‘The re-emergence of our hospitality sector is vital culturally as well as economically’
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Why it’s vital that the hospitality industry recovers from shut-downs.
By Andy Newman
As we enter the second month of lockdown, and with several more weeks of staying at home ahead of us, it might be premature to be thinking what the world will look like when restrictions are eased and some semblance of normality returns to our lives.
But it’s human nature to look forward, and just recently a huge raft of commentators have started publishing articles telling us that the world will never again be the same, and trying to predict how this awful crisis will have changed us all for ever.
None of us has the first idea what the exit strategy or timescale will be either for lockdown (presumably when the ‘infection curve’ is on a constant downward trajectory) or the pandemic itself (realistically only when there is a viable vaccine, which could be years). So making accurate predictions about how we will behave once we are all finally free is a mug’s game.
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However, I think we can be sure that we won’t simply be returning to how life was before. The crisis, and the genuine fear which has accompanied it, will have changed us all psychologically.
Yes, there will be plenty of people whose first reaction to the end of the crisis will be to go out and party hard. But for many, many more, who have taken the lockdown seriously and for whom it has all been very frightening, the safety of being at home may well have become ingrained. And that is going to have a huge impact on how we eat, and in particular our hospitality industry.
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For a start, even when people are allowed back to work, grabbing breakfast at a coffee shop or lunch from a sandwich bar will not return to being the norm. We have become used to preparing our own food, and there are two good reasons why we will carry on doing so: first, we know that it is safe, and secondly, we have come to realise how much cheaper it is to do so. And in the very much poorer world we will inhabit after this crisis, saving money will become a permanent need.
This makes me worry a great deal about the future of restaurants. Half a century ago, many people never ate outside the home, but eating out has now become democratised, so a collapse in the restaurant sector will affect us all.
Of course, there are economic implications: the hospitality industry provides many thousands of jobs, as well as supporting hundreds of local food and drink suppliers. But for me, the danger is not so much economic as cultural.
For me, a thriving restaurant scene is a pretty good indicator of the social prosperity of any community. The Michelin-starred chef Dan Barber has described restaurants as places of ‘connection and community and excitement’.
Restaurants - and pubs, cafes and coffee shops - have become a vital part of our society, and they are in real danger of largely disappearing as a result not just of the economic tsunami which will be the result of the coronavirus crisis, but also of the lingering fear of going out which will remain whatever easing there may be of the lockdown restrictions.
There is no easy solution to this, but there are clues as to how restaurants might adapt to this new world in order to survive.
Already, many restaurants have been promoting their largely wholesale suppliers to the public, in some cases acting as a conduit to enable these businesses to remain trading. There is no reason why, once they are allowed to reopen, that they shouldn’t continue doing this. It’s a good way of educating consumers about where their food comes from, and its true cost.
To counter the initial reluctance to eat out, many will need to continue providing takeaway and collection services alongside the more traditional food service. This might be finished dishes, or it could be components of meals which consumers can incorporate into their home cooking. Something like 35 per cent of all meals were taken outside the home prior to the crisis; it will be a very long time indeed before that level is reached again.
It is probably true that there were too many restaurants, and that some of them would have fallen by the wayside anyway. But it’s vital for our society, our culture and our sense of normality that the hospitality industry recovers from the body-blow it has taken. The industry will need to adapt to our new world to achieve that – but we must be prepared to support it as consumers if we want it to survive.