How to reinvent the restaurant

The pandemic has created huge uncertainty for much of Britain’s restaurant industry. Culturally, socially and economically the landscape has changed forever. For most restaurants, the urgent aim is to survive. Many that closed in March will never serve another customer. Can others recover? If so, what might that recovery look like?

Lockdown has also offered opportunities — to the baker who delivers, the milkman, the local takeaway. “Adapt” and “diversify” have become the themes of the moment. Those who embrace change will have a better chance than those who don’t — or can’t.

Since March, there has been time to think — and rethink — the future. There is a sense that the UK’s food and drink scene, ostensibly booming on the stroke of lockdown, was in fact already partly rotten. Now could be the moment to build something better. Here are some suggestions from people at the heart of it all.

Margot Henderson
Chef-founder of Rochelle Canteen and Rochelle ICA, London

© Angelo Pennetta

I have always loved arriving at an empty restaurant, watching as it fills and reaches a crescendo, then slowly calms down as service draws to a close. Well, it’s all going to be calm now: we are entering a time of queueing — I think we will sell Negronis in the queue and down the street.

Recovery is going to be painful and slow, two steps forward, one back. It has always been hard work in restaurants but it is set to get even harder. It will be about keeping a tight ship, working as a team and sharing information.

We will need to pull together, stay strong and calm, and move forwards. Most importantly, we will need the love and support of our customers.

I think restaurants will start to operate longer opening hours, stretching lunch all day through to dinner. Menus are likely to be smaller and takeaway will still play a big part for many. Landlords should look at rent breaks: no one is currently thinking about profits, just survival.

In the future, we can do better by caring more for the world around us. Source local food and order wisely — we don’t want trucks driving across cities with a bunch of parsley because the chef forgot it. We need a bit more of the lockdown spirit: slow down, waste less and care for our communities.

Daniel Keeling
Co-founder of Noble Rot, the wine and food magazine and restaurant

It’s easy to foresee the closure of many independent restaurants and the big chains dominating the dining scene — operators only too familiar with the tightest cost-cutting measures and not too concerned with quality. Recovery, whenever it comes, should not just be financial but cultural and spiritual.

One of the recurring themes explored in Noble Rot magazine over the past few years is the renaissance of authentic winemaking and native varieties of grapes led by a movement of young growers. With a recession ahead, will the pendulum swing back from growth in sustainable and organic farming towards industrialised production? I’d bet on educated drinkers knowing how much provenance really matters.

For me, a “good” restaurant sells honest wines and foods from specific places, with as little intervention as possible. Who made the wine? Who caught your fish? It’s not about the most expensive ingredients but a greater appreciation of what we have.

We should approach the recovery with faith and a firm grip on what it means to have fun again. As a wise old trawlerman once said: “Fail we may, sail we must!”

Lawrence Leason
Baker, Hackney Bread Kitchen micro-bakery, London

I’ve never been busier. I started a sourdough bread delivery service about two years ago, which grew very gradually as I honed my skills and held down a “proper job” during the rest of the week. I started building a bigger space at the end of the garden in February, initially just to get my bread stuff out of the house and give my family a break.

Little did I know how essential it would be — not just for my family’s sanity but also to cope with a doubling of orders within days of lockdown beginning. The same week the shed was finished, new bread subscriptions seemed to go viral. I had to close the list shortly afterwards.

Most of my new business is word of mouth and I guess people have had more time to talk to their neighbours — “You know there’s a guy who delivers fresh bread every Friday by bike?” A few years back, we signed up with a local milkman but stopped as his diesel vehicle, with the radio blaring out at 5am, used to wake me up. During that first week of quarantine, I so wished we’d carried on: I called his number but got no answer. I presume his round is more than full.

I now have my own waiting list until a second oven arrives. The question is whether people will go back to their old habits after lockdown is over, or whether they’ve signed up for good. for orders or online classes

© Felicity McCabe

Polly Russell
Food historian and curator at the British Library, London

When the crisis started, comparisons were made with food supply during the second world war. For the first time in their lives, people experienced queues outside shops and some empty shelves inside.

In reality though, the comparison with a war that lasted six years and a rationing system that lasted until 1954 was overstating things, to put it mildly.

What has taken a bashing, however, is not so much what we are eating but how we are eating. Restaurants are off the menu and long lunches with friends forbidden. This is the very opposite to what happened during the war when the government set up “British Restaurants”, where people could get a decent meal for a shilling, and insisted that factories with more than 200 employees set up canteens. As a result, by 1943 there were 2,000 British Restaurants serving 600,000 meals a day and more than 10,000 factory canteens. Eating together was part of a strategy to ensure the population was adequately fed, one of the stand-out achievements of the wartime government.

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Yet eating is only partly about physical need: it’s also about conviviality, human connection and pleasure. Once the pandemic subsides, we need to start eating together again, to restore our social selves.

Lockdown and restricted movement, combined with working from home, have increased our reliance on local food shops, which has been a revelation for many. We’ve had to reconnect with where we live. Of course, it’s more time-consuming to go to individual shops than it is to heave around a supermarket but many of us do not want to return to the manic pace of life pre-pandemic. In the world to come, perhaps we can take things slower and benefit from the variety and expertise of independent shops, before we lose them.

Tom Kitchin
Chef-restaurateur of Michelin-starred The Kitchin, Edinburgh

I’ve been really impressed by how people have embraced their local suppliers — the fishmonger, butcher, grocery store etc. If we can continue to support them, we can still have a restaurant industry. 

The crisis has brought people together, shown the power of humanity and the importance of not taking things for granted. Keeping hold of that will help us come out stronger on the other side.

Sion Williams
Fisherman, Porth Colmon on the Llyn Peninsula, North Wales

Britain’s seafood industry should become less dependent on the export market. The vast majority of the shellfish caught in Welsh waters is exported. This makes us vulnerable to certain situations, such as a pandemic.

Over the years, British people have largely lost their appetite for their native seafood and this should be addressed through marketing. It must be affordable and easily accessible. A percentage of our catch ought to be processed, used in ready meals, frozen and sold to schools and hospitals within the UK. Restaurateurs should be made aware of what is available and where to get it.

Shortening supply chains also reduces our carbon footprint. It makes no sense to export our nutritious produce all over Europe and halfway around the world when we could be eating it here, helping the environment and the economy.

Angela Hartnett
Chef-patron of Michelin-starred Murano and three Cafe Murano restaurants, London

We’ve got to do the best we can with the guidelines we’ve been given, and the more information we get from the government, the better. We need to give confidence to our guests and teams and be on top of everything.

And we’ve got to think positively. There have been some good aspects to the past few weeks — cleaner air and birdsong, and people being more neighbourly. Let’s not lose these things. Let’s make our society better. Let’s help and support those less fortunate than ourselves.

© Felicity McCabe

Claire Ptak
Baker, food writer, stylist and owner of Violet Cakes, London

I think we have to accept that recovery might be slower than we would all like. In some ways, the new measures sound bearable — being a food business, we have always practised excellent hygiene, for example — but it’s the social distancing that I find daunting. Restaurants simply can’t afford to operate at a limited capacity; some days, you only just break even at full capacity.

Yet despite the doom and gloom, which can feel overwhelming, I know we will recover, reunite and socialise again. We should use this period to reflect. Clean the house, as they say. Figure out what works in your business and get rid of what doesn’t. Most of all, don’t take the little things for granted. Real human interaction is crucial for many businesses but especially the food industry.

Sarit Packer and Itamar Srulovich
Chef-founders of Honey & Co and Honey & Smoke, London

We are resolutely optimistic by nature, but it’s difficult to imagine things returning to normal for the foreseeable future. Restaurants are, after all, about bringing people together.

Our strategy is simple: we cook to the best of our ability and try to find a way to bring that food to our community. We make meals for collection and sell cookies and jams online. The locals have rallied around — the butcher sent us free lamb’s liver for our staff lunch; the dustman keeps an eye on the shops when we’re not there. People engage on social media more than ever.

The crisis has highlighted things, not least that some of the most important work is done by the least-regarded and least-rewarded people in society. Overnight, the janitors who clean our hospitals, the people who deliver our parcels, stack our supermarket shelves, pick our fruit and manufacture our food were designated “essential workers”. Many are on zero-hour contracts and the minimum wage or less, without any jobs or social security. We’d love to see that change.

Nieves Barragán Mohacho
Chef-patron of Michelin-starred Sabor restaurant, London

We have to adapt and diversify. Now is the time to build a comprehensive business brand that includes delivery, takeaway, retail and catering — and of course dining in, once we are allowed to.

This is an opportunity to widen the reach of my restaurant and to make it stronger for the long term. We need to appeal to more people, to be open-minded and adapt. We have to and we want to.

Will Jolly
vegetable farmer and producer, Roudham Farm, Norfolk

How can we recover? We can’t. Or at least we can’t go back to exactly how things were before the crisis, unless a vaccine is discovered.

We will all have to adapt quickly. It’s already started. Look at the boom in veg-box schemes or restaurants serving takeaways, or the one in Amsterdam where customers dine in “quarantine greenhouses”.

Survival depends on us taking bold decisions. Don’t let it be another crisis that forces change. We must adapt and diversify before it happens.

© Felicity McCabe

Vivek Singh
Chef-restaurateur of The Cinnamon Collection, London and Oxford

People will still want to go out but I think they might become more discerning about where they go to spend their money. 

Customers will need to feel connected to the restaurants they visit, the teams they are served by and the values such places stand for. Average places will not cut it any more. Lots of people have discovered cooking during lockdown and will now know more about the preparation, cost and quality of ingredients. Expectations will be raised.

Ravinder Bhogal
Chef-Patron of Jikoni, London

A few weeks ago, we shared Arundhati Roy’s Financial Times piece on the pandemic with our team over Zoom. She said we were facing “a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging our prejudice and hatred . . . our dead ideas . . . Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world.” It resonated with all of us.

As owners of an independent food business, coronavirus has presented us with many challenges, but it has shown how quickly things can change if they must.

First, we have to acknowledge that our food system is broken. Thousands face food poverty in the UK, while a staggering amount is wasted. We are focusing on shortening our supply chains and working with producers who protect the environment.

We urge landlords and the government to support us with fairer rents and rates so that we, in turn, can give our teams — who, like many key workers, can’t work from home — better security.

It is often through adversity that we achieve our greatest triumphs. Here’s to a braver, kinder new world.

Jack Ward
CEO, British Growers Association

The past few weeks have highlighted the importance of good health. Long before coronavirus, the UK was staring down the barrel of health problems caused partly by poor diet. While there are different opinions on improving diets, one that seems to enjoy broad agreement is the need to increase our intake of vegetables and fruit.

Regrettably, the overall production of UK fruit and veg has declined in recent years, largely due to poor returns for growers. We now import the majority of what we need. We should attach greater importance to the production and consumption of these foods and value them for the part they play in keeping humans healthy.

Photographs by Felicity McCabe. Styling by Victoria Twyman

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