The slight easing of the lockdown rules combined with some summer weather has lifted the national mood. For us foodies who most miss the joys of eating out, what does the future hold and when? On The Side spoke to three players in the Edinburgh restaurant scene, Vikki Wood of The Wee Restaurant, Campbell Mickel of Merienda and Shaun McCarron of The Little Chartroom.
The first thing that struck me was the resilience and determination to keep going. All three quickly geared up to providing food for delivery/takeaway. There’s a lot more to it than just sticking food in a box. Appropriate containers had to be sourced, menus changed and supply lines confirmed. All three underestimated the admin involved in taking orders. Vikki started taking them by phone and discovered she couldn’t write fast enough. Instead she learned how to create an e commerce page on the website. In just a few weeks, all have changed their offering. At the outset some customers were just looking for shielding-type boxes for at risk relatives. Now, all report higher end orders to replace for many the weekly trip to eat out. At The Little Chartroom they have just started a brunch menu.
All of them recognise that public protection is the number one priority. Realism tells us that COVID will be over one day: it also tells us that there is a long hard road to hoe between then and now. The major problems are obvious. Will customers come to restaurants at all, or will fear keep them away? What sort of experience will it be if servers are wearing masks or other forms of PPE? And social distancing is the biggest issue. As Campbell remarked, how do you take someone’s coat, or give them a credit card machine? All three were unanimous: while a 1 metre rule might be workable, 2 would be quite impossible. Already they are thinking out of the box. All three establishments are small. Options being considered include longer hours to accommodate two sittings. Professional kitchens are tiny. Shaun says they are considering having a rota for a night shift, with chefs taking turns to do food preparation out of normal hours.
To my surprise, despite what I had read, the reaction to Government action and the availability of help was, in the main, quite positive. I had heard horror stories of long delays in accessing money. All three recognise that Government aid can’t continue indefinitely. A major concern will be what happens if an income stream cannot be replaced by the time help is withdrawn. For example, from 1 August employers will have to pay employer’s National Insurance and pension contributions. The percentage Government pays to furloughed workers will start to decrease, disappearing altogether at the end of October. While concerned, as is everyone in the trade, Shaun doesn’t believe that the Chancellor, having paid so much to keep businesses alive, will let them crash. But all share a feeling more can be done. At national level, perhaps a reduction in VAT impacting on the hospitality industry. At local level, a loosening of red tape and a lighter touch by council officials. Environment Health officers were mentioned in unfavourable terms, but the greatest contempt was reserved for insurance companies.
I will confess to being a little taken aback by the responses I got. I had thought that small operators would be most at risk – though the best documented problems even pre lockdown concerned national chains. There is a feeling that small can be beautiful if overheads are tightly controlled. All three believe that in Edinburgh there will always be a market for quality food at reasonable prices, which they all provide. All three have even managed to spy the occasional silver lining. Vikki says that chef husband Craig is working 16 hour days – but is heartened by the reopening of golf courses. Shaun and his wife Roberta who mans the stoves even managed to take a break for a week or two. And Campbell says that with the absence of late night service, his work life balance is the best it’s been for years.
Restaurateurs of Britain, On The Side salutes you. Good luck, and haste ye back!