We are now well into the lockdown caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Speaking as Managing Director of the Asian Restaurant Owners Network (ARON), and as the head chef and owner of the Bombay Express, Torquay, I have a birds-eye view of the collateral damage caused by COVID-19.
The restaurant-only establishments were decimated in the first week of restrictions being enforced; 160+ seat restaurants were taking barely 5 bookings, while operating heavily staffed kitchens. Business turnover was slashed by 85% for most places…with not a whisper of recovery in sight.
These restaurants immediately tried to manoeuvre themselves into a takeout operation to retain a form of turnover. Collections and delivery allowed for some normalcy, and then… BOOM! Social Distancing arrived.
So what is happening to restaurants right now? Well, restaurants with no delivery services or experience in delivering hot food, tried to adjust their business strategy. They either failed and lost money, or cut their losses and closed their doors until further notice.
All of this took place before Chancellor Rishi Sunak moved to allow employers to furlough. This saw the government pay 80% of staff wages for 3 months, provided that the business was either closed, or staff were not required for a short period of time. The company would also be required to retain employees (if possible) when the time comes to reopen.
In the middle of all of this, wholesalers stocked up to the high heavens, in the assumption that:
- Restaurants would become somewhat successful takeaway establishments
- The consumer demand for takeaways would be humongous.
However, both of these assumptions proved to be incorrect.
Many restaurants and takeaways have shut their doors, for a variety of reasons.
What were the wholesalers to do now? Again, flipping their operation away from standard practices, they decided to reach the local community by offering local delivery services to the general public.
This has proved successful with the large numbers of people who are housebound and unable to get out or risk the supermarket trip; instead they have items delivered directly to their houses in a contactless delivery form.
Front of house teams with no customers to serve, in the restaurants that have chosen to stay open, have either been let go or furloughed until further notice. The restaurants which do still operate as takeaways are doing stellar business in this climate. However, previous issues still remain.
Bad HR practice, and cheaper than cheap pricing has resulted in minimal profits and lack of eligibility to furlough existing and previous employees, leaving restaurants no choice but to stay open.
Substandard establishments that have chosen to stay open seem to be excelling during this period, as they take on a monopoly they never thought they would have.
Some well-established takeaway businesses are reporting Saturday nights being sold out after the first hour, including having 65 orders in the first 25 minutes of being open. But with over 18 staff members in the building preparing this volume of orders, can this be considered safe practice? How do you socially distance yourself and your staff, with that many people operating in and around one kitchen?
These are unprecedented times, and what I see coming for the industry in the future is:
- Mass closures
- Restaurants converting to takeaways on a permanent basis
- Short, short, short menus. (Did I mention short?)
- Improved pricing structure
- A new style of operation
- The replacement of people with machines (i.e. automation)
- Reduced face to face services
- More flavoursome and nutritious menus
- International recruitment of specialised skills
- Much, much, much improved HR practices
Thus, I sit at home preparing my ‘battle plans’ for the return to my restaurant operation at Bombay Express Torquay; looking, listening, smelling and feeling the industry’s pain and suffering, while considering my strategy with the above criteria in mind.
Can there be a new mode of operation in the changing landscape of Asian hospitality? As we enter the New World, I believe the answer to that is ‘Yes’.
The ‘New World’ is not filled with perfectly rounded corners and photoshopped lifestyles; it is about to get very real, and those that do not meet the standards as a business will be found out immediately. The value of £10 has never been more scrutinised than it is today, and the microscope will be firmly zoomed-in on the hospitality industry for the foreseeable future.
The key is making the customer want more.
The question is, have you got what it takes?