For many, the government's confirmation of the 4 July reopening date has been a blessing, while others cannot envision a safe reprisal of business for months to come. Emma Lake and Jennie Milsom discover which way operators are leaning
‘We feel we can really push on now': Lee Bye, Tuddenham Mill
Tuddenham Mill in Suffolk has pivoted its operation to outdoor dining, setting up a large tent in the beautiful acres of wild meadow (pictured above) that surround the hotel and restaurant and inviting people to enjoy an alfresco feast.
The ‘Secret Garden' will welcome diners from 4 July, with the hotel's 11 bedrooms open for bookings from 8 July.
Lee Bye, chef-patron, says: "We were planning for an announcement of outdoor spaces only and had looked at how to maximise the space at Tuddenham, so we're going to keep with that plan and move forward slowly. We'll keep revaluating whether we want to go back indoors, but I don't think there will be a huge demand for that at the beginning."
With two-metre distancing, the Secret Garden can accommodate 40 people under canopy, with a further 16 in the open air when the weather allows. Meals will be served from boxes, with the new outdoor offering including arancini, fire breads – a take on a sourdough pizza – beef brisket buns made using retired Suffolk dairy cows, and flavoured choux buns for dessert.
Some staff have been unfurloughed to prepare for launch, with more to follow. For Bye, the challenges of Covid-19 have also presented opportunities and he's keen to see what can be taken forward to expand the hotel's offering in a permanent way.
He explains: "Covid-19 has almost forced our hand to do something outside, which has given us a chance to think of the opportunities. It has a real sense of wellbeing. It's acres and acres of wild meadows – it's not just going out and having something nice to eat. When you've been cooped up indoors for months, you couldn't feel more out in the fresh air.
"We all feel we can really push Tuddenham on now. We think a lot of the city trade could start to come out to the countryside and there's going to be a real opportunity."
‘I do have some quite serious concerns': Tony Rodd, Copper & Ink
Tony Rodd, owner of Copper & Ink in Blackheath, south London, plans to reopen from the second week of July. "Am I confident in reopening then? Not really. I do have some quite serious concerns and fears," he says.
"But I feel like the prime minister hasn't given us an option. I think restaurants are having their hands forced. You have to start generating income whether you like it or not."
I think restaurants are having their hands forced. You have to start generating income whether you like it or not
He said 4 July was too soon to reopen as he is still finalising a booking system, implementing safety procedures and re-engaging with suppliers. Besides, he adds: "Why the hell do you reopen on the busiest day of the week?"
As well as running a new bookings-only policy, the restaurant will introduce a £50 booking fee for no-shows, explaining: "If we do lose a table it could be the difference between staying in business or not."
He said the dining room layout will be adapted for back-to-back tables spaced more than a metre apart, with guests offered an optional Perspex screen. Front of house teams will have the option of wearing masks, but Rodd is conscious of the "comfort factor" and the importance of smiling and conversing with guests.
"The whole experience for us is going to change. There's an element of me that's thrilled to be opening the doors – as a chef, we live to cook, we feed our guests – but I am nervous as well. If coronavirus returns as a second wave, I'm not sure the industry will survive if there isn't support for us financially."
‘Hospitality is what I do': Claire Morgan and Angus McKean, the Red Lion
Claire Morgan and Angus McKean of the Red Lion pub in Barnes, London, will open as soon as restrictions are lifted on 4 July and are looking forward to welcoming the regulars back.
McKean says: "Hospitality is what I do – and having it removed has been like losing a leg."
Morgan adds: "We've been running pubs for 21 years and we've been at the Red Lion for the last 16 of those. I'm originally from Mid Glamorgan and Angus is from Canterbury, so in London the team here is our family and I can't wait to be with them all again. I've also seen the same regulars pretty much every day during those 16 years, so it's been odd being separated."
I've also seen the same regulars pretty much every day during those 16 years, so it's been odd being separated
The couple are under no illusions that they have a journey ahead, but they are confident that both they and their customers are well-equipped to emerge on the other side of the pandemic.
Morgan explains: "I think nervously optimistic would be the best way to put it. The pub and the people will be the same, but the processes will be slightly different and that's going to be an education for us, the team, and our customers. But in the main, my customers are well-behaved, so I'm comfortable that we will get through it together."
McKean adds: "Customers are just desperate to get back. The only thing they seem to be really worried about is if the roast dinner and the chicken and leek pie will be exactly the same. The Red Lion is a big part of Barnes life – and both the community, and Claire and I, are desperate to get open, welcome our customers, and get back to some sense of normality."
‘We are resilient and we are positive': Raymond Blanc, Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat'saisons
Having explored three scenarios for welcoming guests in July, August and September, Raymond Blanc's team at Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat'saisons in Oxfordshire is preparing to open the doors on Bastille Day, "the great French day", on 14 July.
He said: "The hospitality business has been hit extremely hard. But we are resilient and we are positive and we have taken on these challenges."
Blanc is hoping for "lots of beautiful weather" and says there has been "a huge appetite" for bookings. Instead of the usual 80 covers, the restaurant will operate with around 45, observing a strict two-metre rule initially until the team and guests feel "more familiar with it".
"For so long it has been two metres – the one-metre-plus is a huge boost. As a business, we always put the safety of our guests first, but also the wellbeing and the joy of our guests is at least as important."
We always put the safety of our guests first, but also the wellbeing and the joy of our guests is at least as important
While new measures will include temperature checks and hand sanitising for arriving guests, he promised that service would be "elegant and safe", with teams looking to take extra care for their guests "without them feeling it".
There will be a streamlined menu of five and seven courses for lunch and dinner respectively, which would allow for "more beautiful ingredients", the two-Michelin-starred chef explains.
"It's not easy because you have to make some quite hard decisions – but you have a vision, a modern vision, for modern guests, who want a modern gastronomy, who want to reinvent our own industry."
He believes the industry will also see a shift towards better conditions and support for employees. He adds: "I'm an old boy, I've seen it all. I've seen people working 70 hours a week – it was normal. That caused a lot of damage and it's going to stop. It's up to us to create a caring, loving industry."
‘There can still be this sense of celebration and excitement': Sam Harrison, Sam's Riverside
Sam Harrison, owner of Sam's Riverside in Hammersmith, London, is reopening both the restaurant and a new outdoor terrace on 4 July. Despite restrictions in place, he is confident that restaurants will "still create a buzz and excitement", saying: "I'm holding onto the belief that there can be this sense of celebration and excitement. I think people want to come out and spend and have fun."
He is encouraging all guests to book in advance as bookings will be staggered every half hour with capacity at 50%. As part of a new arrival process, guests will be required to fill out a health form and take a temperature check.
The sizes of both his brigade and menu will be almost halved. His smaller crew will rotate as two "bubble teams", with staff each working fewer hours as a way of keeping everyone employed. He says the intention is to serve guests "as normal at the table" with one dedicated server, although guests preferring less contact could opt to collect their food from a nearby stand.
In terms of bookings, he says: "I had an email from a lady yesterday who hasn't seen her son for the whole of lockdown and she's bringing him to our restaurant to celebrate – it makes you want to cry. That's what restaurants provide, somewhere for people to do that.
"As an industry we need to come out and be positive and say, ‘we're here, you're safe in our hands. We look after people and we're really good at it'."
‘The big risk now is demand': Stevie Parle, Pastaio, Palatino and Craft London
London restaurateur Stevie Parle, who operates Pastaio in Soho and Westfield London, Palatino in Clerkenwell and Craft London in Greenwich, has said he will look at a phased reopening guided by how quickly people can be attracted back into London.
He says: "The change to social distancing and the opportunity to use outdoor space for some operators are all positive, but the big risk now is demand. There's nobody in central London today, absolutely no one, so if we were to open we'd have half the seats but we wouldn't have half the sales.
"The risk is that we're back to that period before lockdown, where people were told basically not to go to restaurants but we weren't told to close, which was a very difficult moment. I think that without a really positive message from the government and some positive action from the government, that's what we're going to experience."
Pastaio in Westfield will open on 4 July, with Parle seeing signs that the managed space of the shopping centre has been "reasonably lively". He is also exploring options for Soho, considering a partial reopening and adds, "we'll just see how it goes and be cautious."
The restaurateur emphasises the fragility of the industry at this point of the crisis. "A counter restaurant in Soho has worked at getting that spend per head exactly right, looking at the dwell time and the turns to engineer it very carefully to achieve a profitable business on tight margins, so anything that rocks that too much is just going to wipe out some businesses viability overnight.
"We need people to feel not just that they can but that they should get out there and support restaurants. Otherwise central London will not be viable until next year."
‘A gamble I cannot make': Alex Rushmer, Vanderlyle
Alex Rushmer says the uncertainties around reopening on 4 July make doing so too much of a gamble for him and business partner Lawrence Butler.
Rushmer and Butler are behind plant-based Vanderlyle in Cambridge, which opened in 2019 and has switched to a takeaway model since being forced to close in March.
In a blog post the former MasterChef finalist explains: "I understand this eagerness and excitement, it's impossible not to. And I make no judgements on those who choose to open at the earliest possible opportunity.
"But our own approach is going to be more cautious. Vanderlyle will not be open for business as usual at the start of July. Currently, I don't know what the odds are of us being open again before the start of next year.
"A lack of clinical decision-making at the start of the crisis gives me little confidence that the government will successfully negotiate our exit from it. Lockdown easing in places as diverse as Florida, Germany and Beijing have all resulted in infection spikes and increases in R rates. Covid isn't going away. With no guidance about how to reopen safely and no support network if lockdown measures need to be ratcheted up again, reopening a small independent restaurant becomes a gamble I cannot make."
A lack of clinical decision-making at the start of the crisis gives me little confidence that the government will successfully negotiate our exit from it
He adds: "I want to make sure that for the two or three hours you are in our restaurant you feel cosseted, safe and embraced by our interpretation of hospitality. Can all this be done from behind Perspex screens, gloved and masked and incessantly worried about finances? Or whether the restaurant will have to close for two weeks because of a single phone call? For now – for me – the answer is no, it can't."
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