After weeks of speculation, finally 4 July came and restaurants and hotels were back in business. The Caterer asked operators to give us a behind-the-scenes glimpse into how they coped, how guests reacted and how they feel they will be able to work with the new normal
‘The comeback is on' – how London rose to Super Saturday
By Jennie Milsom
As dawn broke over London, operators readied their teams for the first day back since March. By 9am in Granary Square, King's Cross, staff at Caravan were popping up parasols and deliveries had piled up outside German Gymnasium. At O'Neills on Euston Road pints had already been pulled.
In Fitzrovia, Mathieu Germond of French bistro Noizé, said it was "a magic day" as he dressed tables ahead of fully booked lunch and dinner services. Peter Dore-Smith of Kaffeine had unpacked the outdoor seating, having reopened the week before for takeaway. The week's takings at 35% were "better than none", he said.
In Soho, Chris Botham, manager of Pastaio, said he was "super-happy" to be reopening. "The comeback is on," he grinned, as he briefed staff setting up tables on Ganton Street. Round the corner at the French House, landlady Lesley Lewis polished cutlery at an open window, saying she was "excited but nervous". Tables with checked cloths lined the pavement in anticipation of regulars enjoying a simple menu of pâtés, oysters and baguettes.
It looked like business as usual at Café Boheme on Old Compton Street, with the doors flung open, music pumping and tables already buzzing. Staff darted around balancing trays of drinks like any regular morning; the only indication that the world had changed were their masked faces.
Some well-known spots remained closed: Rosa's Thai, Dishoom, Quo Vadis and Barrafina.
South of the river, trade at Borough Market was well under way by lunchtime. Padella's ‘virtual queue' was full and diners at Brindisa clinked glasses ordered from ‘scan-me' menus.
On Bermondsey Street the Garrison's manager said the phone hadn't stopped ringing, yet not everyone had opened here, either – tapas bar Pizarro was waiting until Wednesday, and Cafe Murano was still running a takeaway deli.
'Our teams just want to get back to normality': Sandeep Bhalla, general manager, the Connaught, London
The demand for guests dining out is stronger than we expected. The general sentiment is that the guests are happy to be back in a restaurant again and happy to be served.
We have good breakfast, lunch and exceptional dinner covers in Jean-Georges restaurant. It's a good mix of couples and families with younger and older children. The sentiment the guests share is of celebration: some guests celebrating an occasion and others just being able to dine out, with lots of glasses of Champagne served throughout the day.
The average spend in the restaurant is higher than usual and we have a few nights already fully committed. We have also seen a good pick-up in booked covers for the Hélène Darroze restaurant too, which opens on 14 July. The bedroom bookings are mainly from domestic guests and those from Europe and the response is stronger than we thought it would have been. We have accommodated a few of our regular guests to stay before the hotel's official opening date, and everyone so far has been happy with the procedures in place to ensure their and our team's safety.
The first few days is about the guests and staff getting used to the environment with the new guidelines and procedures. The fact that retail has already opened has helped us a bit, as guests are already comfortable with the new cleaning and sanitising protocols. In spite of this, we have to be mindful that the guidelines don't take over the hospitality we offer. The response from guests has been varied, with some comfortable wearing masks and some not.
The business in the first two days is based on pent-up demand, so we cannot forecast the coming months or rest of the year based on that. We have had a great response from our teams to come back to work as they have been home for a long time and also want to just get back to normality. The best thing for hotel teams has been to finally interact with guests and their colleagues again.
'A softly-softly approach to safety works': Stosie Madi, chef-patron, Parkers Arms, Clitheroe, Lancashire
Friday 3 July
We're exhausted. It has been like launching a brand-new business again but without a researched business plan. We've had bookings and could have taken many more, but are so worried about the team, about whether people will play ball and if we can we keep everyone safe. Yet we are also so excited about just getting on with our lives and doing what we do best.
Saturday 4 July
Oh goodness, not scared, not worried – let's get it done! We slip back into it like a duck to water. Our customers love that we have their safety and the safety of the teams uppermost in our minds and support the simple, discreet but thorough measures we have put in place. We are grateful to have such great customers.
The people in our pub are 98% return customers and they are so supportive and we are so thankful. I have a little cry, obviously. Go to bed exhausted but content and ready for the next day.
Sunday 5 July
We just breeze in and get on with it. It was like it never stopped, which was very surreal. The best thing was when one of our customers, who is an NHS key worker, thanks us for making him and his young family feel safe but also like nothing had ever changed.
Another very good customer says: "We can see there is care being taken, but really it's still Parkers and it feels like Parkers". That was it.
Now I just hope that all operators out there make the effort to instil confidence, because people do want to come back, but they want to feel safe.
Please don't let anyone ruin it because we are back in business, the bookings are streaming in and we want to trade. There is no need for gung-ho nonchalance; no need for overkill. Clear messages and a softly-softly approach are needed.
We can't wait for next week. If you are good at what you do, you will get it right.
'We underestimated the emotional exhaustion': Andrew McKenzie, managing director, the Vineyard, Berkshire
Friday 26 June – Thursday 2 July
The grand pavilion has finally been handed over and InsideOut [an outdoor pavilion for dining] has become a reality.
The new terrace furniture has arrived too and a basic tweet and Facebook post receive a fantastic response. Housekeeping has the place spick and span – despite the best efforts of our ‘security' team (general manager Paul, head chef Tom and others) it did need a little professional TLC.
Room bookings are coming in fast, but, worryingly, others are cancelling just as fast – people are saying they are having second thoughts and now feel anxious. We're fully booked for Sunday lunch and dinner – mostly it's people we know who are coming to support us, which is lovely.
Friday 3 July
Dress rehearsal day! Scarier than the Springboard Panto, when I was the (badly miscast) Ugly Sister. The team do a fantastic job looking after colleagues who had worked during lockdown. They offer lots of learning points and I'm so glad – also, it was nice to sit down and be served in a restaurant setting for the first time in more than 100 days!
Saturday 4 July
7am Independence day in more ways than one and it's bloody raining! We open at 6.30pm and it's forecast to be dry later.
Noon The team are buzzing and our first resident has arrived. They were advised of temperature checks pre-arrival, but were still a bit spooked. Overall they took it in good spirits.
2pm General manager Paul, hygiene director Kelvin and I nip out for a sneaky look at our local, the Red House in Marsh Benham. My God, that long-awaited pint of Ramsbury Gold is delicious!
6.30pm The first guests arrive and are bowled over by how the space looks – it's for real!
8.30pm The last table is seated, so InsideOut has every table taken and the feedback is superb. The team smashed it.
Sunday 5 July
Noon Fully booked for lunch today with many regular faces – the team love seeing everyone come back. We greet everyone with a glass of Schramsberg Blanc de Noir to thank them for their support.
6pm Dinner guests start to arrive. A group of regulars thought it would be so glamorous after seeing the photos that they came in dinner jackets!
10pm Everyone is exhausted, I think we underestimated the emotional exhaustion we would all feel, but it's good to be back.
We are now closed until Thursday, when hopefully it will all feel a little more normal. Super-proud of everyone!
'The new normal feels normal' Jack Stein, chef-director, Rick Stein restaurants
Thursday 2 July
All the teams are in, deep-cleaning the restaurants. It's good to see everyone again. Facemasks are worn by all, and the five-point plan is in place. I have never seen so much sanitiser – our Zenith (PPE and chemicals) order is huge.
[Meal delivery service] Steins at Home sells another 1,200 meals this week, so I spend time watching the team pack the orders for the weekend at our unit.
Friday 3 July
Mise en place for our menus is in full swing. We are used to prepping like this after winter closures, so the team is efficient and on top of things. We take 40kg of crab and lobster at the back door and tell the fishermen we need more.
We have 290 people booked all day for Saturday. All other restaurants have busy starts; I wonder if we maybe should have staggered openings?
Saturday 4 July
The teams are in early for a safety briefing. After spending an hour on the new standards, the sanitised cutlery bags are taking time to fill and steam. I reckon that's going be a hard job to keep on top of.
Maintenance has done a great job with signage and Perspex, and we all have Oliver Harvey facemasks in black. The front of house teams are apprehensive, but happy to be here. The first guests arrive and seem happy to be back. We place bets on the first check out the door. We all lose: one no starter, one crab linguine. We're back into it.
Lunch is a nightmare, the EPoS isn't linked, sides are going in as drinks, but customers are very forgiving. Evening service is smooth, and the kitchen handles it well. We take 10% more than the same day last year. Customers are ordering lots of lobster, sashimi and scallops. Not much set menu at all. Big wines.
Sunday 5 July
I go in early to see breakfast and the guests seem happy. It's another busy day, but front of house seem more relaxed and again we take very good money, which is a real boost to morale. I phone Rick in Australia – he is very happy to hear it.
The new normal feels normal. We should have done a soft launch on Friday, but I'm happy. I have a beer and go to bed.
'Lessons learned: reassure your customers': Tim Foster, founder, Yummy Pub Co
Friday 3 July
At 4.35pm 26 tonnes of concrete are pumped into the front terrace, which should have been laid on Thursday morning. We are all finished around 1am after making changes to the layout inside, blackboards, menus, etc.
Saturday 4 July
8am Doors open. We are fully booked across six booking slots during the day (265 covers). The idea is to remove the ‘peak' of lunch and dinner and flatten trade across the day to manage the movement of customers, and it's working. We book every other table so there is ample space between them, and there is no rushing the bookings across two-and-a-half hour slots. It also gives us plenty of time to clean and sanitise the tables.
Things we did well
We decide not to wear masks and gloves front of house, but instead highlight the cleaning and sanitisation stations in key areas, and we had a great response from customers.
Welcome desk. We've never had one before, but we set one up with a phone and computer – it was a fantastic way to control the flow of customers.
Things we learned
- Nobody comes to the bar, so we have one barperson supported by another at key change times.
- We turn all the tills around so the team doesn't have to go behind the bar, which transforms service.
- Drinks were redirected to auto print, which makes a huge difference to bar service.
- Man the phones. We have had 380 calls over two days. Customers want assurances, and you need to be there to speak to them.
- The food suppliers are going to take a while to get up to speed, so we flexed the menu. We changed the menu seven times across the two days.
- Digital communications are great, but customers still want service. They are comfortable being served; we don't want to put barriers in the way.
- Hosting the sessions is absolutely key. We greet customers at the entrance door, then pass them to a server. Nobody ever leaves the door, because as soon as there is nobody there door control is lost. We learn that in the first session, very quickly.
- Stick to your rules. We accommodated 35 walk-ins over the weekend, but turned away another 60 even though we had space. We tried to accommodate more on the second session on Saturday and it put immense pressure on the team. We didn't do it again and service was brilliant.
'The team learns to smile with their eyes': Thomas Kochs, managing director, Corinthia London
Monday 29 June – Friday 3 July
- All colleagues sanitise their hands on entering and have their temperature checked with an in-ear device. There is a thermal camera thermometer for guests.
- We receive our bespoke Emma Willis facemasks (made from off-cuts of Swiss cotton).
- Staff signage is placed in all back-of-house areas.
- Tom Kerridge's team have a training meeting – they learn to smile with just their eyes!
- Sanitiser testing – we decided that the sanitiser used in one of the dispensers seems a little liquid so we switch to a gel.
- Engineering put in place a traffic light system outside the staff entrance for colleagues entering and exiting.
- Guest relations receive a flurry of last-minute valet parking requests from guests arriving the next day.
Saturday 4 July
8am Walkaround of the hotel, check-in with the teams, with a 9am physically distanced staff briefing in our ballroom.
9.09am First guest arrival (earlier than expected).
9.30am First clients arrive for their haircuts in our Daniel Galvin salon.
11.50am The first glass of rosé is poured in the garden.
2pm First afternoon tea arrivals and the new pâtisserie items are well received.
'What's important now is how our bookings grow': Des Gunewardena, chairman and chief executive, D&D London
Saturday 4 July
- Very good day in terms of customer service, teams did extremely well managing full restaurants on their first day back after three and a half months of lockdown.
- No issues with customers respecting social distancing – all enjoying themselves without partying too hard! PPE/safety procedures not too intrusive and all well-received by customers.
- Overall revenues were around two-thirds of 2019, broadly in line with capacity reductions. Restaurant revenues had held up well thanks to increased spends making up for some of the impact of lower covers.
- Bars/terraces drinks revenue much lower with combined impact of safety restrictions and poorer weather than last year.
- Among our strongest performers were Bluebird, our restaurants at Butlers Wharf (especially Le Pont de la Tour and Butlers Wharf Chophouse), Skylon on the South Bank and – more surprisingly – Coq d'Argent and 14Hills in the City of London, which were both very busy with customers who presumably live in or close to the City.
- Overall pretty happy with the weekend. But I always knew we'd be busy on our first day back. What's important now is how our forward bookings grow this week.
- Weekends for the rest of July look strong. Weekday business, especially at lunch though, looks a bit more challenging. Hoping for some sunshine this week to get the weekdays a bit busier!
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