2021: Review of the year in hospitality

By BigHospitality

- Last updated on GMT

Review of the year in hospitality: the biggest restaurant stories of 2021

Related tags: Coronavirus, Albert roux, Michelin, Fish, Sally Abe, Oakman Group, Popeyes, Chet Sharma, Daniel Humm

A look back at another tough year for hospitality, which begun with businesses facing deep uncertainty in the face of Coronavirus restrictions, and ends the same way.

January

2022 didn't start well for hospitality as the whole sector once more found itself locked down. The industry had been decimated by the events of 2020, with some 660,000 jobs lost across the sector over the course of the year. Calls for more direct support and recognition from Government rang out, with a petition calling for the creation of a Minister for Hospitality receiving more than 200,000 signatures. During a subsequent Westminster Hall debate, a cross-party group of MPs voiced their support for the creation of the post, but the Government never pursued it further. 

Hugely influential chef restaurateur Albert Roux died at the age of 85; less than a year after his brother, Michel Roux Sr, also passed away. Albert and his brother were credited with starting London’s culinary revolution with the opening of Le Gavroche in 1967, which is now found on Mayfair’s Upper Brook. His son, Michel Roux Jr, said his father’s sheer love of life and passion for making people happy through food would be greatly missed.

The latest edition of the Michelin Guide Great Britain & Ireland was revealed during a virtual event, with London restaurants Core by Clare Smyth and Hélène Darroze at The Connaught both awarded three stars. A total of 22 restaurants received new star ratings, with three new two-star restaurants announced and 17 new one-star restaurants also recognised. Chef Andrew Wong’s flagship restaurant A Wong in Victoria became the first Chinese restaurant in the UK to achieve a two-star rating, with fellow London restaurants Da Terra in Bethnal Green and Restaurant Story in Southwark also receiving two stars. 

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February

Following the EU’s confirmation of an indefinite ban on the sale of live mussels, scallops, oysters, clams and cockles to member states, the future of the UK’s shellfish industry looked very uncertain, with delays at customs on both sides of the channel also making the export of live crab, lobsters and langoustines to the continent virtually unviable. In response, chefs including Stevie Parle, Tom Cenci and Sam Carter called on their peers to show support for British shellfish by featuring it on their takeaway menus.

With the Covid-19 vaccine programme progressing, Prime Minister Boris Johnson set out his roadmap out of lockdown for England, with hospitality venues in England having to wait until at least the middle of May to reopen for indoor service. Outdoor hospitality settings including pub beer gardens would be able to reopen earlier than indoor ones, on 12 April; while night-time economy businesses, such as nightclubs, would have to wait until at least 21 June to unlock. Johnson said his roadmap was designed to guide the country ‘cautiously but irreversibly’ out of lockdown…

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March

With the Government’s roadmap out of lockdown set out, Chancellor Rishi Sunak made his Budget announcement in March, during which he confirmed that both the business rates holiday and VAT cut for hospitality businesses would be extended into the next financial year. Elsewhere, alcohol duty was frozen for a further year; one-off ‘restart grants were announced to help businesses unlock; and support for the self-employed was broadened in a Budget that welcomed by the hospitality sector despite it not being as generous as many businesses would have hoped.

Peter Borg-Neal’s Oakman Group acquired six former Seafood Pub Company sites, with its founder Joycelyn Neve joining Oakman to oversee a new Seafood Pub division. The deal, which secured Oakman a foothold in the North of England, restored some 150 jobs that were lost when The Seafood Pub Company fell into administration in June 2020. 

US fried chicken chain Popeyes confirms it is to launch its first UK restaurant this year as part of an expansion drive to open up to 350 sites across the country in the next 10 years. The group, which was founded in New Orleans in 1972 and runs 3,400 restaurants globally, said it sees the UK as its ‘next big opportunity’ for growth. In the same month, US burger chain Wendy’s said it was ‘on track’ to begin opening restaurants in the UK, with five sites expected to launch before the end of the year and an aim to eventually reach 400 sites nationwide. 

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April

More than four million people booked to visit hospitality venues in England within the first two weeks of the sector reopening for outdoor service on 12 April, with nearly a third of people saying that being unable to visit hospitality venues had affected their mental health, according to research from hospitality jobs board Caterer.com. The reopening date, when it did arrive, was seen as a huge success and a significant step forward for the industry after more than a year of crippling uncertainty, with like-for-like drink sales up by more than 110% on the first day of trading compared to the same day in 2019.

Italian food hall chain Eataly finally made its UK debut with the opening of its flagship London venue on Broadgate in the City. With indoor dining initially restricted, Eataly first launched its market and retail area; takeaway eateries; and outdoor dining concept called La Terrazza di Eataly. The food hall would go on to have its ‘grand opening’ the following month, which saw the launch of two of its three indoor restaurants – Cucina del Mercato and Pasta e Pizza – as well as the in-store bars and seating areas.

It was confirmed that Sally Abé had left her role as head chef of Michelin-starred gastropub The Harwood Arms in London’s Fulham. Abé, who was named Chef to Watch at the 2019 Estrella Damm National Restaurant Awards, departed The Harwood Arms to take on a new role overseeing the food and drink offer at four new venues located in the Conrad London St. James hotel. They included The Pem, named in honour of suffragette Emily Wilding Davison, which features an all-female senior team that also includes Laetizia Keating as head chef and Emma Underwood as general manager. 

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May

After five long months, May finally brought with it the reopening of indoor hospitality settings across England, Scotland and Wales. Sales at Britain’s restaurants, pubs and bars were up by a quarter on pre-Covid levels as consumers returned for the first day of indoor service on 17 May, according to data from CGA. Food sales jumped 29.6% as consumers took advantage of the opportunity to eat inside again for the first time this year, while drinks sales were up by 21.2%.

Former The Ledbury and Moor Hall development chef Chet Sharma announced plans to open his debut restaurant in London’s Mayfair later in the year. Backed by JKS Restaurants, Bibi draws inspiration from Sharma’s own grandmother with a menu influenced by India’s street carts and roadside cafés. Speaking to BigHospitality at the time, Sharma said wanted Bibi to have a much more relaxed and contemporary atmosphere than other top-end Indian restaurants.

Waitrose announced that it would not publish another Good Food Guide, which it had been a custodian of since 2013. The announcement led to an outpouring of grief within the restaurant community, with The Observer food critic Jay Rayner describing it as ‘very sad news’. In October, it would be announced that the future of The Good Food Guide had been secured with its purchase by UK hospitality industry membership network CODE Hospitality.

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June

Amid calls for the Government to stick its lockdown reopening roadmap and remove all social distancing restrictions on 21 June, UKHospitality warned that the sector faced a staffing crisis. Analysis by the trade body suggested a vacancy rate across the sector of 9%; implying a shortage of 188,000 workers. The shortage of front-of-house staff and chefs was found to be particularly acute, with 80% of those surveyed reporting vacancies for front-of-house roles, such as waiting and bar staff, and 85% were in need of chefs. The Government later announced that that so-called ‘Freedom Day’ on 21 June would be delayed until 19 July.

BrewDog found itself in very hot water after a group calling itself ‘Punks without Purpose’ claimed that a ‘significant number’ of former staff had ‘suffered mental illness’ as a result of working for the bar and brewer company. More than 100 former BrewDog staff signed the letter, including at least 45 ‘who did not feel safe to include either their names or initials’. Responding to the letter, BrewDog co-founder James Watt said he would not seek to contradict or contest the claims, but ‘listen, learn and act’. The group subsequently enlisted the services of a third party to carry out an independent review of its culture and HR practices.

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July 

The industry’s ‘Freedom Day’ finally arrives as most of the remaining Covid-19 restrictions in England are scrapped including social distancing, compulsory mask wearing and the ban on bar ordering. While this is rightly celebrated as a landmark moment for hospitality, excitement is tempered by the emergence of the ‘pingdemic’ which forces many businesses to close. In a Tweet directed at newly-appointed health secretary Sajid Javid, Inception Group co-founder Charlie Gilkes warns that the predicted rise in cases caused by the easing of most social contact measures could leave businesses ‘fully locked down again’.

Two senior members of staff at Tom Kitchin’s restaurant group are suspended amid accusations of former employees experiencing physical abuse and harassment. The Edinburgh-centric group appoints an independent, external HR consultancy to ‘investigate any complaints’ made by staff. In more positive news, chef James Knappett and sommelier Sandia Chang reopen their two Michelin-star Fitzrovia restaurant Kitchen Table following a major expansion and refurbishment project. 

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August

Things feel like they might be starting to get back to some sort of normal. Case numbers are fairly low and out of town restaurants are benefiting enormously from the staycation boom. Moor Hall is named the Best Restaurant in the UK for second year running at the Estrella Damm National Restaurant Awards. Run by Mark Birchall, the Lancashire restaurant is known for its highly-creative cooking with many ingredients grown in its five acres of gardens. Other key winners included Silo (The Sustainability Award); Andrew Wong (Chef of the Year); Tommy Banks (Restaurateur of The Year); and Tom Booton (Chef to Watch). A special mention must also go to Tom Kerridge, who was given an Outstanding Contribution award for raising hundreds of thousands to help feed NHS staff and people in need via his Meals from Marlow Charity.

The Ivy orders a cultural review over an ‘ignorant’ ad. The quickly-deleted video was described by Observer critic Jay Rayner as ‘premeditated racist stereotyping’. In a statement The Ivy Asia, which is owned by Richard Caring’s Caprice Holdings restaurant group, said it had a 'complete ignorance of understanding' and promised to educate itself to ensure it '100% doesn’t happen again'.

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September 

Things start to feel as close to business as usual for hospitality than any point before the pandemic. The one fly in the ointment is the staffing crisis, which is now really making its presence known with some restaurants having to slash their opening hours and trim back their menus. More than 65 hospitality leaders including Jeremy King, Yotam Ottolenghi and Skye Gyngell sign an open letter to the Government demanding immigration requirements for hospitality workers be urgently loosened.

After five years and one aborted attempt, Hawksmoor finally opens the doors of its New York steakhouse. Talking of long-awaited milestones, René Redzepi’s famed Copenhagen restaurant Noma is awarded three Michelin stars in the 2021 guide to the Nordic countries. The restaurant, which topped the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list four times from 2010-14, was promoted from two stars to three in a move by Michelin that many thought was long overdue.

McDonald’s launches its first plant-based burger in select UK restaurants with a view to rolling it out across its entire estate in 2022. The 'fully vegan' McPlant burger was developed in partnership with plant-based food producer Beyond Meat and features a bespoke patty with ketchup, mustard, vegan special sauce, onions, pickles, lettuce, tomato, and vegan cheese on a vegan sesame-seed bun.

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October

The Government’s Coronavirus job retention scheme comes to an end. It supported nine million workers at its peak and has helped pay the wages of 11.6 million workers overall at the cost of around £70bn and - while not perfect - was a lifeline for both businesses and staff. The staffing crisis continues to dominate the headlines. A Business Confidence Survey from CGA and Fourth reveals that one in six hospitality jobs lie vacant. Fewer than one in five (18%) leaders feels confident about their recruitment and retention over the next 12 months.

Noma is named the best in the world at The World’s 50 Best Restaurants Awards 2021. Sticking with top Scandinavian chefs, it is announced that three-star Swedish chef Björn Frantzén will make his UK debut next year with a restaurant in Harrods. Elizabeth Haigh’s debut cookbook Makan is pulled from shelves amid allegations that she plagiarised recipes and personal stories from another Singaporean chef. Thomas Swaby is crowned the National Chef Of The Year while Daniel Cornish wins Young National Chef of the Year.  

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November

Daniel Humm and Claridge’s agree to part ways at the end of the year following a disagreement over the former’s desire to create a fully plant-based menu at his Davies and Brook restaurant, which he opened within the  Mayfair hotel in late 2019. The future of the restaurant remains uncertain.

Mark Sargeant  walks away from his Rocksalt Group citing “unresolvable differences of opinion” between him and business partner Josh De Haan. The group’s portfolio comprises four sites in Folkestone including Sargeant’s former flagship Rocksalt and four countryside pubs.

There’s drama in the north of England, too, as Andrew Pern’s the Star at Harome is ‘reduced to ashes’ after its thatched roof caught alight. Posting a video of firefighters tackling the blaze on social media, Pern wrote: "It's been a long night so far…..I'm afraid we won't be open for a while as we are reduced to ashes with The Star on fire and still burning." A few days later, the police announce they are treating it as arson. 

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December

The Omicron variant plunges the hospitality industry back into crisis. Consumer confidence plummets as Government messaging becomes increasingly muddled. Initially, Omicron jitters mainly affect corporate bookings but by mid month things take a turn for the worse as Plan B measures are introduced, which include a return of mandatory mask wearing in some settings and vaccine passports for large venues and events.

Boris Johnson is accused of ‘throwing hospitality under the bus to save his skin’ with many believing that the new rules are designed to distract from the PM’s various other crises, not least allegations around a culture of floating lockdown rules in Downing Street. Faced with a collapse in bookings and staffing levels due to team members needing to self isolate, many restaurants simply throw in the towel and shut up shop early for Christmas. As the big day draws closer, it becomes increasingly clear that 2021 will not end with a bang but with a whimper for hospitality. 

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