Constant cleaning, visors, and 60 per cent capacity - the new normal for St Albans’ restaurants
PUBLISHED: 06:00 16 July 2020
For restaurants, pubs and cafés, the first week of trading after lockdown has proved challenging, yet welcome. Sophie Banks, of St Albans-based Loudbird PR, talks to traders about their recent experiences.
Customer confidence is key to the city’s restaurants in the post-lockdown world.
“A lot of it comes down to how much customers trusted a brand before COVID,” says Andrei Lussmann, owner of his eponymous award-winning restaurant group of six, five of which are in Hertfordshire. He has, so far, only re-opened the St Albans and Harpenden restaurants.
His many loyal customers have been eager to book, which he believes is down to this trust, which has been built over 23 years. As such, he’s been as busy as he could have been, given the social distancing regulations, and the vast majority appreciated his cautionary measures (his waiting staff are wearing visors, and are serving to trays which they place on the end of tables, so they don’t go too near customers).
“But we still want to have a restaurant atmosphere,” he said, “there is a fine line between being safe and looking like a laboratory.”
Due to Government restrictions, he can only ever operate 50-60 per cent of his normal covers: “This is not an economically viable business model going forward for any restaurant.”.
He believes the demand is there from customers, “if they feel safe; if you demonstrate that you’ve really thought about it,” and that restaurants are among the safest public places: “We are the experts on cleanliness, and people are already distanced to some extent, on different tables.”
But he says that while it’s easy to close a restaurant, it’s a lot of effort and expense to re-open one. “Restaurants are basically making a loss by re-opening – if they are following all the guidelines carefully, as we are – and that cannot continue for long.”
Sameer Berry, who runs Indian restaurant Infuse on Waddington Road, has other frustrations: “We were fully booked the first Saturday we re-opened,” he said, “and five bookings were no-shows. I had been turning down bookings, and then these people didn’t come. It’s very frustrating, and surprising when you are up against the wall – and especially in St Albans where we had been experiencing a lot of love from customers.”
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Sameer says the messages about confidence from the public are mixed, and business is very hard to predict on a daily basis, which can lead to the waste of food. “We’ve been very up and down, some days quite busy, some days not at all.”
Olga from the popular Italian restaurant on Holywell Hill, Per Tutti, can relate to the no-shows. “We had seven tables booked for the first Saturday night and they didn’t show up. Nothing is worse than empty tables and being overstaffed,” especially when, in the current climate, there are no ‘walk-ins’ to fill this gap.
Per Tutti has been booked out since though, and full (at their new, reduced capacity) every day from the first week, but Olga says the extra staff time required just to stay on top of the constant sanitising and cleaning is an extra cost for them.
Customers are grateful for the efforts restaurants are putting into safety. The Craft and Cleaver’s Adam Richardson said: “We’ve had lots of positive feedback from customers on how they feel safe,” and it has been busy at the weekends, “but with our reduced capacity we need customers to spread their visits out throughout the week so it’s not so disproportionate.”
A key part of the George Street restaurant Loft’s business has taken a hit, according to owner Anurag Yadav. “Sunday family lunches are completely down,” he said, “most of our bookings are for tables for two.” Although he is pleased and grateful to be open again with a “COVID-safe environment”, he has seen their overall revenue hit by up to 50 per cent.
Peter and Rita Keenan, from The Street Café on Catherine Street, are also having to operate at 60 per cent capacity to comply with social distancing, and the impact on revenue is significant.
“Our team are naturally worried,” Peter said. “We have reduced opening times and cut our headcount by 20 per cent, so we can reduce costs.”
However, he say they are lucky to have an outside space, and their customers have been relieved to see them re-open and have “relished the opportunity to have a meal cooked for them after a long lockdown”. However, getting the ordering right for an unpredictable customer base is very difficult and many of their suppliers are still closed, so they’ve had to source others.
In just two weeks, it’s clear to see that much has changed since they were last open for these small business owners who are in many ways the beating heart of St Albans. The effort to re-open has been monumental, and most of them are exhausted, although supremely grateful for the support of their customers and the local community. But they are extremely worried about what the future holds.
Peter Keenan speaks for them all when he says: “Fingers crossed we don’t get a second wave.”
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