‘Dancing might not be allowed’ - from carveries to Christmas parties, how eating out will change
- Credit: Nick Butcher
Though the food and drink sector is reopening its doors to the public, it’s certainly not back to business as usual. Here’s a handful of ways it might change going forward.
• Takeaways are here to stay
With people stuck at home, most cafés and restaurants ran takeaway and delivery services throughout lockdown.
Though it may have only amounted to a fraction of usual trade, many regarded it as a success and are now sticking to the model alongside their traditional dine-in options.
Japanese restaurant Shiki, in Norwich, for example, has opted to remain closed for the immediate future and will instead focus on takeaways.
Pizza restaurateur Paul Williams, of Oakfired at Royal Oak in Beccles, said: “We’ve decided to keep takeaways going.
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“The first five weeks we totally respected the shutdown for our own safety and that of our friends and family. But we took advice after that and were allowed to do takeaway.
“We had really good sales - prior to lockdown in March we could tell it was coming so we did a promotion for takeaways. It has been very successful and we have grown our customer base.”
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He said they had now turned a door off the main pub into a separate takeaway area, with a collection booth put in place.
Takeaways, of course, do bring their own issues. We asked 20 restaurants if they’d had any issues with delivery, and one person said there was often a “long wait” for drivers, while another said their dish had been delivered “upside down”.
Another said one of their most popular dishes was crispy, but that delivery meant it ended up arriving soggy.
• The buffet is still standing - but not quite as we know it
Table service restaurants have had to introduce a host of new social distancing measures, but for more hands-on eateries, the changes have arguably been more significant.
Both the Riverbank all-you-can-eat Chinese restaurant and Cosmo, a buffet restaurant serving cuisines from all over the world, which are both in Norwich, remain closed.
With diners expected to serve themselves around the restaurant, from grabbing a plate to using shared ladles, there are hurdles to reopening. Cosmo has said it is remaining closed while changes are made to its operation.
The majority, though, have reopened, with a few slight tweaks to the concept - Premier Inn’s all-you-can-eat breakfast, particularly popular among families, will become table service, for example.
Kelly Taylor, marketing manager of Anglia Restaurants, which runs Castle Carvery, said they had been working “extremely hard” to open their restaurants, which are in Norwich, Bowthorpe, Caister and Oulton Broad.
She said: “Typically you would go up and help yourself to everything, but we can’t do that at the moment so we have now got glass screens in front of the carvery.
“You still go up but you are two metres away from the carvery. You tell the chefs exactly what you want on your plate and they will serve it all up for you. Nothing else has changed.”
She said feedback from diners had so far been positive, with hand sanitising stations on arrival, tables sanitised between visits, a one-way system, screens at tills and disposable venues.
• Dinner but no dancing at Christmas parties?
Festive celebrations usually involve a meal, drinks and dancing with colleagues or loved ones, but social distancing may alter proceedings.
Venues elsewhere around the country have reported cancellations of Christmas bookings, as companies err on the side of caution.
For businesses in coastal or tourist areas, the rich pickings of the festive season can help them weather the quieter months that follow.
Aileen Mobbs, who owns and runs the Imperial Hotel in Great Yarmouth with husband Nicholas, said they would usually have a New Year’s gala with 150 people, but that a question mark hung over the plans.
“We are assuming that we will be allowed to do the dinner, as long as the tables are socially distanced, but of course you can’t measure out the dance floor so we don’t think [dancing] will be allowed,” she said.
She said even organising entertainment proved problematic as it stood, with indoor performances not allowed.
“Things aren’t going to be the same,” she said. “People want to go out and celebrate, but a lot of people are frightened.”
Elsewhere, Richard Hughes, chef director at Norwich’s The Assembly House, said weekly turnover normally doubled in the four weeks leading up to Christmas. He said the business was owned by a charity - The Assembly House Trust - and had been left for the people of Norwich for parties and gatherings, but restrictions meant that was not possible.
And while space is in good supply, he said a lack of events would have serious implications for the business.
“To be clear: this is not an ‘Assembly House problem’ it is a problem for hospitality as a whole,” he said. “Just as the loss of a summer is devastating, the loss of Christmas is equally so.”
In a coincidental stroke of good fortune, he had already planned to have a dining igloo in the venue’s front garden from November, which will allow parties of up to 12 to gather in their own outdoor space. Plans for a second igloo are being looked into.
And after going on sale in June, all dining spaces in the igloo sold out within two days.
“Christmas bookings are healthy, as ever, but we just hope that the pandemic situation will be such as that gatherings are safe and permitted by winter,” he said.
The business has availability for 700 covers, but can only currently cater for around 80. So far, they have invested £10,000 on measures to safely reopen the business.
But he said they had been “absolutely delighted” that so many customers had visited since they reopened, and that numbers had far exceeded our projections.
• Guest lists might be capped
Until social distancing measures relax, large groups are unlikely to be able to dine together.
Currently, guidelines say two households are allowed to meet indoors and up to six people can be outside together.
Sam Brown, who runs Norwich-based Gingerlily Catering, said most of their weddings had been postponed until next year, with deposits for new weddings over the next few years having kept them afloat during lockdown.
But he said the loss of the corporate side of the business had been as challenging, with few businesses organising larger-scale conferences or events in the current climate.
He said he felt it was unlikely they would return in 2021, particularly with the ease of virtual meetings over conferencing platforms.
And private dining bookings, such as at holiday homes or celebrations, he said, had also changed, with people now starting to make bookings for eight to 10 people in private hire homes. The larger bookings they see, of around 20 to 25 people, have not yet returned.
• Al Fresco eating will boom
On the whole, restaurants and pubs with outdoor space have more easily been able to open and maintain social distancing.
It has seen councils around the country shake-up their road networks to squeeze in more space to allow businesses to reopen.
In Norwich’s St Benedicts Street, plans have seen a large part of the road pedestrianised to provide more outdoor space.
But some have been left out - Richard Bainbridge at Benedicts has not been allowed outdoor space due to a crossing outside the restaurant. And Russell Evans, of the Ten Bells on the street, said he would be handing back the keys to the pub after also missing out.
She said business had gone well since reopening, but that making the most of her limited outdoor space - she currently has two tables outside - was key.
“I have been open for a week and it’s been great,” she said. “I didn’t expect it to be that great. I have got lovely customers and I have been here for 12 years.
“I do hope in sunshine people will be sitting out more, the first day we opened was sunny and people liked that. We really need the outdoors space more and more now.”
Some restaurants have been innovative with their outdoor areas - The Barn Restaurant at Terrington St John has introduced dining pods, while the White Horse Inn at Brancaster has created a marsh-side marquee.
• Chains may struggle
Often with larger overheads and less freedom to innovate branch to branch, some experts believe chain restaurants may struggle more than those in the independent sector.
Big names including Bella Italia, Pizza Express and Byron are among those which have announced they are facing difficulties in recent weeks.
Professor Joshua Bamfield, at the Norwich-based Centre For Retail Research, said: “Independent restaurants, with all things being equal, are perhaps slicker and it is easier for them to change.”
He said it appeared most of the larger chains were continuing on with their current approach until the post-Covid storm was weathered, but said, if any decided to dramatically change their operations, they may have advantages which would enable them to do so more quickly.
Sarah Daniels, chairman of Proudly Norfolk, a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to promoting Norfolk food and drink, said many of its members were finding complying with guidelines tough.
But she said those in the organisation were learning from each other and added: “Another huge benefit is that the members have loyal customers, they know their customers, and customers know the business, therefore there is an understanding of customer behaviour and communication is much easier, and more than one member I have spoken to has had customers helping in the ‘policing’ of the on-site rules.”
She said it was key that customers stayed loyal to local businesses.
• Markets and festivals go virtual
With caution still surrounding large food events, organisers are having to think differently in their approach.
And Surlingham-based Yare Valley Oils has now held a virtual farmers market, the first in a string of similar events.
Lily Walker, from the business, which produces cold-pressed oils, oil infusions, dressings, sauces and cosmetics, said: “We are not doing any markets this year, there are a few farmers markets that are still running, but all the Christmas shows have been cancelled.
“For a lot of people in the industry it’s really a main source of income.”
There will be guest producers at the festivals, as well as deals usually only offered at physical markets.
To join in, visit yarevalley.com/enter-the-yare-valley-virtual-farmers-market/
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