Let’s face it: we have all been having quite a party in London for the last 10 years. There has been exceptional creativity, and the rewards have been prolific for the best, but the sheer quantity of eating out venues has been mind-boggling.
The current model of highly leveraged operations reliant on packing people into small spaces is just not going to align with customers’ fears until risk of. catching virus is minimal. The reality is that we need to eat to survive, but we do not need to eat out in restaurants. So owners will have to rethink their offering to entice us back, and to make their businesses work financially.
Much of the trade in city centres relies on people coming to work in them, and how far this returns is yet to be seen. It is widely predicted that the punishing daily commute suffered by so many will be softened by staggered hours and days working from home. This inevitably means some reduction in demand both for lunchtime eating, and weekday after hours. Out of town locations may well benefit.
Apart from their rent obligation, there won’t be indefinite government support to keep all jobs open (and from August employers will have to contribute to the furlough scheme) so restaurant owners will soon have some tough decisions to make.
Landlords will also need to do their bit to avoid swathes of empty units. Their restaurant tenants sitting on costly fit outs will want to hang on and survive as long as possible but, with over three months of no revenue, many will be unable to meet the next rent quarter’s payment due in June.
It seems a lifetime away, when landlords such as Shaftesbury Estates required dish tastings from prospective tenants for their overpriced miniscule Soho premises. Demand had already starting waning last year in the mid priced sector with the fallout of chains such as Jamie’s Italian. But the virus has now tipped an already tottering Carluccio’s into administration, and backers to pull back from the likes of Byron and Gourmet Burger Kitchen.
Restaurants have become such an important part of the fabric of our modern cities that it seems impossible to imagine life without them. And I’m sure most of the best will survive. Chefs and restaurant owners are a feisty and creative lot, and are certainly not just sitting around at the moment waiting for Government guidelines about re-opening. They are more concerned about gaining their customers’ confidence to return, how to manage the social distancing so alien to the closely packed seating arrangements of the past, and how to make the whole formula stack up financially, with less covers. The nature of hospitality is warmth, social contact and fun, so this will be more challenging than for most businesses.
The hope for many is that landlords will be flexible, and that as the fear of the virus diminishes, contact measures will relax.
Until then we can benefit from the home delivery offerings many restaurants are providing, and then give them our support when conditions allow..