normality, the interest-free period is scant. 

Vitally, this is an industry with so many businesses just getting by, rather than thriving. They are already impacted by a 20% VAT rate, the rise of Deliveroo and Uber, Brexit worries and the daily grind of running a “successful” hospitality business. Additional debt is a burden that many businesses will not be able to shoulder long term. We should not be fooled into taking quick fixes, when what we need is a remedy. 

Many who work in our industry are on low incomes, which is a whole separate challenge and discussion, and they are typically renting. So, whilst many homeowners will welcome the three-month mortgage holiday, I want to know how this impacts on my colleagues stuck in the rental market. Am I cynical in doubting landlords will be quite so generous in passing on said holiday to tenants? 

I want to see my business survive, but I am deeply uncomfortable if that can only happen at the cost of the livelihoods and security of the incredible and hard-working staff that make our businesses work. We need proper assurance and support for all employees, whatever their living circumstances.

When I set up a petition to the government this week, demanding proper support and consideration for the hospitality industry, I did so out of frustration and genuine concern for an industry that I love dearly. In my wildest dreams I didn’t expect to hit over 160,000 signatures within 24 hours with — as I write this — more coming in thick and fast.  

We will continue to self-organise and support industry charity Hospitality Action, which is already putting measures in place to support employees who fall short of any government initiative to date. 

Working in hospitality breeds resilience and I have every faith that we will fight and the majority of us can and will survive. But this will be the fight of a generation. It is so vital that everyone — government included — play their part. I, for one, am not ready to hang up the pots just yet, but the decisions made in the coming weeks will define hospitality for years to come. For anyone who is with us, please join us and take action now, before it’s too late.

Alex Claridge is owner and chef at The Wilderness in Birmingham