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‘Forgotten' Bolton operators urge government for level playing field

28 September 2020 by
‘Forgotten' Bolton operators urge government for level playing field

Restaurant and bar operators in Bolton, where hospitality has been restricted to takeaway-only since 8 September, are urging the government to bring restrictions in the town in line with the rest of the country.

The campaign, led by Richard Hibbert, director of Retreat Restaurants, is calling for a "level playing field" and is urging other operators to write to health secretary Matt Hancock demanding an urgent review of the Lancashire town's lockdown.

Hibbert told The Caterer he had decided to take matters into his own hands because business owners had been getting "no joy" in lifting the measures, despite the backing of local MPs and Manchester mayor Andy Burnham.

He said: "Bolton is a forgotten land. And because we're only 15 minutes to Manchester, they all go there instead because they can sit in a restaurant. It's just pushed it further out."

The local lockdown has affected two of Hibbert's three restaurants and has seen takings plummet by 92%.

By contrast his outlet in Adlington, near Chorley, which falls beyond the Bolton zone and is able to operate for sit-in diners, is turning over £18,000 a week more than usual which, Hibbert said, proved that the problem was being pushed on elsewhere.

He said he had spent £30,000 on refurbishing a large outside area for diners ahead of reopening in July which was now sitting unused. He added: "If you don't invest you fall behind."

He said he had had a "good response and lots of positive comments" from other business owners following the launch of the campaign but "not a peep" from central government.

"We've been emailing our MPs to see how the regulations will be reassessed or why other areas haven't been closed but have had no response. It's the question that nobody wants to answer."

Other operators in Bolton have been similarly hit by the unique restriction that is entering its fourth week. Hilary Martin, founder and managing director of vegetarian restaurant Earthlings in the north of the town, said that the business had already lost "thousands of pounds in stock alone over the last three weeks" and she is struggling "to keep our business afloat".

She said: "We are angry that hospitality businesses in Bolton are being treated unfairly. We are awaiting further guidance regarding financial compensation from the government but initial thoughts are that the figure intimated will not even come close to what we need to keep going."

She said there had so far been no information as to when the ban would be lifted or what criteria the government would be using to determine whether it was safe to reopen hospitality fully.

She added: "We have worked extremely hard to implement all the required measures to keep our team and customers safe and feel that we have been let down and forgotten by the government."

Patrick Zella, manager of Max Italia restaurant in Horwich, Bolton, said that the restriction was "bad for everybody, for every business". Having been forced to offer a pizza takeaway service he told The Caterer: "We can't even make our own wages."

Bolton is the only place in the UK where a localised lockdown has imposed a takeaway-only restriction to hospitality, with all outlets forced to close between 10pm and 5am every day. The tougher measures were brought in to combat a rise in infection rates.

Meanwhile wholesale suppliers in Bolton have reported "erratic ordering patterns" suggesting that food businesses in the area are struggling to anticipate customer demand.

According to the Federation of Wholesale Distributors (FWD), operators in the Lancashire town reported that takings fell by 33% in the first week that the takeaway-only restriction was introduced. FWD chief executive James Bielby said that wholesalers could not sustain such levels of trade and survive and that "tonnes of food" risked going to waste.

He said: "If the government doesn't offer wholesalers direct financial aid, there's a real chance that they won't be there to revive the local economy and supply vital public services when the lockdown ends."

Image: Shutterstock

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