London Restaurateurs, Chefs Talk About How to Survive the Coronavirus

London’s chefs and restaurateurs are counting the cost of the deadly coronavirus, working out how to keep their businesses going and focusing on the day when they can reopen.

The hospitality industry employs 3.2 million people, creating more than £130 billion ($162 billion) a year in economic activity, according to a 2018 report by theU.K. Hospitality Workforce Commission.

The British government has announced a raft of measures to help it, including a £330 billion package of loans, grants and tax breaks, as well as agreeing to pay 80% of  the wages of furloughed employees, up to £2,500 a month. Is this shutdown just a horrible blip, or could the recovery be a lot more complicated than simply reopening when allowed?

Andrew Wong ( A. Wong  and Kym’s):

“At first, the priority wasn’t about saving the world but about saving our staff. After (Chancellor of the Exchequer) Rishi Sunak announced his plans to pay employees, the emphasis switched to how we could help people: NHS (health) employees, the homeless, people in isolation. We now make 50-100 food packages a day. But I am still worried about the staff. Now, from the perspective of our immediate team, it is about looking after their mental health. Some of them are finding it quite difficult. It’s not normal for an entire generation to be stuck indoors and there are going to massive repercussions. We are in hospitality. We are not used to sitting alone in front of a computer for hours on end. They are used to interacting all day with their peers and guests. It might sound like millennials having a moan but it is a real problem. We are trying to engage. We are trying to launch an encylopedia, an archive of all the dishes that we have done over the last eight years and haven’t had time to put it together in one place. Everyone can help. As for the business, I think neighborhood restaurants like A. Wong are going to recover first when we reopen. Larger restaurant groups and those in the City  are going to be more dependent on the economy.”

Jason Atherton (Social Company, including Pollen Street Social):

“We are navigating this day by day  — trying to do a deal with the landlords, trying to do a deal with the tax people — just trying to sit tight until this blows over and reemploy as many people as possible. We have to be sensible and be kind to one another and if anything good comes out of all this, I hope it will end all the negativity in our industry. People are going to need support. When it ends, the reality will be that regular guests of your restaurants, like Pollen Street Social for 10 years, the key clientele will come back. People like comfort and places they know, with happy memories. I don’t know how quickly that will happen. We’re not going to go straight back in with 77 staff as we had at Pollen Street. People have gone back  home to France, to Italy, to the Netherlands to be with their families at this difficult time. I can’t wait to get back in my kitchen, prepping food and trying to make people happy.”

Ravinder Bhogal (Jikoni):

Our immediate priority is clarification from the government and understanding from banks and landlords. Restaurants are week-to-week businesses. We have already had so much support from our regulars and our neighbors, buying vouchers and tables for the future. I am optimistic it will come back and people will support us. We were in year three and had just started to come into profit. You have to be optimistic and for us it is about leading our team, and if we get really depressed it doesn’t help.”

Richard Corrigan: (Corrigan’s Mayfair, Bentley’s and Daffodil Mulligan):

“I am 56, I have been in the business a long time, I have seen  a few recessions in my time and rarely will we get back to the level from before. It is going to be leaner menus, more conservative, simpler. I am not a prophet, but my experience tells me if we go back to 50%, we will be doing really well. I would imagine we’ll have to stagger our re-opening: You don’t want to do it suddenly and there are no customers for three months. But I am sure everyone is looking to have a party when this is all over.”

Des Gunewardena (D&D London):

“People have talked over the years about how would we deal with a disaster like the financial crash of 2008 or 9/11. But they were like a walk in the park compared with what is happening now. We had revenue of £150 million a year and overnight that went to zero. I have cut my salary by 50% and all the directors have. We fully intend to reopen all our restaurants. Most are profitable, but what we will be very carefully looking at is if there will be a longer-term impact on the weaker restaurants.”

Natalie Diaz-Fuentes (Santo Remedio):

“Once we are able to re-open, the consensus is things will be slow to pick up, like opening a new restaurant again. You are going to start from a position you may have your rent piling up or loans and cash depleted. So you are going to be weaker than when you closed. This could lead to a recession and everyone knows eating out is something that suffers in a downturn.  Everybody  in the industry is worried because when you have to be closed indefinitely you run out of cash and then you don’t have a business.”

Chris Galvin (Galvin La Chapelle,Galvin at Windows):

“We are going to open into a global recession. We’ve got to find a way for people to be able to afford to come out again, so smaller, more manageable menus but changing much more frequently. Smaller menus means less prep, means less hours for a chef. Fewer dishes mean we can buy more responsibly. The poor devils we are not talking about are our suppliers. Suppliers, restaurateurs and diners are a holy trinity and we have to hold hands to make this work.”

Richard Vines is Chief Food Critic at Bloomberg. Follow him on Twitter@richardvines and Instagram@richard.vines.

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