Do restaurants have a future?

Pool noodle hats in Cafe Rothe in Schwerin, Germany

A few suggestions from an ex-restaurateur and the father of a restaurateur. Social distancing in action in Germany above.

Since 2012 when I published my first book The Art of the Restaurateur (Phaidon) I have given numerous talks about this book and my former profession.

These have usually been accompanied by 10 slides, highlighting 10 different traits, each of which I have gone on to say are essential to being a successful restaurateur, and each of which has been accompanied by a photograph of a different restaurateur profiled in the book.

The exception was the first slide, a photograph of me taken outside my former restaurant, L’Escargot in Soho, London, alongside a note of what I believe is the essential prerequisite for success in this difficult business. It says that to be a successful restaurateur you need to be imbued with more than your fair share of optimism.

Optimism was an essential ingredient, I used to argue, to cope with what were invariably the normal day-to-day disasters: your largest table would more than likely cancel; you would be fully booked and at least one crucial member of your team would call in sick; and something mechanical, electrical or, in today’s world, something connected with your IT, would break down. I cite the example of Russell Norman, who, on the night he won Tatler Restaurateur of the Year Award, found himself at 3 am up to his elbows in sewage in the kitchen of one of his Polpo restaurants. ‘Quite humbling', was his humble response.

I am sure Norman, and every other restaurateur, would happily swap a bit of sewage for the situation confronting so many in the business today. As the world sluggishly wakes up and there are signs of restaurants opening their doors again in China, Australia, Hong Kong and the first countries in Europe to be hit, I thought I would take a look at three new challenging aspects of being a restaurateur in 2020 and beyond, none of which were on anyone’s radar back in 2012.

Protecting your health and that of those working in the restaurant

This has to be the number one concern of any restaurateur brave enough to reopen. Taking the temperature of anyone and everyone entering may now become the number one priority, as is already de rigueur in Hong Kong, and how this is done will test any restaurateur's notion of hospitality. It will have to be done sensitively by anyone working at reception.

And while restaurants in Hong Kong have reopened with customers, kitchen staff and waiting staff all wearing masks, I do not believe that this sets any kind of precedent for what will happen in the West. Ever since the SARS outbreak in 2002, Asians have taken to face masks far more readily than Europeans. In fact we grew accustomed to seeing numerous Asians who live close to us wearing face masks even before March 2020. A face mask obviously hides the mouth of the diner and the smile of the receptionist, both crucially important, if very different, aspects of the initial restaurateur/diner meeting. But restaurateurs and their staff will need to keep their own health under constant check as well. Putting aside a light cough or an occasional sneeze for the sake of the team will not be considered the act of bravado it has been in this profession.

Social distancing

There have already been several witty responses from restaurateurs keen to impose the necessary two-metre rule. As pictured above, Jacqueline Rothe, owner of Café Rothe Schwerin in Germany, had the idea of affixing two-metre-long foam ‘noodles’, the type used for play in swimming pools, to hats which they gave to all their customers sitting on their terrace (no answer as to how they entered the cafe to use the lavatory, however!). At Maison Saigon in Bangkok, the restaurateur sat a stuffed panda at all his tables, thereby filling the restaurant, not crowding it and pleasing single diners in particular. At the Inn at Little Washington in DC there are plans to reopen with elegantly dressed mannequins stationed strategically throughout.

These are admirably creative solutions but they only circumnavigate the problem. Social distancing will cut numbers, the atmosphere, and ultimately every restaurant’s profitability.

The future profitability of the restaurant industry

It is difficult to be optimistic in the short or even the medium term about any of this. Restaurants have tended to be financed via numerous alternatives in the past: personal funds; an existing restaurant’s cash flow; a consortium of individuals; in the UK, via the Enterprise Investment Scheme; and, increasingly, venture capitalists. But it is unlikely that there will be much enthusiasm for any of these until a vaccine is in place globally.

It has been internally generated funds that have been most jeopardised by the timing of this horrible virus in the northern hemisphere. April to June are usually extremely busy months for the vast majority of the UK hospitality trade and the glorious sunshine that we have experienced throughout April and May would have filled every seat and table outdoors. However, a traditionally risky profession that has been closed down once could so easily be closed down again.

I can see opportunities for the extremely brave, however. At the end of a webinar I took part in last Wednesday afternoon, organised by PoE (Pinnacle of Excellence, an organisation to which I belong), I was asked by the moderator, Sabato Sagaria of New York, which restaurants I thought would prosper in the future?

In the few seconds I had at my disposal an image sprang into my mind. It was of the old La Tante Claire in Royal Hospital Road, London, when Pierre Koffmann was the chef. The setting must have been unprepossessing when Koffmann first saw it: a long, narrow, far from spacious room leading to a kitchen at the back of the building that, crucially, had its own entrance to the rear. But once he had lined it with tables and chairs and started to cook like a dream, the restaurant became recognised as one of London’s finest. A simpler menu than Koffmann would have cooked would be very successful in such a setting some time in the future, I am sure, because it was not just quality of the cooking but rather the restaurateur’s ability to make creative use of a space that was not particularly appealing to anyone else that shone through.

This was a place, and I believe that there will be quite a few of them in the future, where the optimism of a restaurateur together with the skills of a talented chef can combine to excite the general public, as they have done in the past.