All your venues bar your Manchester restaurant re-opened on 4 July, what's it like to be back up and running?
It feels amazing. To walk back through the doors at The Hand & Flowers and set it all up again almost feels like going back to day one. It’s incredibly exciting but also nerve racking. We’re very fortunate that the phone is ringing and the guests are coming in. It’s not the vast numbers we were getting a couple of years ago but we’ve restructured the business to make it work. And the vibe from the guests has been great. 99% of them are confident about being out and are really happy to be here. 1% of our guests are a little bit nervous - often because it’s the first time they have ventured out - but when they see how comfortable the staff and the other diners are they’re fine. It feels like we’re getting back to normal.
What safety measures do you have in place?
We have hand sanitising stations at the entrance and more hand sanitiser on the tables, we’ve stepped up our cleaning routines and we’re temperature-checking our staff when they arrive at work. We’ve gone with visors over masks because we want our customers to see smiles. We don’t use them for the whole team at Tom Kerridge’s Bar & Grill in London because the space is larger allowing most of the team to keep their distance. The government guidance has been poor so we’ve had to spend a lot of time and money working things out for ourselves. We use a health and safety consultant and I also have friends that work for the NHS so we’ve rolled some of their procedures in too.
Overall, what do you think of the Government’s response to the pandemic in terms of the hospitality industry?
Economically I think they have been helpful. The furlough scheme has been fantastic. It’s secured a lot of jobs in the short term. Longer term, we’ll have to wait and see. But in terms of health and safety guidance and the overall messaging about and to the industry the Government has been poor. And that’s being polite. You could say that this is an unprecedented situation and that nobody really knows what to do, but the fact is that many other counties have dealt with this in a far more meticulous, structured and solid manner.
Tell us about Meals from Marlow...
When the first bit of lockdown happened we went into overdrive, myself in particular. We were making meals to retail at The Butcher’s Tap at our events catering unit in High Wycombe and we saw some social media posts about local hospital staff going hungry because everyone was stockpiling. They were having to feed themselves from hospital vending machines. They were asking for people to drop off things like tins of beans and pasta, but we thought we could do better than that. I created a GoFundMe page and in the first four days we raised £75k. It went on to raise £180k and we put out a total of 80,000 meals. It just snowballed. It’s also been helpful in terms of my team’s mental health and getting them ready to come back to work. We’re going to continue with it. Suppliers were so generous with ingredients we still have some of the donated cash leftover. It’s now a fully-fledged charity that will now feed the vulnerable and needy.
What do you think of the wider restaurant industry’s approach to the crisis?
I can’t think of another sector that’s shown itself to be more positive or forward thinking. It’s been one of the hardest hit but it’s also been one of the most kindest and caring. Hospitality is a way of life - people do the job because they want to look after people. The response has been incredible - from little places doing meals for people that live round the corner to much larger initiatives, such as Hawksmoor’s auction. Even though the future of people’s own businesses are uncertain, they still want to help.
Did you find any upside to lockdown?
Being at home has been amazing. I’ve been working very hard on planning because each one of our seven F&B operations has its own issues and challenges. But I have been home most evenings and off at weekends. It’s been fantastic to spend time with my little man, he’s learnt to ride a bike during the period and I would have missed that if I’d been working normally. There’s a big silver lining in that sense.
How will the pandemic change the restaurant and pub industry in the long term?
I think some of the technology will stick. At The Hand &Flowers we still give people their own menu that they take away at the end. But at The Coach and Kerridge’s Bar & Grill, we’re using QR codes that link to the menu. That’s something that will stay. Much of the extra health and safety stuff will stick too because it makes sense and makes people feel safe. But I don’t think this will change how people behave in restaurants and pubs. Ultimately we’re social animals that crave contact with others. The economic consequences will be what has the long term effect as the furlough scheme starts winding down all sectors are going to start making redundancies. That’s going to have a big knock on effect for hospitality. It’s tough out there and things are going to get even tougher, but we need to stay positive for customers. That’s partly why we have re-opened as soon as was allowed. We won’t fill restaurants and pubs unless the messaging from hospitality is upbeat.