The chef-restaurateur tells James Stagg how approaching the end of lockdown as a new beginning and forcing landlords to co-operate are the only ways the industry can survive
What are you focusing on at the moment in terms of the business?
Just to survive the next 18 months will be the key. If we get landlord support – which I think will come one way or another – I think we'll scrape by. But we're looking at a five-year battle. Hopefully, we'll get there. We're facing so much with Brexit and the shortage of staff.
Will staff shortages still be a problem since capacity is likely to be so reduced?
We're in a real hole. Even though people are unemployed, it does not mean hospitality is their game. People don't want to graft that graft. I was collecting glasses as a 14-year-old and I got the bug then, but for most kids that doesn't exist any more. They live at home at their parents' expense. The lack of staff to do the more menial roles in hotels and restaurants will remain a problem. It's going to be a car crash.
The opportunity for chefs to work and learn around Europe has disappeared. Never mind the one-way traffic – what about all the people who have worked abroad in the past 20 years and by that exposure propelled the food in the UK to incredible standards? All that, wiped off.
How might menus change with the ‘new normal'?
It's fine cooking with a big brigade, but few people will be able to afford those teams. We're going to go back to a much simpler process with smaller, more seasonal menus, that's for sure. We can't put in 70-hour weeks – the law has changed from when I was starting out, so we won't be able to make up for the shortage in personnel. We have to have a new approach.
We're going to go back to a much simpler process with smaller, more seasonal menus
What form might that take?
We need a completely new beginning. It's not reopenings, it's new openings. You won't have the team members to carry out what you did before, and you won't have your customer base either. There will be a similar theme on our menus, but we'll be rethinking everything. I'm looking at every ingredient and every section. We won't be able to put people in small kitchens – we need to spread people around. Luckily, Bentley's has a big back of house with room in the basement, but we still have to work like a big band of ants, so we need to think how we do that.
What about the manner of service?
Hygiene and health and safety issues will influence everything. From what's on the table to how we serve every element, we have to restructure everything. You won't be offered beautiful, sliced warm bread that is refilled by waiters. It won't just be no salt and pepper, there will be no linen. High-quality napkins are not cheap, but we'll have to go for disposable everything. We don't want staff leaving the restaurant in work clothes, so we've got to think of a small laundry operation too. I really mean it – we have to rethink everything.
Can all of this be delivered along with a great experience for guests?
No matter what hits us, we always try to give a wonderful welcome, a big goodbye and something beautiful in the middle that creates a memory. To sit at the bar at Bentley's and have a dressed crab, homemade bread, Lincolnshire Poacher butter and homemade mayonnaise is special. Do me a favour – you're not going to do that at home.
We always try to give a wonderful welcome, a big goodbye and something beautiful in the middle that creates a memory
Dishes are likely to be less technical too, with fewer people touching them…
I'm not a huge fan of many hands on a plate anyhow. Bentley's and Corrigan's are well-equipped for simplicity and purity for the post-lockdown world. We have a big kitchen at Corrigan's and Grosvenor House is working with us too.
In terms of produce, I think the lentil and the chickpea will make wonderful garnishes, because the fact is that everything is going to get a little more expensive. Once the rates reappear next March and the landlords are outside rattling their cans, it's going to be a very austere and tough time.
The problem is we've been giving so much value in the restaurant business that our margins have decreased to anything between 3% and 9%. That is unsustainable. You have to make a minimum of 10%. You either do that or change the concept.
We all need to take a look and say, ‘if it's good enough for Sean Hill [of the Walnut Tree in Abergavenny], it's good enough for me'. He has more or less cooked on his own. He is the new model.
Are you looking at phased opening?
I can see lunch dying off in a lot of restaurants. Gone. It was under pressure, but I can see it as being a thing of the past in central London for the short term. And maybe starting an evening service at 4pm until 9.30pm. Perhaps older people may want to come earlier when it's not so busy.
Most offices in central London will be 15% full until the end of the year. Some people may come in once a week or every two weeks, but the future is technology. Banking, which played a major part of my success in London, I can't see being in the same place for the next two years. Will anyone be flying for a meeting abroad any time soon? Hotels and restaurants, we're in for a hiding.
Will you be opening in July?
Not a chance. I won't consider anything before landlords play ball. I can't open and destroy any hope of making it until next year. Why would I? We're in central London and social distancing will destroy much of our business – I think we'll only be able to do a third of what we could previously.
Hotel companies say they want to get open, but for who? We need things to happen, including airports opening, followed by hostelries and hotels. We need things to start slowly moving.
And what happens if a second wave hits us? We need to watch and learn from other countries. There's nothing wrong with seeing what's happening over the neighbour's fence. We need to be doing marking and testing to such a degree that we think we're in South Korea.
We need to watch and learn from other countries. There's nothing wrong with seeing what's happening over the neighbour's fence
Has anything in your career prepared you for this?
When I had Lindsay House [in London's Soho], there were four chefs serving Michelin-starred food to 70 guests. I've always thought our industry has got too complicated. For the past 15 years I've thought there are so many more people working in our environment.
Then there are all the tech firms floating around taking £2 here and £2 there from reservations. We've burdened ourselves with everyone taking a piece of our pie and they all want a little bit more. Reservation technology firms have been squeezing the industry for three or four years, and I can see that squeeze getting harder. And it's more for the delivery firms.
Our business has been smothered and we need to shed some of this stuff to get a clearer vision. We need to get directly in touch with our customers and tell them who we are, where we are and what we do. We don't need people around us charging us for that privilege.
What about rents – are you renegotiating?
It's not a renegotiation. Our rent and rates could be 12%-15% of turnover before we've paid a gas or electric bill. You're into serious figures already. So why would you want to open for 50 covers?
It's not about the landlords treating me coldly. At Bentley's I have a 15-year relationship with Crown Estate and we have never had any issues, but now we are facing a situation where what we agreed doesn't exist any more.
We've got a third of the space to fit customers in than we did. I'm just saying that if they charge for the space that we rent to seat our customers, then the rent needs to reflect that.
Are you in support of the #NationalTimeOut campaign for nine months rent-free?
People are talking about a nine-month moratorium. We need 18 months, minimum. In the short-term we don't have a business.
Nobody is queuing up to take our sites. The equity companies have run away, and the groups will be so in the shit that they won't want to expand. The fact of the matter is we are the only people there. We're not saying we won't pay; we're saying we can't. So the game has changed. They need to knock 65% off rents for anyone to consider reopening.
What's the situation at Daffodil Mulligan?
Derwent Estates has done the right thing over at Daffodil Mulligan, more or less. It sees the future, it knows what's what. It's an upfront, modern company that understands what the high street is going through for the next two years. The company wants us there, and that's the approach that landlords need to take. It'll take some investment, but we'll make it. The landlord is taking it on the chin, so we'll take it on the chin.
We'll play a longer game there, as if the offices don't open around us, that will affect the business. We would like to think we'll be there on 1 October.
And Stuart Bowery at Grosvenor House has been incredibly supportive. We have a great relationship there, which makes me feel incredibly positive.
What are your hopes for the future?
Once we get through all this and the passion comes back, while we rebuild our restaurants, we need to renew and restructure. But it will take a joint approach from government and the operators. They can't ask for blood from a stone. There has to be a reduction in VAT on hospitality.
I've worked hard all my life to get where I am and I have never expected anything from anyone on the way through. I've worked my way out of every recession, carried the burden of debt, paid off my debt. But we are now facing Armageddon. This is where we all need to come together and go forward together.
In the short-term we have to take the hit. As owners we'll need to put in 75-hour weeks to save our firms and the landlord has to share some of that pain with us.
We're not sitting on our arses asking for help. We're givers, we're not takers. We're all out doing charity cooking and food distribution. People in the hospitality business are the most generous in the world.
Landlords must compromise before operators return, says Corrigan
Corrigan, who operates Bentley's, Corrigan's and Daffodil Mulligan, all in London, says that the intransigence of some landlords risks the future of restaurants, which will be unable to meet existing agreements due to the restrictions imposed by social distancing.
The chef-restaurateur says that he has been supported at Corrigan's by Grosvenor House general manager Stuart Bowery and that Daffodil Mulligan landlord Derwent Estates "understands what the high street is going through", but that Bentley's landlord Crown Estate might take a while to recognise "the real severity of where we all are".
He has called on other operators to make a stand against landlords who are unwilling to recognise that restaurants will effectively be running at a third of the capacity on which their rent had been based.
Corrigan says: "I don't want to be standing outside Crown Estate with a placard and a loudhailer, but I'm willing to do it. If every restaurateur thinks the same, we won't have the same issues."
Landlords should appreciate the variety that independent operators bring to an estate, Corrigan adds, and come to the table for the good of all parties.
"The Crown Estate has been brilliant and done a great job, but it will take a while for landlords in large estates to understand the real severity of where we all are," he says.
"It's the independents who form the backbone and attractive eccentricity of their estates that make people want to visit, and they are fighting for their existence. They can't all be full of coffee shops, brands and chains. Surely they want us to be here in two years' time.
"I've taken ownership of that street [Swallow Street, London] – I've been power-hosing it and collecting rubbish. We are the street cleaners, we are the people who keep our sites looking good even though they've been closed for two months. Everyone has to understand that we are the people who make the street happen. Not the landlord. We need a break and it needs to be 18 months."
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