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Lockdown Legend
Illustration: Time Out

Lockdown Legend: the London restaurateur who’s keeping hospitality staff in work

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When the UK government closed restaurants, cafés, pubs and bars last Friday (March 20), thousands of hospitality industry staff found themselves unemployed or on unpaid leave. Le Bab co-founder Stephen Tozer wanted to do something about it, which is why he launched the London Restaurant Co-operative (LRC). The scheme allows his own staff, plus any other hospitality staff who are interested, to use Le Bab kitchens to prepare ready meals (but really tasty, cheffy ones) which waiters and front-of-house staff can deliver around London. The LRC also offers to make and deliver free meals (that you can pay for online if you want to help) to NHS staff and homeless shelters.

I came up with the idea last Wednesday after we basically had to make our staff redundant or place them on unpaid leave. I thought: This is absolutely crazy; there has to be a way to help these guys. You feel a responsibility for all these people.

It was an incredible feeling of helplessness, thinking about how our entire revenue had evaporated overnight and there was nothing I could do. A million people became unemployed overnight and it got me thinking: How could we make something work here? 

It’s a shifted landscape, a temporary new economy we’re in – an economy where people don’t leave their houses. Imagine if this went on for ever: stuff wouldn’t just stay the same, the economy would shift around it. There are all these people who’ve lost their jobs, all these empty restaurant kitchens, all these people who are at home who don’t want to cook or don’t know how to cook and probably can’t afford to be ordering Deliveroo or Uber Eats every single day. 

I thought: Why don’t we invite anyone who’s out of work to start making ready meals for delivery? But proper chef-cooked ready meals made with really good ingredients. All the profits are kept by the staff working – it’s essentially a social enterprise.

I also think there’s a huge mental health risk around what’s happening now. Chefs notoriously work very hard, as do front-of-house staff. They live their life at a million miles per hour and overnight they’ve found themselves in this situation where everything has stopped and they’re sitting at home twiddling their thumbs. I think that’s problematic. Work is pretty central to a lot of people’s mental health and wellbeing so that’s another reason why this is important. Chefs want to be cooking, waiters want to be serving. 

Among our staff, I think the guys are just happy to still be at work. The day after we announced this unpaid leave, along with everyone else in the industry, we realised we had all this stock in our kitchens that we didn’t know what to do with. The senior managers said they’d come in and cook it and take it to hospitals. When our staff heard, they asked if they could come in and help. They worked two days straight for nothing, just cooking kebabs to drop at homeless shelters and hospitals. It was incredible.

I hope the project grows to a size where we can help a lot of people because there’s no reason why not. I’ve spoken to some other restaurateurs who are keen to accommodate the scheme if it gets sufficiently big. The more stuff we do, the more we can take into hospitals.

The response from NHS staff has been touching. They’re so grateful for it. They’re working an insane amount. They’re barely able to see their kids, so even just taking out the process of having to go to a shop can be a game changer. It’s been a lovely thing to be able to do.

The last few weeks have been totally surreal. The weekend before last was so quiet, it sort of felt like the period when everything is winding down for Christmas, but obviously there’s usually a lovely vibe when it’s Christmas. When London is quiet, it’s disorientating and surreal. It’s very strange because hospitality is an industry that moves so fast and is so relentless. 

Before the [government] relief schemes were announced, it was really upsetting. When you’re staring down the barrel of letting a team go or ceasing to be able to pay a team who are like your family…  that’s just horrific. It’s kind of your worst nightmare because you feel like you’ve failed everyone.

A lot of suppliers for the hospitality industry have wound down – it’s a knock-on effect as all the restaurants close – but our suppliers have been pretty awesome. We don’t have the plethora of options that are normally available to us, but we’re not too constrained. We’re just trying to do comfort food. It’s what everyone needs right now.

Read about how to help (and get help) in London during lockdown.

Can’t be arsed to cook? These top London restaurants now deliver.

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