As a restaurant owner, I’m not sure how much more of this I can take

Christmas is a key time for the hospitality industry to fatten up – to make it through the leaner months

Lee Tiernan
Monday 20 December 2021 14:38
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<p>‘Operating a restaurant with a dining room as small as ours is impossible with the government restrictions in place’ </p>

‘Operating a restaurant with a dining room as small as ours is impossible with the government restrictions in place’

“This pandemic has made me realise that previously many times I claimed to be at the end of my tether. I was in fact somewhere around the middle of my tether.”

I caught sight of this quote on social media, and it tickled me as I scrolled through a series of depressing posts about premature restaurant closures and empty dining rooms of establishments still hanging on in there.

I enjoy a bit of dark humour, and judging by the amount of times I saw this reposted, it clearly resonated with many others. It’s one of those posts that gets shared on multiple feeds because it’s simple and witty, but also stark in the way it sums up the general mood in the UK today, which is: we were strained before – but how much more of this can we take?

My wife Kate and I own and run FKABAM (Formally Known As Black Axe Mangal), a tiny restaurant in Islington. Operating a restaurant with a dining room as small as ours is impossible with the government restrictions in place.

After one of our busiest ever months, we shut our restaurant in March 2020 – the week before the first enforced lockdown – and stayed closed to the public for 18 months.

I have mixed emotions about that first lockdown. It was an extremely tough time, financially and emotionally, and I don’t think I’ll be alone when I admit I leaned into the bottle pretty heavily during the first few weeks.

I only started to appreciate the opportunity to just stop and “be” when the haze of my month-long bender lifted, and the “new normal” (a phrase that still makes me cringe) was firmly in place.

I got to know my kids better than I ever would have over that period – I cherish that. We made banana bread and sourdough like the rest of the middle-classes; we got an exercise bike, dropped some weight and bought a puppy (just to cement the stereotype). There was a lot to be grateful for.

What’s more, the furlough scheme really saved our bacon – we simply could not have sustained our business without government assistance.

And so, eventually we reemerged from hibernation in September, to the warmest of welcomes from the public and our loyal customers. We went from strength to strength – until we had to close again for two weeks, because I caught Covid and was really quite unwell.

We reopened again, eventually, and the carousel continued: we were busier than ever and looking forward to the future now the vaccine had turned things around.

Yet, last Tuesday, the decision to close our restaurant a week earlier than planned was made for us when more than half our staff members – all of whom were already double vaccinated – also contracted Covid and had to isolate.

Closing at least saved us the pain of watching our bookings dwindle away to nothing as more and more people came down with the virus, or who didn’t want to take the gamble and risk missing the opportunity to see their families this Christmas.

I love the hospitality industry, but it’s a tough old game – and there are plenty of easier ways to carve out a living than the restaurant trade. Most of us are in the business for the pleasure of it. The pleasure to feed, host and serve.

Restaurants are important because they’re both a luxury, and integral to our society. Humans are social: we like to have fun, indulge, eat great food, get drunk. I want to facilitate that. I love being a part of that, every day. It’s a buzz. This is not a buzz.

I feel exasperated and frustrated with our government’s double standards and tone (or, lack of it) regarding our type of business. For the hospitality industry, language such as “work from home” and “don’t socialise unnecessarily” – coupled with the spike in Covid cases – has thrown restaurants and pubs into turmoil.

Chuck Brexit into the mix, and you have the makings for a for a very bleak Christmas indeed. Rent and fixed overheads don’t just go away. The knock-on effect goes beyond the pub and restaurant trade – it affects the suppliers who deliver our goods daily, and the farms, fisheries and agricultural industries that grow, catch and cultivate the fantastic produce we have in the UK.

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None of us are receiving help from the government as of yet – we are left waiting to hear what that help might look like, even though the end of the year is a key time for the restaurant industry to fatten up, so it can make it through the leaner months when everyone is feeling the pinch.

When the government called for lockdown, last December, it was a hammer blow – but at least the furlough scheme was still in place, offering a thin veil of job and business security.

Public health is paramount, of course, but the government seems to be concentrating all of their efforts on making excuses for their own alleged parties at No 10, rather than communicating and reassuring the rest of us about about our livelihoods, and the welfare of our employees.

This really is the end of the tether.

Lee Tiernan is a chef, owner of FKABAM and author of Black Axe Mangal

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