Lifestyle

Safety first: the future of Britain’s restaurants

Ordinarily, the opening weekend of a food destination as ambitious as Escape to Freight Island would have been a circus. The pre-launch publicity would have drummed up such anticipation and queues that, even for those disappointed and turned away, the scrum at the door would have only added to Freight Island’s legend.

But that was pre-Covid-19. The seated, open-air food market – the first phase of a 2,500-capacity food, art and music complex – was due to open this weekend in Manchester’s abandoned Mayfield train station. It will now open on Friday 24 July and, for the first month, only to pre-booked parties of up to six who must all register their contact details online. On arrival, each group will receive a welcome briefing which, echoing the video and 16-point “Safe & Social Manifesto” sent out with booking confirmations, will remind them how to behave during their limited three-hour visit.

Staggered bookings and the on-street marshalling of exits and entries should ensure social distancing and no bottlenecks. Inside, except for toilet visits (to blocks of individual cubicles complete with disinfectant wipes to clean all surfaces; the urinal is over), you will be expected to stay at your table. No wandering. No browsing at the pizzas served by Dalston’s Voodoo Ray, Madre’s tacos or lingering at Baratxuri’s homage to Basque live-fire cooking. There will be music but, if it is to comply with government guidance, no live musicians, no dancing and only at a volume low enough that people do not have to shout over it. That is to decrease the risk of – and here is a thought to sharpen your appetite – “aerosol transmission”. Yum.

The brainchild of a team that combines hospitality, festival and event management nous, and which includes the Unabombers – DJs turned restaurateurs and bar-owners – the hope for Freight Island is that, even with those restrictions, its dramatic outdoor location and sheer vastness will make it a place where, after months of pent-up stress and anxiety, 1,800 people a day can genuinely relax.

Under development before coronavirus, this first phase has been cleverly remodelled for the new normal. Using a QR code to pull up the menu, all food and drink will be ordered and paid for online using your phone, then delivered by masked staff to demarcated service zones on each table from where guests will hand dishes to each other. The tables are oversized creations spaced 2m apart. In this way, all guests and staff should be able to maintain a 2m distance for the vast majority of time; greater than the 1m now required indoors.

That will theoretically allow people to congregate at minimal risk without dividing tables with plexiglass screens, using individual dining pods, mannequins at spare seats, or any of the outlandish solutions floated on social media to space out and shield diners. Guests will be asked to use hand sanitiser, and free masks and gloves are available, but their use is not mandatory. Instead, as managing director Dan Morris puts it: “My responsibility is to keep people apart and safe.”

In a world in which our ability to socialise freely will be curtailed for months if not years, Morris sees Freight Island as the perfect one-stop solution: “Now you can’t wander from bar to bar, you’ve got to plan it out. Travel’s an issue, everything’s a problem. We want you to know exactly what you’re getting, when and how.”

Freight Island is a bold move in what, nationally, will be a perilous return for restaurants. The chancellor has cut VAT for the industry and offered a discount for customers in August, but surveys last month by industry body UKHospitality found that, while almost 70% of restaurants planned to reopen this month, the majority were predicting a “very slow recovery”. In central London, empty of tourists, shoppers and office workers, figures as diverse as chef Claude Bosi at London’s two-Michelin-star Bibendum and Will Ellner, owner of Soho pasta restaurant Bancone, have already said they will not reopen until September. Last month, in an open letter, chefs including Fergus Henderson called for government support for this “ghost town”.

“We’re in no hurry to be first back,” says Justin Crawford, one half of the Unabombers, as he surveys the prospects for his smaller venues. Freight Island is an exception because – see also, Prawn On The Lawn relocating alfresco to Cornwall’s Trerethern Farm or London’s Brat operating at Climpson’s railway arch – it is open air, which will be one of the major features of the summer. Government and local authorities have pledged to make it far easier for pubs and restaurants to use rooftops, car parks and terraces. The risk of Covid-19 transmission is lessened outdoors. That is where diners will feel safest. Plus, says Crawford: “One big legacy of this period is it’s turbocharged the shift to cashless online ordering from phones. What might have taken 18 months has happened in three.”

If Freight Island is a no-brainer, Crawford’s other venues are a post-coronavirus headache. For instance, 1m-distancing will reduce the tables at his Didsbury bar-diner, Volta, by 55%: “It’s frightening. You could lose more open than closed.” And Volta is not alone. Trade bodies have calculated that 1m-distancing will reduce the average restaurant’s capacity by 30% to 50%. A figure that will leave many just clinging on.

Currently offering take-out kebabs and Sunday roasts, the previously ultra-casual Volta reopened to eat-in diners on 9 July but, to make it financially viable, with fewer staff, a shorter menu and for limited hours. It is now bookings only, too. Similarly, at Crawford’s Hillary Step pub, reopening could waste big money if too many radical changes are made too quickly: “I don’t want to spend on plastic screens that Thursday through Sundayin three weeks aren’t necessary.” At the Refuge, a large Manchester hotel bar and restaurant where the Unabombers act as consultants, the menu also needs streamlining for the coronavirus era: “With small plates menus, waiters touch the table a lot. We have to look at that, perhaps packaging up dishes that are easy to drop, and also how many times dishes are touched in the kitchen, and reduce that.” All this will take time, and Crawford is envisaging a phased reopening between now and September.

In seaside resorts, reopening is a far more urgent issue. “I’ve missed Easter, half-terms, bank holidays, the start of summer. If I don’t get July, August and September, there will be no restaurants – simple as that,” says chef Paul Ainsworth, who runs several venues in and around Padstow, including the Mariners pub and the Michelin-starred No.6 restaurant. “I employ 140; 132 are on furlough. That’s a lot of people to be responsible for, a lot of mortgages. I live in Cornwall. My family are here. I don’t want to take unnecessary risks. But we can only go so far plunging into debt before it becomes financial suicide.”

One-metre distancing means “no redundancies”, but, says Ainsworth, at his casual restaurants this is a costly, difficult switch: buying hundreds of masks; refreshing hygiene procedures (waiting staff will wash their hands every 15 minutes rather than wearing gloves; most owners feel they could breed complacency); marking out physically distanced dining rooms; removing menus and digitising them so diners can access them on phones; timing bookings so groups do not mingle at the entrance; ensuring retention of walk-ins’ contact details; trialling collection points where guests might pick up food, rather than it being placed in front of them at the table – a procedure bizarrely not mentioned in official guidance.

Ainsworth worries about ripping the soul out of venues such as the Mariners. Bar service is not banned in the safety guidance for England, a document full of “where possible” loopholes which one operator predicts “will be policed more by customer pushback and social media”. But it strongly urges pubs to serve only seated guests. Being responsible, Ainsworth is creating a one-way system through the Mariners. “It will hugely affect a pub which on Friday night is usually jammed with people having a drink. It’ll become more a sit-down restaurant with staff greeting guests.”

Shauna Guinn, co-owner of Hang Fire, the OFM Award-winning barbecue restaurant in Barry, south Wales, shares that existential angst. Not only has she been dealing with “painfully slow” decision-making locally – in early July, a ruling by the Welsh government was still pending on whether or not to allow outdoor dining this month – but she’s also worrying about how the experience will feel: “I’m getting enquiries for birthday tables of 10 now and telling customers that won’t be viable until next year. I just can’t see it. The spirit of hospitality lies in close personal interaction around food. Being served by someone in a mask and blue gloves or parking a hostess trolley and guests collecting their food detracts from that. I’m not sure I’d sit in a restaurant under those circumstances. We need to make sure we don’t lose what makes this sector important and where, for customers, value lies.”

As Mayur Patel, co-owner of Manchester’s Bundobust restaurant sees it: “Our industry’s job is to help relieve the fear. We want it light-touch but safe.”

That tension between safety and hospitality is, arguably, most acute in fine dining, which takes its very reason from a frictionless, intimate pampering which coronavirus rules out. Notting Hill’s two-Michelin star restaurant, the Ledbury, has already closed, on the basis, chef-owner Brett Graham told Eater, that: “We can’t operate the restaurant with any form of social distancing.”

Sam Ward, managing director of Simon Rogan’s restaurants, including Cumbria’s two-Michelin star L’Enclume, strikes a more positive note: “Hospitality’s principles haven’t changed. The palate is very fickle, and you’ve got to make people comfortable so they can enjoy quality flavours. What has changed is what makes them comfortable.”

Rather than a terrifying “clinical” environment, the changes L’Enclume has made since reopening on 4 July (temperature checks for guests; coats stored in individual suit bags; masked staff; overt cleaning of surfaces such as door handles), are meant to reassure.

Instead of endless changes of cutlery over 12 to 18 courses, knives and forks now come in a tamper-proof box. This is to protect staff, too, says Ward: “Picking up a stranger’s cutlery is a danger zone.” Looking at hygiene protocols imposed on Rogan’s Hong Kong venues, Ward does not think environmental health officers will object to plates being placed in front of guests, but: “To minimise interactions, we won’t be doing lots of actions like saucing or cheese at the table. We’ll also give people the choice of waiters explaining each course or scanning a QR code that takes you through to the website.”

“Short and sharp is the name of the game,” says Ward, which will be a relief to those who find fine dining’s fussy interruptions infuriating.

Not that customer comfort is the only consideration. Staff safety is in the spotlight like never before. “Chefs have one of the highest occupational death rates from Covid-19,” says Unite’s Dave Turnbull, referring to ONS figures published in May. There is, he reports, nervousness among union members: “They feel that 1m places them at greater risk as it will increase the venue capacity – that on busy shifts 2m becomes 1 and 1 becomes zero.”

Addressing those concerns will be essential for all owners. It is both a moral obligation to staff and customers and key to the survival of their businesses. The damage from a Covid-19 outbreak among staff could easily sink any restaurant. “Staff will work in teams on set days. Temperatures will be taken. They’ll wash their hands every 20 minutes, and if they don’t there’ll be disciplinary action. It puts the whole business in jeopardy,” says Angela Hartnett, who will reopen two of her Café Murano restaurants (outdoor seats first, table-top hand sanitiser, disposable menus, no drinks poured at tables, waiters dedicated to set tables), and Murano by early August.

You can institute back-to-back working, screen off prep and cooking areas, issue visors, place chefs in shift bubbles or minimise their face to face contact with waiting staff using non-contact drop zones for food, but, realistically, in small, fast-paced kitchens chefs cross paths. Consequently, many restaurants will now have shorter menus that can be handled by fewer chefs, and not just for safety reasons. Many owners are also looking to cut costs, including staff wages, as Britain enters a period of profound economic turbulence.

In Manchester’s now much quieter Northern Quarter, bar-diner Common has switched from a full food menu to serving a short selection of terrific pizzas. They are easier to produce, minimise waste and can be served eat-in or for takeaway, to now mainly city-centre residents. “If we’re down 20% in numbers and revenue, Sunday brunch becomes a loss-making service,” explains owner Jonny Heyes. “We can’t risk that.”

Some upbeat voices predict a busy summer. Ainsworth’s restaurants received around 7,000 booking enquiries in the week before reopening and most “name” restaurants opening this month report strong interest. “It’s like the 2008 recession,” says Crawford. “Not everyone’s taken a pay cut and people will want to eat, drink and see friends; no matter how weird it feels at first.” But there is almost universal agreement that winter 2021 could see a swathe of closures due to a mixture of restricted customer numbers, lockdown debt, rising unemployment and falling consumer spending.

“They’re being hung out to dry,” says Restaurant magazine editor Stefan Chomka. “If landlords demand rent, restaurants will have to try to make money. But in central London with no customers, potentially.” A move to turnover-linked rents is “the only sensible model”.

Everyone is hunkering down and finding resilient new revenue generators which could continue during further lockdowns. The Michelin-starred Black Swan at Oldstead is selling mail-order meal kits, London’s Bao delicatessen sells foods and homewares via its Convni webstore. Takeaway, grocery retail or picnic hampers are, suddenly, essential parts of how restaurants operate, rather than bolt-ons. “To make it financially viable, that’ll be the new normal,” predicts Guinn.

Sat Bains is mulling an at-home product line but will not reopen his two-Michelin star Nottingham restaurant until at least August. He is not judging those who have jumped in in July: “We’ve all got to earn. They’ve all got their issues. I’m losing 35, 40 grand a month. Most of us will end up in debt.” But while government support exists, he has no desire to reformulate a tasting menu restaurant where tables are visited 30 to 40 times: “It’s alright everyone going, ‘Why don’t you do a la carte?’, I’ve put my balls on the line with this. I’m not changing it overnight.”

But this is about more than pride. Bains also takes Covid-19 incredibly seriously: “Friends of ours have really suffered, it’s real.” Ideally, he would only reopen when quick swab-tests are available for staff and customers: “I’ve got to look them in the eye and say, ‘Your health is our foremost priority.’ If we opened and caused someone to get ill, how would I live with myself?”

“People have died,” Bains reiterates, a fact he wants his staff to be mindful of. When Restaurant Sat Bains does reopen, they will have to employ a tone of “respectful compassion” with guests still reeling from lockdown.

“We’ve shared a trauma together,” says Bains. “Every guest will have their story. Some might have lost loved ones and that’s going to be devastating. Hopefully it’ll connect us all better, but restaurants look after people and, now, people are going to really need looking after.”