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Chef Mike Robinson ‘optimistic' as customers ‘desperate for escapism' book tables

16 June 2020 by
Chef Mike Robinson ‘optimistic' as customers ‘desperate for escapism' book tables

Mike Robinson, the chef-restaurateur behind the Woodsman in Stratford-upon-Avon, took more than 100 bookings in the five days after lines were opened as people look to "escape from the doom and gloom".

The restaurant, which plans to open on 8 July, is only taking bookings by phone and has received 20 to 30 enquiries a day.

Robinson said: "People are desperate to go out and start to feel like there's some hospitality in the world again. They have had doom and gloom thrown at them on a minute-by-minute basis – it's so depressing. The point of restaurants and hospitality is a little bit of escapism from the grim world around us, so we are going to try and provide the best level of hospitality balanced with the best level of safety."

Robinson's optimism will also see him open a new restaurant, the Elder in Bath, in September. The restaurant, which will, like the Woodsman, reside within a Hotel Indigo, will have its own clear identity but also champion wild food, including produce from his venison business Robinson Wild Foods, based in Duntisbourne Rouse in Cirencester.

He added: "We have to look past this event; we have to look to the future and we have to rebuild the hospitality industry and maybe we can rebuild it for the better. Maybe this will see people go back to the core of what hospitality really means and what the essence of good cooking is."

The Woodsman benefits from being able to spread covers across several spaces and an internal garden, with Robinson confident that the restaurant will open profitably and be up to about 80% of its previous capacity if distancing is reduced to one metre.

Additional safety measures will be put in place including washing plates at 90ºC just before service, placing antibacterial gel on each table and not turning tables during service or accepting walk-ins. Robinson's site will also benefit from his partnership with InterContinental Hotels Group, which runs the Hotel Indigo in which the restaurant resides, utilising its additional toilets to help ensure distancing and sharing information on hygiene practices.

He added: "Behind the scenes we have an extremely comprehensive risk assessment. The staff coming back will all be retrained extremely carefully so they know how to help guests understand things are slightly different, without making them feel terrified. It's training, training, training. You can't just reopen and tell staff ‘tell everyone to wash their hands'. We invested in a lot of advice to make sure we're doing the right things.

"The main thing is they'll be trained to reassure the customer through a lovely meal. The government's done a very good job of frightening the living wits out of the population so it's a business risk opening at all, but I'm optimistic and I genuinely feel we can adapt and we have the space to do it."

There will be a renewed emphasis on local produce in sourcing and the single-use menus can be updated regularly as they are printed for each guest.

The restaurant has always championed wild food and 50% of dishes ordered contain venison from Robinson's business, despite only accounting for two menu items. Robinson added: "We have the best venison and can tell a customer to the yard where produce came from. The demand is huge and we're coming into game season, so we'll be using wild rabbit as well as amazing British beef and lamb too. It will all be very British, very local, ethical and sustainable."

When Covid-19 closed restaurants, Robinson had to adapt his business quickly and saw the restaurant demand replicated: "We only had a few dozen deer left to cull before the end of the season, but we were completely restaurant-focused. We moved to a direct-to-consumer deer box scheme overnight. We sold every ounce of venison we harvested. It was so positive in fact that I've changed the business model, rebranded it as Deer Box and the focus is to the public now."

Robinson has said the Michelin-starred Harwood Arms, overseen by head chef Sally Abé, will open again as soon as restrictions mean it is able to do so profitably.

Ahead of the game: Mike Robinson goes on a deer hunt>>

Photo credit: Ashleigh Cadet

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