Restaurant operators in England’s two highest tiers can be forgiven for adopting a resting grinch face for the duration of the festive period, and things are no better in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
In England, restaurants in tier 3 can’t open for eat-in at all and tier 2 businesses face onerous restrictions that appear designed to preclude any form of Christmas merriment, not least the requirement that indoor tables can only be made up of people from the same household and that all guests must leave after finishing their ‘substantial meal’.
For the tiny proportion of operators that are lucky enough to fall into tier 1 - those in Cornwall, the Isle of Wight and the Isles of Scilly - it would be pretty much business as usual were it not for the rule of six and last orders at 10pm.
Pubs, bars and restaurants in Wales are banned from selling alcohol and must close at 6pm; the majority of Scotland either can’t trade at all or is subject to onerous restrictions under the country’s five-tier system; and Northern Ireland restaurants and pubs must close by 8pm.
Bah humbug indeed. But Christmas isn’t cancelled, not by a longshot. With an even bleaker January and February on the cards, many operators feel like their only option is to throw everything they can at the festive period and hope some of it sticks.
Taking a punt
Brighton and Hove based restaurateur David Toscano was elbow deep in a huge batch of spiced winter negroni before the Government even announced how England would emerge from November’s lockdown. “We opened bookings in late November on the assumption that we would be allowed to re-open this week. There’s been a lot of demand, we’re going to be busy.”
While his original Cin Cin restaurant in central Brighton remains closed - it’s too small to be viable under social distancing rules - his larger Hove site re-opens today (2 December).
“We lost around half of our covers to social distancing, so we’ve installed a heated marquee in the courtyard. We’re not looking to cram people in. We’re just trying to get our covers back and allow for some operational flexibility. With social distancing and the curfew, it was nearly impossible to manage people arriving late or early.”
Alongside eat-in, Cin Cin will build on its local delivery service. Launched during the first national lockdown, Cin Cin At Home saw food delivered in the local area to be heated up at home. The delivery range has now been extended to allow people across the whole of East and West Sussex to order in a special festive menu in the run up to Christmas that includes the likes of ossobuco arancini with sun dried tomato emulsion; butternut squash tortellini with mushroom broth; and panettone bread and butter pudding.
Home cooking: Ossobuco arancini with sun dried tomato emulsion
Cin Cin will also offer various hampers, including a Christmas negroni created in partnership with Australian Vermouth maker Regal Rogue and another containing a mix of items made in Cin Cin’s own kitchen and products from the restaurant’s local suppliers.
“We’ve got all bases covered. We’re feeling a bit bullish having managed to get through the year following the horrors of March and April,” adds Toscano. “We want to start growing the business again. People’s love for restaurants hasn’t gone away, if anything it’s gotten stronger.”
Like Toscano, Sam Harrison took the view that he had little choice but to cross his fingers and hope that we would be allowed to open, personally manning the phones to take booking for his Hammersmith restaurant Sam’s Riverside. Last year the restaurant closed between 23 and 29 December, but this year things are different.
“We’re going to open the whole way through the Christmas to New Year season," says Harrison. "It comes down to cash-flow, and we need to take cash.”
Harrison believes the Government has put restaurants in a very difficult situation in terms of procurement. “A good example is Christmas pudding. We didn’t know when we would open and what restrictions would be imposed. We couldn’t afford to run out, but we also can’t afford wastage. It was an impossible situation.”
In the end, Harrison was able to hold off ordering some products - including alcohol - but found it trickier to delay purchase orders to suppliers working with more perishable products, including his butcher.
“Everyone in the supply chain is in the same boat. We all want to satisfy our customers, but none of us can afford to have wastage."
But will there be enough Christmas pudding? The dining room at Sam's Riverside
Hart Groups’ James Hart agrees that the procurement side of things has been incredibly tough for both venues and suppliers. “Demand has never been harder to predict. We have to live day by day and adapt fast - the lack of clarity in government since March would make any firm forward planning crazy.”
“The suppliers have been magnificent, so we have total faith in them,” he continues. “That said, if some products aren’t available, we also have faith in our teams to adapt.
"After all the holiday season isn’t about turkey dinners, it’s about the coming together of people and we will do that against all odds as long as we are allowed.”
For restaurants in England, the single households-only indoors rule is a potentially devastating blow for trade in the run-up to Christmas, which is typically dominated by group bookings.
James Walters - owner of the two-strong Arabica restaurant group - says 90% of his Christmas bookings last year were from large tables made up of mixed households. Rebecca Mascarenhas says here three London restaurants - which she co-owns with chef Phil Howard - will also be hit hard by the rule with some 70% of bookings last year being for tables of six or more.
It’s worth noting that the exception for business lunches and dinners does appear to still exist, although it’s something of a grey area with the Government yet to clarify whether or not teams are allowed to meet each other in a hospitality setting for a ‘business’ lunch or dinner.
Westminster Council has confirmed that the legislation 'makes an exception for gatherings of up to six people, indoors, from different households, for work purposes as long as the meeting is considered reasonable'. How anyone - least of all restaurateurs - determines whether a meeting was for genuine work purposes is unclear. A quick look at social media would suggest that a lot of diners and restaurants are planning to make the most of this loophole.
In England’s tier 2, the one exception to the single household rules is dining outside, where tables of up to six people from different households are permitted. While alfresco dining and December are not easy bedfellows, operators are betting that people will be willing to bear the cold to break bread with friends and colleagues and are investing heavily in outside seating setups.
One such operator is upmarket Marylebone steak and shellfish restaurant Beast, which is partnering with Ruinart Champagne to create three heated ‘greenhouses’ on its terrace. Ingeniously, the glass pods can switch instantaneously to an ‘indoor’ to an ‘outdoor’ setting by means of a retractable roof.
In Wales, the restrictions are sadly too onerous for many restaurateurs to even consider opening. The inability to serve alcohol is an especially weighty body blow for hospitality, with disastrous implications for both customer uptake and profitability.
The Angel Hotel in Abergavenny has decided to close its doors completely over the Christmas period, although its sister venue The Walnut Tree Inn, which is overseen by Shaun Hill, will open for lunch Wednesday to Saturday.
“For the past week we have been decking the halls, putting up Christmas trees (our biggest ever outside the front of the hotel), hanging wreaths, feeding our Christmas cakes and mixing huge tubs of mincemeat," says owner William Griffiths.
"Our menus were all planned and cocktail lists written for our most favourite time of the year. However, following the announcement from the Welsh assembly it is not possible for us to operate. It is simply not viable for us to open the business partially and with a limited offer due to the complexity and scale of our operation.”
Left high and dry: like all other Welsh operators Tommy Heaney is barred from selling booze
Cardiff-based chef Tommy Heaney is planning to open for lunch Thursday to Sunday but says he’ll be lucky to break even doing so. “We have some members of staff that have joined us recently that aren’t entitled to furlough. We’ve got to do it to look after them.”
“40% of what we do is alcohol and about 80% of what we do is after 6pm,” he continues. “It’s been a hard one to take. But everyone in Wales is in the same boat and just up the road Bristol is in tier 3, so people can’t open at all.”
In better news for Heaneys - which is located in Cardiff’s Pontcanna area - a lack of the hard stuff doesn’t appear to be putting customers off. Bookings are shaping up nicely and not a single person that was booked in for this coming Sunday cancelled when the reservations team rang to confirm that alcohol would be off the menu.
Things are just as desperate across large swathes of Scotland. Like The Angel Hotel, well-regarded Edinburgh fine dining restaurant Aizle has been forced to close ‘until further notice’ due to the impact on trade caused by Coronavirus restrictions.
Edinburgh currently sits in level 3 of Scotland’s five-tier Coronavirus alert system, meaning the sale of alcohol is banned across all hospitality settings and businesses are subject to a 6pm curfew.
“Please understand this hasn’t been an easy decision; but under the current restrictions of no dinner service and no alcohol sales, it doesn’t make financial sense for us to remain open,” wrote chef patron Stuart Ralston in a statement posted to Instagram.
“We would like to really thank everyone from the bottom of our hearts for the huge amount of support our guests have given us during this whole pandemic - it’s amazing that we haven’t had to shut before this point.”
Since the first lockdown back in March, meal kits have been a lifeline for businesses that have been forced to close as well as those facing reduced covers due to restrictions and lack of demand.
The market has developed rapidly and is now highly competitive, with lots of high-profile chefs and restaurant brands now offering national delivery. The Christmas period, in particular, has the potential to be very lucrative for businesses that are making meal kits work for them.
“Lots of people have been juggling work, home, life challenges for months now and I’m sure there is demographic of people who can afford to splash out," says Walter.
"We’ve got meal kits already, but we’ll be launching some which feel a little more festive for Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve delivery to enjoy over the holidays.
Chris Leach’s Manteca restaurant in Soho is going all in on Christmas delivery, offering Christmas Boxes nationwide for ‘those looking to stock their larders with staples for the festive season’.
There are three different boxes available (prices range from £60 to £150) with items including grape mostarda; goose, cranberry and pistachio sausage; house-made salami and porchetta with apple ketchup, which is provided with brioche buns for mopping up the leftovers the next day.
Cure and simple: Chris Leach's selection of old cuts
Back in Cardiff, Heaney is finalising a special Christmas Day Box. It will include snacks, a starter, main, dessert and a bottle of wine and will cost about £150 for a box for two.
“We’ll probably do beef Wellington,” he says. “Whatever we do for mains will be good to go. It will just be a case of getting it in the oven and slicing it at the table.
"If people want to cheat and say they made it that’s fine by me. I’ll deliver them locally on Christmas Eve. At least it gives me something to do. I can’t sit around, it just does my head in.”
For some, however, the marketplace is already too crowded.
“So many are doing the home dining offering with such style and efficiency. I think those who are doing it well will still be in the market well into the future,” says Whatley Manor general manager Sue Williams.
“It is also the case, though, that there is a degree of the market getting exhausted and slowing down a little. We have explored the options here at Whatley and we are super aware of all the work that it takes to do it and to do it well.”
Her Wiltshire hotel was able to provide food during both lockdowns, however, thanks to its executive chef Niall Keating’s Paradise Carriage. The food served from the graffitied trailer is inspired by Whatley Manor’s more casual Grey’s Brasserie rather than its flagship restaurant The Dining Room, which holds a brace of Michelin stars for its sophisticated, Asian-influenced cuisine.
Though she and co-owner Phil Howard have had considerable success with delivery through both lockdowns, Rebecca Mascarenhas will not be offering Christmas dinner to people at home. “We will be closed over the Christmas period. I think it is important for all the staff to have some time off, free from the stress that lockdown and the preceding restrictions have brought,” she says.
The group’s restaurants - which include Elystan Street in Chelsea and Kitchen W8 in Kensington - will be offering Christmas hampers, but Mascarenhas does not believe they will generate significant revenue.
With boozy office Christmas parties in hospitality venues effectively banned for all but the smallest teams in the vast majority of the UK, many operators are eyeing up the potentially lucrative market for virtual Christmas parties. Feast It - which traditionally works with restaurants to curate physical events for corporate clients - has developed cook-a-long sessions for teams working from home and can also bring a staff Christmas dinner to offices.
Restaurant brands that have signed up include Pizza Pilgrims - which has great success with its make-at-home pizza kits - and The Cheese Truck, which can provide cheese, wines and a master cheesemonger to lead a virtual tasting. E-commerce site Restaurant Kits is also helping businesses looking to virtually host an office Christmas party this year with free live cook-alongs available to those that orders more than 100 kits.
With both his sites in close proximity to huge numbers of offices, Arabica is currently working out a Christmas party offering, and Harts Group has developed a Taco Party kit for both local (hot) delivery and for nearly nationwide (cold) delivery that can be supplied with mezcal and pre-mixed cocktails that would also fit the brief nicely for offices looking to let their hair down.
So Kevin from accounts will still be able to disgrace himself, it just might have to be over Zoom this year.