The short answer is yes, it will recover, and it will do so in a way that will bring pride to the entire nation. This might seem a little unwarranted, but I do need to point out at this early stage that I am an eternal optimist. What makes me so confident, put simply: I believe in the people involved. Our industry is built around the people that work within it; whether it be the visionary owners, the tireless managers or the charismatic front of house team that make our frequent visits so memorable. It’s the People that give me Hope.
I am writing this article a couple of days after the second lockdown to our industry was announced. Like thousands of operators around the country this came as a crushing blow. I woke up the following Monday morning, took the kids to school and my journey home took me past the large stainless steel vats of the Wiston winery on the A24. Let’s just say that the wines are far better than the location! For some reason I made a quick decision to pull off and see if the head winemaker, and my good friend, Dermot Sugrue was around. Not only is Dermot one of the country’s leading winemakers, he’s also a force of nature. Spending time with him is like getting a shot of adrenaline, and it just so turns out that on this morning he was just the tonic I needed.
Over the next 30 minutes he danced around the various vats and barrels extracting base samples from a tap or, in some cases, a large syringe. He was not worried about our current plight, he was excited about the eventual bounce back and what the customers would make of his new vintage – ‘The Trouble with Dreams’ 2015. For the time I was with him I completely forgot about COVID. It was a brilliant impromptu Monday morning and without me sounding too corny, my wee Irish friend gave me hope.
I then got home and started to think about our industry and what else should give us optimism for the future. One important fact to remember is there are huge swathes of the population who can’t cook restaurant quality food at home (and long may this continue)! Restaurants, when allowed to open, will always be busy because guests crave that unique experience, don’t they?
Another reason for optimism is seeing how the trade has adapted during the pandemic. During the first lockdown some of our customers turned their restaurants into wine shops and started peddling wine across their local community. We have one such customer from Winchester who ended up doing up to 20 deliveries a day out of the back of his estate car. Absolute madness, but utterly inspiring!
The ‘finish at home’ concept was also born, which enabled customers to create restaurant quality dishes in the comfort of their own kitchen. Even Michelin starred chefs such Michael O’Hare got in on the act – I am sure that some menus were easier to finish than others! Sunday Roasts also got the delivery treatment. I mean, come on, what is wrong with people…? They must really hate doing the washing up.
Zoom was also being beamed straight into customers’ homes in the form of online tastings and live cookery classes. The ability to diversify was inspiring, but was any of it profitable? Absolutely not, but it really wasn’t about that. The aim was to keep their brands alive and stay within the head space of their customer base.
Seeing this unfold gave me immense hope, so when the trade reopened on the 4th July I wasn’t nervous, I was excited. And the bounce back didn’t disappoint – it was huge. Central London aside, the population of this country turned up in their droves to support their local pubs and restaurants. I think we were all proud to be a part of our fantastic industry.
Then the tier system crept in and literally took the wind out of people’s sales! Tier 2: welcome to no man’s land – you’re open but who’s coming in? You’re hoping for a Valentine’s Day style service every night of the week and then good old family time at weekends. It’s just never going to happen, so maybe the second lockdown, with furlough support, is the lesser of two evils?
How much more can the hospitality industry take and has permanent damage been caused? You have to say for those unfortunate operators that haven’t survived, absolutely, but for those who have it’s probably made them stronger. Operators have had to really look at every facet of their business and how different aspects can be streamlined, therefore making them more efficient. Longevity has to be the common goal.
One thing is for sure. When this has all been put to bed, the hospitality industry will enter a boom period like no other. A period that is prolonged steady growth, rather than the boom and bust cycle we often see. In my opinion this industry is just too dynamic to be held down. The general public’s love affair with the restaurant sector appears to have been galvanised, which I hope will continue for a long time to come.
Absence definitely makes the heart grow fonder
– Joe Wadhams,
Business Development Director