Describe the feeling of reopening your restaurants
After a very very tough three months it was very draining - I felt almost depressed. But what made all the difference on reopening was the way the customers behaved. I’ve never seen such a reaching out of thanks and gratitude. Overall it has been uplifting and invigorating and the staff have been brilliant in embracing it all.
You operate large venues. Is this a help or a hindrance given the current situation?
Psychologically the bigger higher ceiling restaurants will attract people more. It was a difficult choice as to which restaurants we did open first. The Delaunay in many ways is our most socially distanced restaurant but there will probably only be around 25% office occupancy in September and with no visitors, we felt we couldn’t open. There was a bit of a toss up between opening Fischer's [in Marylebone] or Soutine [in St John's wood] first, and in the end we went with Fischer's. But I regretted not opening Soutine (which is now open). The neighbourhoods are a little bit easier but The Wolseley has traded well.
Have you passed the recent VAT reduction onto customers?
Absolutely we have, but not by cutting prices but rather by not putting prices up. We are keeping our prices the same as they were a year ago. I’d rather trade out with volume of numbers rather than putting up prices.
You were in the process of opening a new restaurant, Manzi’s in Soho, when lockdown struck. How’s it progressing?
At the time it closed we were seven weeks away from completion on the building and 10 weeks from opening. It will take a little longer to mobilise now. We’re hoping to get it open in October. It’s a new departure for us, it’s going to be a really exciting restaurant and I’m deeply frustrated that I can’t give an opening date for it yet.
London is struggling to attract people back in. How do you rate the government’s actions in this regard?
There has been so much mixed messaging about using public transport. The messaging needs to be clearer and there needs to be coordination between the government and the mayor of London. If anybody was thinking ‘OK restaurants are going to reopen, what is the biggest impediment we can make?’ then they’ve done it by telling people to not use public transport and if they do want to drive in to London it will cost an extra £15 because the congestion charge runs to 10pm, which is one of the most misguided things I have ever encountered. Meanwhile, they have spent masses of money narrowing all the roads to make extra footpaths. I have watched these paths out The Wolseley and for the first two to three weeks I never saw more than one or two people on them but meanwhile the traffic was backed up down Piccadilly. Notwithstanding that, the Government has done a terrific job in certain areas.
You started a voucher scheme to top up the wages of furloughed staff and also moved into delivery during lockdown. How did that go?
The voucher scheme made them feel valued and the industry doesn’t feel valued enough. I deeply resent being called an unskilled worker by the Government. Hospitality is the third biggest employer as a sector and we are treated badly, so for the staff it meant a lot. Delivery was successful because it reached out - what we missed through the pandemic was the human touch. We have started to move into helping people with dinner parties with our home entertaining.
Describe the experience you’ve had with your landlords during this pandemic
I can’t generalise and things have been considerably different landlord to landlord. Some behaved in an exemplary way. I wrote to them all the day after lockdown and we went on to monthly rents. As it went on and it was becoming clear that things would not be coming back very quickly I wrote again and said ‘I don’t think I’m in a position to pay rent until we know what’s happening - let’s just wait and keep talking’. Cadogan and The Crown Estate were really quick to rise to the challenge but I’ve got one whose attitude was ‘I’m having every single penny of the rent and if you don’t pay I’ll evict you and take you court’. That carried on, even when the Government extended the forfeiture moratorium, they just appointed an even more powerful lawyer to find a loophole. Another was clearly over-leveraged in the way it had built up its portfolio and I have sympathy for them. They shouldn’t have to take all the pain but neither should they take all the gain.
Will the pandemic change the tenant/landlord relationship?
Hopefully what we’ll have going forward is a situation where landlords and tenants move to turnover based rents. I’ve always like them. If you don’t have them one side is often unhappy - whether it’s the tenant because they feel they are paying too much rent and not doing enough business or the landlord because the tenant’s doing fantastic business - it should be shared. With my good landlords the agreed basic stance was three months' rent free and then a percentage turnover of rent until the end of the year and then going back to normal. I think that’s eminently fair and far sighted. It’s going to have a massive effect on the relationship between landlord and tenants. I’ve lost a number of sites in the past because people have just given outrageous offers and the landlords have turned a blind eye to suitability and are more interested in covenant but there needs to be greater collaboration now.
What are your thoughts on the future of the sector?
I remain very positive. Sadly a lot of restaurants are going to go to the wall that didn’t deserve to but were caught out by circumstances and a lot of the investors of restaurants have been pulling things backs and leaving people high and dry. But I do feel that this was coming for a long time irrespective of the pandemic. I’ve been wrong for the past two years when I thought when January and February came around there would be quite a shake up, there’s just not enough people to service it. My excitement is there are going to be an awful lot of empty spaces, whether retail or ex restaurant, and I’m hoping they will give all the amazing new chefs and restaurateurs the chance to do something. It will provide a platform for the next generation because most previously got squeezed out by the financial needs. This will facilitate them.
This interview was conducted with Jeremy King in July for Restaurant's R200 webinar, sponsored by Chapman Ventilation, Estrella Damm, Reputation.com; Shelley Sandzer, Shield Safety, Yoello, and Zonal.