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Photograph: Benoît Grogan-Avignon
Photograph: Benoît Grogan-Avignon

‘We’ve lost about £30k in bookings and income’: how the new wave of Covid is affecting London’s restaurants (and how you can help)

Hospitality businesses fear restrictions tightening as the Omicron variant spreads

Angela Hui
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Angela Hui
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Since Boris Johnson announced England’s move to Plan B restrictions, bookings have plummeted, Christmas parties have been postponed until next year and some restaurants are closing early for Christmas due to fears and uncertainty around the rising cases of Omicron. Everything feels very déjà vu and very March 2020.

The new Covid-19 strain is turning London into a ghost town and many restaurants are being hit by a wave of cancellations and no-shows as concerns continue to rise each day. While hospitality venues are currently allowed to continue to operate as normal – without the reinstatement of social distancing rules, table service or mask mandating – many are taking it upon themselves to protect the health of staff and customers. Bash Redford, owner of Peckham rooftop wine bar Forza Wine, who made the tough decision to close the restaurant until further notice on December 15, told Time Out that he’s had to cancel 1,000 bookings from now until the end of the year. 

‘What we’ve just done is probably suicide, and abject terror probably sums up how everyone’s feeling right now. Financially, it’s definitely a massive setback, but we’ll be okay. Ultimately, it really comes down to keeping suppliers happy and paying our rent,’ he says. ‘People have said we’re overreacting and jumping the gun, but we don’t want to be responsible for spreading Covid. We care about our team rather than short-term gain and we want to put people before profit.’ 

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Regardless of the official rules, Omicron is hurting hospitality. For those who don’t have the option of shutting up shop, it’s make or break. Many were relying on this busy period to try to recuperate losses from the past two turbulent years and hoping to use the festive surge in business to keep afloat during the quiet January and February. 

‘We’ve lost £30k in bookings and income,’ Meg Doherty, founder of social enterprise restaurant Fat Macy’s, sighs. ‘We just opened two new restaurants. One earlier this year in Pimlico and another venue in Shoreditch last week. We were hoping to stay open until Christmas Eve, but we’re really struggling and will probably have to close by the end of the week because it’s just not worth it.’

Plans have been chopping and changing left, right and centre, and with that comes a lot of disbelief and shock. ‘Traditionally, this is the busiest week of the year. Last week, we were hosting parties of 30 people; we barely made £300 the other night, which doesn’t even cover bills or staff being there. People don’t realise the impact of cancelling on the day or the day before, or how every government announcement puts a massive strain on small businesses. Our margins are very slim. It’s payday soon and it’s terrifying to think we’re in that position, probably for the first time ever, where we’re not sure if we’re going to have the cash to actually pay everyone.’

The rapid spread of the variant has also led to mass staff shortages as a result of everyone coming down with Covid. Founder and chief executive of St John, Trevor Gulliver, has also faced mass cancellations and reveals that income is down 40 percent at the Smithfield site and has had to temporarily close due to not having enough staff, but the Spitalfields Bread and Wine venue still remains open.

We’re down on business across the board. We were supposed to have a big wedding booking and people flying in from Denmark to visit us, but everyone’s sick. At the end of the day, the number of services, the number of staff down and the number of covers will impact back up the food chain to the farmers themselves,’ he explains. ‘At the moment, we have to see what we can do for our staff and customers ‘til Christmas and roll with the punches while we’re in this strange world trying to operate as safely as we can.’ 

Throughout the pandemic, which is now close to two years old, restaurateurs and chefs have been consistently calling on the government for better clarity and guidance. There have been rumours swirling around of further restrictions, but many have also questioned where the financial support for the industry is during this difficult time and whether the government furlough scheme can be reintroduced in order to save jobs. 

‘We’re back to square one and we’ve made very little progress. I’m exhausted, we’re all exhausted,’ says Doherty. ‘We completely understand given the nature of everything and we’re trying to do our best, but it’s very frustrating when we’re the last to know what’s happening. There are always going to be variants and spikes, but the government doesn’t really have a handle on it and it feels like they’ve not learned any of the lessons.’ 

Want to help London’s restaurants and bars in their time of need? 

Buy merch from your favourite London bars, cafés, bakeries and restaurants.

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