Chef and restaurateur Jason Atherton, who owns restaurants in Dubai, Shanghai and St Moritz as well as his acclaimed Social Company restaurants in London has been in the process of finding a feasible solution for his London locations. “In Shanghai, both the restaurant and bar area are very busy. We’ve spaced the tables out and
Chef and restaurateur Jason Atherton, who owns restaurants in Dubai, Shanghai and St Moritz as well as his acclaimed Social Company restaurants in London has been in the process of finding a feasible solution for his London locations.
“In Shanghai, both the restaurant and bar area are very busy. We’ve spaced the tables out and staff wear face masks, but social distancing is very different there,” Atherton explains, having witnessed high numbers of people returning to communal areas.
In London he has nine restaurants, including the Michelin-starred Pollen Street Social. “The big disadvantage of having a restaurant in London is space: the cost of the rent per square foot means that, usually, a restaurant needs to be at 75 per cent capacity to make any profit. Pollen Street Social can seat just over 70 tables. To allow for social distancing, I’ve taken that down to 36.”
Second sittings will be essential: “In order to break even, we need to serve 45 tables during lunch service and 76 tables for dinner – assuming the spend per head will remain the same.
Balancing the safety of customers and staff with the need to run a profitable business, Atherton set out to create disposable menus, provide hot towels and sanitising stations, send virtual wine lists to those who have booked to allow them to select a bottle, and rearrange the kitchen to enable chefs to work back-to-back, rather than side-by-side.
Chefs will wear face masks and plastic gloves, and the number of waiting staff on the floor will be reduced to reduce the number of people in the building. Across his international restaurant collection, he says, the approach will be determined “country by country, to see what seems to be working and what isn’t.”
Registering and social bubbles
Those visiting restaurants will now need to register, details of which the venue will keep for 21 days in case an outbreak occurs and they need to contact those who have visited.
People should only visit a restaurant in their household groups – or support bubbles – or with one other household, according to the new rules. Alternatively, they can visit outdoors with up to five other people (six in total).
Space isn’t a problem for some. Shaun Rankin, head chef at Grantley Hall in the Yorkshire Dales, admits that preparing to open his restaurant in the grand country house hotel may have been simpler than others, since it is “already very spacious, with enough room between the tables. If I have to remove one or two tables then so be it.” Rankin hopes to open his restaurant at a slightly reduced capacity.
But for other restaurateurs, opening at reduced capacity isn’t an option. James Cochran, chef and owner of Restaurant 12:51 in London, usually seats 11 tables. Under the original two-metre social distancing measures, this would have reduced to five. Under those conditions, he explains, “opening 12:51 wouldn’t have been financially viable.” When he reopens there will be “plastic shields for staff. Card machines will be a thing of the past – we will be using a system whereby customers pay on their phones through our website, reducing contact with our staff.”
The tapas chain Iberica, with branches in London, Leeds, Manchester and Glasgow, is hopeful the outdoor seating spaces at its various restaurants will provide a safe place for diners this summer, and the business has been in talks with landlords and local councils to expand the space they occupy. Ideal for a relatively small number of restaurants, bars and cafes, but compromised by the British weather.
“We are based in an open-air market so safe distancing measures have been easier to put in place,” says Elizabeth Haigh, owner of the Singaporean restaurant Mei Mei, situated in Borough Market. During lockdown, Haigh adapted her business to sell a range of condiments, teas and spice mixes, and a ‘Mei Mei Bakery’ concept offering Singaporean baked goods for customers to grab and go.
Read more: How pubs and beer gardens are reopening
Keeping staff safe
The government have suggested all rules apply to staff regarding hygiene – and timings of when shifts begin should be staggered to make sure the number of people is as low as they can be. If possible, more ways into the venue would be ideal so staff can come in separately and not over-congest entrances where customers are queuing.
Staff should change their uniform on-site and for those who have roles which mean they need to remain in one place, such as a cashier, their zone should be socially distanced from those making their way around the venue. In some cases, front of house staff might even be behind a plexi-glass barrier.
Kitchen staff shouldn’t mingle with each other in their breaks to reduce the risk of transmission and only one person at a time should access areas such as walk in pantries, freezers and fridges.
To help those cleaning the restaurant, doors should be wedged open so they don’t need to touch handles as often and the guidelines also recommend everything to be wiped down in between customer usage for the safety of visitors and staff, such as laminated menus and card readers.
With often larger spaces to deal with, different ordering and payment systems, refilling stations for drinks and cutlery, chains may struggle to convince customers that they are a safe space.
Indeed, some chains have already announced closures and job losses as a result of the pandemic. 6,000 jobs were in danger at Bella Italia and Cafe Rouge after owners gave notice of intent to appoint administrators, and 61 of the 80 branches of Tex-Mex chain Chiquitos will be closing permanently.
“Our plans [for reopening involved] extensive site-specific risk assessments with measures to include card or contactless payment only, restricted capacity and dwell times, and enhanced sanitising and cleaning services,” says Gavin Adair, the chief executive of Rosa’s Thai Cafe, which has 19 restaurants across London, Manchester, Liverpool and Leeds.
Similarly, healthy fast food chain LEON, which remained open for takeaway throughout the lockdown and dedicated four restaurants to serving NHS staff, planned measures including table spacing, floor markers to indicate where diners can queue safely, cashless payment and a reduced menu to accommodate fewer chefs in the kitchens.