A webinar hosted last week by Restaurant Associates' group culinary director David Simms brought together River Cottage's Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, Pollen Street Social's Jason Atherton and Le Gavroche's Michel Roux Jr to discuss the future of hospitality. Jennie Milsom listened in to share the highlights
What potential opportunities could come from the current situation?
Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall (HFW): I think the hospitality industry is a creative industry and we're going to have to be ready to do things differently. We need to know, understand and digest what the restrictions will be as soon as possible so we can put our thinking caps on and work out what might be viable. If you're running a restaurant at 50% capacity, you'll need a different business model otherwise you're not going to be in business at all.
What else could the government do?
Jason Atherton (JA): One of the biggest things for us – and for central London restaurants – is rent. If you're taking 50% of your seats out, you're not going to be able to meet those demands. There needs to be a real conversation at government level around helping the landlords to be able help the tenants to give them a fighting chance to go back. It's a very complex web to build up to get our industry back to health and it's going to be a long road.
One thing for sure is that we are adaptable and a very generous industry and I believe we will come through this. What that will look like is going to be very different and we have to have the government's support 100% because restaurants are precarious places – three to four months of losing money and you're done.
Do you think fine dining will survive?
Michel Roux Jr (MR): There will always be high-end restaurants because we always have those special occasions and we want to be pampered, but how we're going to be pampered and how we operate will change, for sure. Do I still want to go to a place like Le Gavroche or Alain Ducasse [at the Dorchester]? Yes, I do – of course I want to, I want to spoil myself – but I also still want to go to my local and have a great ploughman's.
What I miss the most is the buzz, the conviviality, the socialising. The catering and hospitality industry is very imaginative. We will pull through – not all of us will pull through – but we will be stronger for it at the end because we are a resilient bunch, too.
HFW: It's about creativity – finding new ways to offer new experiences along with the food. I don't think we should assume that all the social distancing protocols will be absolute passion killers for our guests, but they are going to be hard to adapt to.
What trends do you see at the more ambitious end of the market? Will tasting menus survive?
JA: I hope they survive because it's a really interesting and creative way to eat. The next 12 months is going to be very tricky for fine dining restaurants because of the amount of time you invest in going to a restaurant – it might take three to four months for people to get the confidence to spend four, five or six hours in a restaurant. My optimistic head says people are desperate to get out and willing to get back to restaurants. Fine dining will always exist in some shape or form. But à la carte might get a bigger response to start with because you can have a starter, main and dessert in two hours and not have as much interaction with the waiters.
Will we see a lower ingredient cost per dish?
MR: Yes, for sure, there will be cheaper options and I think people will be buying local, buying British. We need to help our suppliers because they are equally in the cack as we are and they need our support.
HFW: People have always been ready to spend money on exceptional fine dining experiences. At the cheaper end of the market I think people are definitely going to expect value for money more than ever because everyone's going to find it tight. We'll have to find a way to offer them value.
More than ever people are going to care very deeply about where their food comes from and they're going to find tremendous reassurance in the provenance of their food. If we can reassure them by telling them that story, they're going to find that hugely reassuring and they're much more likely to put their trust back in us than if we're simply serving anonymous food and they don't know or understand where it's come from.
What do you think the long-term impact to our supply chain will be?
JA: To reboot the whole process will take time. We're constantly doing Zoom meetings with our supply chain to see what that's going to look like.
HFW: People are still going to eat, so if the producers don't supply us they'll have to find a way to supply different sectors. But we want to help them and the closer we work with them, the better we're positioned to tell our guests exactly where the food is coming from – the name of the person who grew it and how it got there. Those things are going to count more than ever.
What changes do you think consumers will be looking for when we open our doors?
MR: Reassurance. Hygiene is a given in restaurants anyway, but we are going to be have to be seriously on our toes as everything is going to be looked at in a totally different light. But reassurance can start from the moment someone make a booking. It's also two-way – reassuring your staff as well that they are safe too, that's equally important.
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