How have you found the Government's actions during the pandemic?
The great thing about Eat Out to Help Out wasn’t the £10 off, it was the Government saying, ‘it’s OK to go to restaurants, we’re encouraging it’. That for me was a really strong message that we needed. But they can’t now just say we’ve done this and that’s the end of our support. They need to stick close to the industry - everybody who has been campaigning has done a really good job of bringing it to the fore and hospitality is now recognised by the government as serious industry and they are addressing it properly. If we had long term VAT cuts that would be fantastic for hospitality and enable us to earn more money from it and be able to pay our people better, because one of the things we all suffer from is the lack of people coming into the industry, and with living wage going up we have to accommodate that. We want to serve amazing ingredients and pay our staff well and the only way to do that is tax us less or we charge more. The industry paying less tax gives us more oxygen to carry on what we want to do. [The Government] should also be thinking about restructuring the CBIL loans. All of us who have the loans in 13 months’ time have to start paying them back over a five-year period, and that will be problematic if business isn’t back to 110%. For rural business we need some support through the winter, but I’m not sure what shape that should take.
How can the industry build on its actions?
The relaxing of licensing laws allowing us to be able to open outdoors really does set a precedent. Now it’s up to the industry to be responsible and operate those places well. Image next summer if you assume we can get through this without a second spike and we’ve got a vaccine - and suddenly the industry has got outdoor spaces that have worked in a Covid environment and could work in a post Covid one. The opportunity for us as an industry is big.
What changes to your business have you made as a result?
Operationally we have streamlined the amount of alcohol we sell. In the past we had 16 wines and eight beers now we have three beers and six wines and people quite like that lack of choice. We took the time once we got over the initial shock [of lockdown] to review our business from the bottom up, looking at what we liked, what we didn’t and what we could do better both for staff and guests. Our mantra was everything we change has to work in a post-Covid world, so we don’t confuse customers by doing something and changing it later - it had to be a good fundamental restaurant idea not a knee jerk reaction. Everything we’ve done we will keep for the future. I believe we have created an easier to operate model, retained the magic of Rockfish and got a much more efficient cost base. It’s better for staff and still as much fun. If we’d tried to change any of this in a pre-Covid world it would have been like standing in front of a moving train, we would have never been able to do it.
Which changes have helped staff?
One of the big things [about lockdown] was everybody at the time was benefiting from doing more of the things they loved in life. When we looked at our labour model and how hard our staff were working, we realised we were asking people to do something that was completely unsustainable, they were pushing themselves to the limits. So, we’ve redesigned the whole labour model so that we get the best of them at work but they still have more time to do other things they like doing. The Seahorse will come out the other side stronger with an all-day opening offer and a simpler menu and with fewer opening days in the winter months. I don’t want people coming home at 2am exhausted anymore. Mondays and Tuesdays don’t do that well so why don’t we close. What will happen is the locals will come on a Wednesday instead. We are kidding ourselves, why do we have to give so much choice? All this can be simplified to make it easier for people all round.
You’re in seasonal locations. Are you concerned about the winter months?
In that period, we budget to lose money which is fine if you’ve had a really great summer. We do 90% of our EBITDA in seven months, so the danger is going into a low period without that seven months of sustained profit. However, I don’t think we’re going to see any less trade in winter than we normally do.
Are you looking to grow the business at the moment or hold tight?
We realise the traditional model of growing a restaurant group is to open more restaurants but the more restaurants you open the more risk you put on the business and the more dilution of the experience. Instead we’ve decided to broaden the business rather than open more sites for expansion. We’ve got eight Rockfish restaurants, so we thought ‘wouldn’t it be great if customers could arrive at the restaurant having already booked a box of seafood to be sent to them to be able to make home?’. We are launching a group-wide collection service and a nationwide delivery service. But I’ve still got eyes on a few sites. I’ve always had it in our minds that we would move east, but we are going to take a fairly cautious approach and re-establish our restaurants where we are and then look at opportunities to expand.
What are your thoughts on the sector for the longer term?
I am optimistic about the future. It’s been a tough time it is by no means the end. There will be sites available and it’s about matching your funding capabilities to that. I don’t see businesses expanding by five sites a month as they might have used to going forward. We have suffered different problems to our London restaurant friends and our rents are minor, but landlords linking a base rent to turnover would feel like a fair deal rather than a flat cost paid by the business week in week out. Most people have found a way to keep going for now, the big test will be how they are coming into winter.
This interview was conducted with in July for Restaurant's R200 webinar, sponsored by Chapman Ventilation, Estrella Damm, Reputation.com; Shelley Sandzer, Shield Safety, Yoello, and Zonal.