We all thought reopening would be going back to the old routine, but the reality is somewhat more nuanced, says Asma Khan.
e are busy and fortunate to have a full team in the kitchen and front of house, and we were lucky to have worked with delivery partner Big Night during the lockdown this year. There were days when the restaurant looked like an Amazon warehouse! We had to buy a new freezer to store the ice packs to despatch our national delivery of biryani and our ‘meal for two', which we posted ourselves.
The deli became a hub for people to collect chai and kati rolls and head off on picnics. People would message me their cycling routes and pre-order the vada pau so it would be ready when they arrived at Covent Garden.
When we were allowed to have outdoor dining, on day two the council turned up and told us to remove the outdoor heaters we had recently purchased. I stood outside with an umbrella in the pouring rain as a lovely couple celebrated a birthday sitting outside, sheltering under the umbrella and awnings. I have learned more in these few months than in years running my restaurant in Kingly Court.
We managed to rehire all the staff still in England (one returned from Spain to join us), who had worked with us in the eight days we had opened in December last year. We had kept in touch with them over lockdown and were delighted when they returned. The kitchen team were all back too.
There was no time to do dummy service or soft openings. We had moved more than 3,000 bookings over the pandemic and were now fully booked until July for dinner. To maintain social distancing we could not pack people into the restaurant and this put a lot of pressure on our skeleton management staff to move bookings around.
Then, when we opened, it was a real struggle and, justifiably, some of our guests were not happy. Some, unjustifiably, wrote really harsh reviews. I wonder if any of them were asked to run a marathon with a couple of days' training. All of hospitality was doing that – working with teams who had not worked in hospitality for a year. No one was match-ready.
There seemed to be an absence of compassion and understanding from a significant minority of guests. In our opening week a large group drank a lot of alcohol and when their food arrived they walked off without paying, saying they had waited too long. Another couple ran off without paying. I had to try not to dwell on comments where someone wrote a review saying I was clearly obsessed by my PR and media work as they did not see me – I was cooking their dinner.
There seemed to be an absence of compassion and understanding from a significant minority of guests
So now that I have done the Bad and Ugly, I want to end on the Good (yes, it is one of my favourite westerns – I love the music). The past few weeks we have all found our rhythm. Service is smooth. The waiting times for food are reasonable. I have been working in the pass daily and come up to the dining room a couple of times an evening to meet customers. Lunch could be better. Dinners are full and we have just released new biryani and Saturday lunch supperclub tickets on our website. It almost feels like everything is back to normal. Almost.
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