Restaurateurs’ tales of COVID-19

Interior of Barrafina tapas bar in London

Restaurateurs in London, New York and Paris share the trials and tribulations of how the pandemic has affected the hospitality industry. John Carey took this picture of a Barrafina tapas bar in a more crowded, pre-pandemic era.

This is the time of the year when everybody in the hospitality business begins to feel a little exhausted. With Christmas Day falling this year on a Friday there should be one very, very busy week ahead followed by a much quieter three or four days leading up to Christmas.

That would be if this year had been anything approaching normal. But it hasn’t been. Lockdowns have predominated, with many restaurants in the US and France still closed. Government restrictions are in force in the UK that limit table size and stipulate ‘outside dining’, not a particularly enjoyable way of eating in a cold December, and these restrictions apply to those in Tier 1 and Tier 2. For those in Tier 3, the most seriously affected by COVID-19, there is no way restaurants and bars can open.

I know that there are many even worse off than those working in the hospitality industry all those musicians, artists, singers and dancers for example but this website is not predominantly for them.

And while I have been fortunate over the past 40 years to get to know several pre-eminent restaurateurs, it is these friends that I have felt particularly sorry for over the past nine months.

These individuals, through a love of food, wine and their fellow human beings, have built up substantial businesses which are now possibly worth significantly less than they were in February 2020. They have endured a year for which they were not prepared at all. And to cap it all, they end the year when far fewer of their customers will be trying to get in touch with them to see whether one of their restaurants can possibly squeeze them in.

To discover precisely what has preoccupied them during 2020 I asked several to give me a rundown on how this year had been so completely different from any other.

Will Beckett, half of the team behind the Hawksmoor steakhouses and, incidentally, the son of wine writer Fiona Beckett, was the first to respond in a typically philosophical mood that went to the very heart of what it means to be a thoughtful and caring restaurateur today.

‘What has been occupying my mind have been four thoughts’, Will wrote. ‘First of all, what does it mean to be a restaurateur when you have no open restaurants? Secondly, how can you be a good employer when your employees cannot work? Then, how can you use any spare strength you may have to help others, even if that spare strength is diminished? And, finally, does "looking after your own", however you define that, start to take precedence during a crisis such as the one we are going through?’

All this without a hint of self pity and no mention of New York. Beckett and his partner Huw Gott have been planning for six years to open there, initially in a site that they pulled out of and then at the far more propitious 109 E 22nd Street. An opening date was set for 19 March, three days after New York went into lockdown. Another example of the first point in a presentation I sometimes give about how to be a successful restaurateur: you need to be a born optimist.

Then it was the turn of Sam Hart, one of a trio of brothers who have opened several branches of Barrafina in London as well as transforming Quo Vadis in Soho. Of the three issues that have been preoccupying Hart, his last point how to work out how Barrafina could work without a queue goes to the heart of a very specific restaurant issue.

Barrafina is a true replica of Barcelona’s long-standing Cal Pep (still closed unfortunately) and is designed so that everybody and everything is close together: the customers, the cooks and the food. You have to wait for a table and take a seat whenever you can and the whole design is based on people working and socialising as closely as possible. The queue is the only indicator of how long anyone must wait for their lunch or dinner.

The two other issues that have preoccupied Hart recently are perhaps somewhat more prosaic. The first is working out how to sit customers comfortably outside in December, which, thanks to a combination of rugs and electric heaters, and aided by a couple of glasses of Manzanilla en rama, worked extremely well for me outside at their Parrillan restaurant in King’s Cross last Sunday lunchtime.

The final issue is one of budgets. Hart explained to me that he has also been preoccupied writing four different budgets that incorporate four very different outcomes for his business in the immediate future based on the progress of the pandemic and the responses of the UK government.

A somewhat more light-hearted response came from Mark Williamson, the man behind Willi’s Wine Bar and Macéo in the heart of still-locked-down Paris.

The first confinement saw Williamson hard at work on his book Immoveable Feast, which will appear in January 2021 and is a combination of stories and the Willi’s Wine Bar posters which have now become collectors’ items.

He also took a three-day trip to the Mosel where he fell in love with the region and its wines all over again.

The third, more obvious, manifestation was the introduction of the very first terrace at Macéo. This introduced 30 socially distanced seats that proved a godsend, provided a much-appreciated trickle of cash for the business as well as maintaining relationships with a captive clientele, many of whom were younger and would not normally have entered such a grand-looking establishment as Macéo. This also deprived the car-park attendant of the posh nearby Grand Véfour restaurant of his choice parking spots for the first time in 25 years!

Ending on a more personal note, Williamson added that it was now nine months since he had last attended a professional wine tasting.

For Charlie Young, who founded the wine-focused Vinoteca with Brett Wooton, the wretched COVID-19 has forced them in three very different directions.

The first was into ‘virtual events’ and the world of Zoom, something he admits he had never heard of before March. ‘We started using it for management and board calls but where it has proved invaluable has been with virtual wine tastings, of which we did four last week. Tasting packs with PowerPoint files are sent out and there are short "selfie videos" from the producers themselves.’

‘Then there was the creation of our @home sales side. Getting the dishes together so that they can be finished at home was relatively straightforward. What was much harder was the logistical side of delivery. But now we have launched a three-course meal with matching wines, to be cooked/finished/eaten at home.’

Young’s final comment echoed that of Sam Hart. ‘Budgets and forecasts’, Young wrote somewhat dejectedly. ‘Back in March and April, the picture was changing every day with worst-case predictions tumbling from 50% of last year’s turnover to of course 0%. Since then it has been about at what rate the business will recover, and we are still re-forecasting on a far-too-regular basis.’

Finally, from New York comes the voice, loud and clear, of perhaps that city's most respected restaurateur, Danny Meyer of the Union Square Hospitality Group.

Firstly, he asks, how can we accelerate our goals and commitments to become a more diverse and inclusive company throughout?

Then, more prosaically, should we/can we open for indoor dining? Should we/can we open for outdoor dining?

And finally, most realistically perhaps, how can we afford to retain enough talented members of our team so that we will be able to regain our footing when we are beyond the pandemic, but not so many that we may become insolvent in the meantime.

Whoever said that a restaurateur’s lot is a happy one?



Willi’s Wine Bar



Union Square Hospitality Group