Pizza Pilgrims co-founder James Elliot concedes that getting his 10-strong restaurant group Covid-secure hasn’t been that much fun. But the hope is that the changes will ensure the safety of customers and staff without sucking the life out of the restaurant experience.
“Our biggest fear is creating a clinical, hospital-like environment,” says Elliot, who runs the casual dining business with brother Thom. “To avoid this, we’ve named the whole project We’ve Ricotta Get Through This. We’re actually in talks with Daniel Bedingfield‘s people to re-record the song. It’s not a no yet. At the end of the day people come here to have fun and eat pizza. It’s important we don’t lose sight of that.”
The slogan will be emblazoned on face masks worn by ‘Super Hosts’ who will ensure both staff and customers sanitise their hands as they enter the restaurants and seat customers to avoid them coming into close contact with each other as they sit down.
Other new procedures include a beeper that alerts staff of the need to wash their hands every 10 minutes; contactless ordering via mobile; anti-viral cleaning by specialist contractors every night; and the arrangement of teams into family units that always work the same shifts.
“The motto is clean, safe, legal,” continues Elliot. “Restaurants are already very good at cleaning. All the sites have a five-star food hygiene rating. It’s one of the most important elements of being a restaurateur. We’ve stepped up a few things and changed the type of sanitiser we use but I wouldn’t say we’re doing anything that differently.”
Pizza Pilgrims opened its West India Quays site in Docklands, London last Saturday (4 July) and its two sites in Soho will follow on 9 July. Guests are encouraged to pre-book tables, with a maximum of six people, and booking times will be staggered to reduce congestion. Walk-ins will still be allowed, but names will be taken for every party.
“It’s really important that we communicate the steps we’re taking and the steps that our customers should be taking to keep everyone safe,” says James. “What’s becoming clear is that people are going to have very different cautiousness levels. With that in mind t makes sense to plan for the most cautious person.”
Rare Restaurants - which incorporates national Argentine steak group Gaucho as well as the London-based M Restaurants - opened a large proportion of its estate on 4 July. Like Pizza Pilgrims, it has worked hard to ensure its diners are as safe as possible.
CEO Martin William was encouraged by a guest survey that showed that 75% of guests will return to restaurants straight away so long as strategies have been put in place and they feel safe. “Our pillar for the next few months will be how safe we are. We’ve gone above and beyond government guidelines. Some of our measures are industry-leading,” he says.
Measures include a fogging process prior to re-opening that disinfects everything from the air conditioning to surfaces; staff temperature checks; kitchen staff and food runners wearing masks; signs on the floor to avoid congestion at pinch points; non-contact reservations; and disposable or digital menus throughout.
Williams has also redesigned his restaurants so that customers don’t need to touch anything that may have been touched by someone else. At M Restaurants - which has three London sites in The City, Victoria and Twickenham – many of the doors are automatic and the toilets are fully automatic Japanese ones which are essentially contactless. At Gaucho, foot openers and elbow openers have been installed.
“We’ve looked at every element of the restaurant experience and made it as non-contact as possible,” he says. “We want to give guests a sense of total cleanliness. They will constantly see our team sanitising everything.”
Gaucho and M Restaurants are also putting a lot of effort into communicating the changes to customers. Both websites have a prominent link to a detailed document that sets out every aspect of the restaurant’s post COVID-19 policy, from how coat checking now works to how the tables are set and re-laid.
Like Pizza Pilgrims, both Gaucho and M are keen to create a sense of fun too. “That’s been the forgotten element of the narrative over the last few months,” says Williams. “Now we’re allowed to re-open, we’re going to make it clear we’re here to offer a brilliant hospitality experience. Many have missed restaurants greatly. They’re desperate to get out and have fun.”
Unlike the vast majority of restaurants, Gaucho and M Restaurants venues are sticking with a 2m gap between tables (Rare Restaurants’ sites are on the large side so it’s not too onerous).
Oakman Inns hit the headlines last month when its outspoken boss Peter Borg-Neal revealed his plans for what his pubs would look like post lockdown.
Oakman Inns chef director Ross Pike has worked tirelessly over the last few months getting his 24 kitchens ready for re-opening. “We’ve been doing risk assessment. We need to make sure everyone feels safe, and that includes our staff. If they don’t feel comfortable is just isn’t going to work,” he says.
All of Oakman Inns pubs - which are mainly located in the home counties - have open kitchens so Pike has to be especially careful to ensure everything looks - and of course actually is - spotless. The team’s already thorough cleaning regimes have been intensified - for example the pass will be wiped down after each ticket and every 30 minutes all the chefs will stop what they’re doing and fully wipe down their areas.
Face visors will be worn by all back of house staff. “Face visors are good for communication, which will be especially important as we re-open as our team are going to have a lot of changes to get their heads around.”
One of the biggest of these is the menu, which has been reduced by 30% to fit onto a single sheet of A3 that can be disposed of after every use. Having fewer options has implications for how the kitchens are staffed and laid out. Pike’s aim is to reduce the need for his team to crossover with each other, so in most cases each dish is cooked on a single section whereas before it would have involved multiple sections.
“We’ve had a lot of press so we already have a lot of bookings for the next few weeks,” says Pike. “We’re going to be busy from day one but we’ve got the right procedures in place to manage it all safely.”