Elizabeth Haigh, who runs Borough Market-based counter restaurant Mei Mei, says she has had to refund nearly £1,000 in deposits this week as a result of customers cancelling their dinner reservations.
Haigh tells BigHospitality a number of those who decided to cancel their bookings specifically cited the curfew as their reason for doing so.
“It’s quite frustrating,” she says. “A lot of customers say they’ve been put off coming because of the curfew.
“It has created a real sense of uncertainty around the safety of hospitality venues, which is really disheartening.
“We’ve heard [Health Secretary] Matt Hancock blaming the spike in Coronavirus cases on people going out to restaurants and bars, but that’s completely misadvised; we’re probably one of the safest places people can go to right now.”
The new restrictions, which were announced by Prime Minister Boris Johnson earlier this week and have been described as ‘another crushing blow’ for the sector, mean all pubs and restaurants in England must have a 10pm closing time, with licensed venues also legally obligated to operate with table service only.
Similar measures have also been adopted in Scotland and Wales, with Northern Ireland expected to announce its own restrictions early next week.
It has been said the curfew could be in place for six months.
Hospitality not to blame for surge
The suggestion made by the Health Secretary that pubs and restaurants are one of the key places of transmission of the virus has been strongly rejected by hospitality leaders, who pointed to Public Health England data showing that out of 729 new incidents reported in week 37, just 34 were linked to food outlet or restaurant settings.
This compared to 313 incidents in care homes; 193 from educational settings; and 110 from workplaces.
UKHosptality chief executive Kate Nicholls said earlier this week that she found it hard to understand how the curfew could be a solution to fighting the disease.
"Where such restrictions have been put in place locally they have not cut infection rates, merely damaged business and cost jobs," she said.
Haigh isn’t the only restaurateur to have spoken out about the impact the nationwide curfew has already had on her business.
Hospitality Union’s Jonathan Downey says the curfew has destroyed any chance of his iconic Soho bar Milk & Honey, which initially announced it would be closing back in July, surviving.
“We’ve got two more nights of drastically reduced trading at Milk & Honey this Friday and Saturday (25/26 September), and then after 18 years in Soho, we’re closing for good,” he says.
“After the extension of the lease forfeiture moratorium [which bans commercial evictions by landlords until the end of December], we’d planned to trade until Christmas, but the curfew has killed us off.”
Downey adds that his popular street food and bar venue Dinerama in Shoreditch, which he runs as part of his Street Feast venture, also experienced a downturn in trade last night as the curfew came into force.
“Over the last seven weeks, sales have been down 58% because of Covid-19,” he explains.
“Last week they were down 22% on the week before because of the rule of six [which bans social groups of more than six people]. Last night sales were down 26% on the previous Thursday because of the curfew.
“The real hit will come tonight and tomorrow.”
Others have said similar. Jackson Boxer, chef-patron at Orasay in Notting Hill and Brunswick House in Vauxhall, has described last night’s numbers as ‘deeply alarming’.
“Spend per head was down 30%; covers diminished by about the same,” he tweeted.
“Huge questions about the scientific rationale aside, financially this new regime is going to be a catastrophe, especially given how much money we’ve lost over the last eight months.
“I am absolutely shaken by this.”
Impact beyond the capital
It’s not just in the capital where restaurateurs are already feeling the impact of the curfew. Stosie Madi, chef patron at The Parkers Arms gastropub in Lancashire, said on Twitter earlier this week that her bookings had noticeably dipped.
“Although reservations are coming in, we seem to be getting three cancellations for every five bookings,” she said.
A mutual area of frustration is the lack of forthcoming financial support from the Government to help businesses across the hospitality sector weather the winter months.
Speaking to the House of Commons yesterday (24 September), Chancellor Rishi Sunak outlined a number of new measures the Government was taking to help businesses continuing to struggle during the pandemic, including a six-month Job Support Scheme (JSS) and an extension to the cut in VAT until the end of March.
However, business leaders have said the measures ‘don’t go far enough’ for the hospitality sector.
Haigh agrees, saying that while the VAT cut extension was a silver lining, the new package doesn’t offer much by the way of benefit, particularly to smaller businesses like hers.
“No one’s winning in any of this, and it’s impossible for the Government to satisfy everyone,” she says.
“But it does feel like there should be a lot more support coming our way, even if it’s just another round of grants to help us protect our bottom line in the lead-up to Christmas.
“We already saw a drop in sales yesterday; this weekend is a real eye-opener for how trade is going to be over the next six months.”
While Haigh says she would like to remain positive about the coming months she and many of her peers are eyeing the future with caution.
“I like to be optimistic, but the last year has taught me not to keep my hopes high,” she says.
“Like with everything, we’ll just have to wait and see what happens.”