Restaurants aren’t a special case. Businesses across the world are suffering as governments implement lockdowns designed to save lives. And that means vehicle manufacturers, construction companies and people who make fancy tuiles from flour, egg whites and sugar are all in the same boat.
Except they’re not. Because while some businesses can look forward to a relatively-soon return to work, those in hospitality and entertainment cannot. The simple truth is that we don’t know when restaurants, pubs, theatres, festivals and sports clubs can begin to operate again.
Nor do we know what circumstances they’ll operate under when they return – though the available information points towards the end of 2020 as being a best-case scenario.
Certainly, we ought not to expect to be sitting at our favourite restaurant this spring or summer. It’s time for those still in shock or deluded by the possibility of an early return to the old normal to wake up and smell the coffee. This is the new normal. Things are going to be like this for some time to come.
The World Health Organisation has provided interim advice regarding restaurants; namely that where possible the maximum number of people for a 10 square metre space will be four. People should be at least one metre apart, both to the person sitting across the table and to the person to the side and behind them. Restaurant owners can look forward to putting existing tables and chairs into storage as they dramatically reduce the number of covers and reconfigure their business models.
Those won’t be the only changes. Cleaning schedules will become more rigorous and it’s likely that front of house staff will have to spell out social distancing rules when customers arrive. Tables are unlikely to be decorated with flowers, vases or other ornaments – they will be vectors of transmission rather than pretty things to look at. Customers will no longer be able to handle wine lists and menus either, while hand sanitiser may become as common as bottles of tap water.
Such issues are the tip of the iceberg and smart restaurateurs will already be looking at how they operate. They’ll also be factoring into account a question even more important that those operational matters: will people still want to eat out?
Huge numbers of people have rediscovered the joys of eating at home as lockdown has turned us all into cooks. We have time that we might never before have imagined – and many are spending that on providing for families and sitting down for evening meals. It’s like we’ve turned the clocks back by two generations as we make the most of home comforts in an era where physical distancing saves lives.
The future for restaurants is not entirely bleak, however. And the best of Britain’s 25,000 or so will survive. They already are. While small independents seem to be frequently exposed to the greatest risks, in the Covid-19 age they are the ones that have the best chances.
Such restaurants as Number Four, in Shrewsbury, is showing how it should be done. The home page of its website number-four.com has been updated to say ‘Formally known as restaurant and bar – Now home delivery service #StayHomeStaySafe’. It is socially responsible and it is joyously free of the delusion of others, who imagine things will be fine if they just sit tight. Passengers on the Titanic thought that too.
Number Four is an exemplar in the current crisis. It has bundled up new menus featuring ready meals, groceries and soft drinks and wine and beer. So customers can order the sort of food they might previously have enjoyed had they eaten at the restaurant, getting it delivered free to their door.
And while they’re enjoying that service, they can order a pack of salted butter, Tetley’s tea bags, Weetabix, strawberry jam and tins of Heinz Baked Beans. There are Jaffa Cakes and Mars bars, sliced white loaves and pieces of fruit, eggs and milk.
The list of wine and beer has been slimmed down to provide a small number of classics. Five whites, five reds, two rosés and a decent range of real ales, lagers and ciders provide the opportunity to dine in style.
The ready meals are delicious. At just £6 per serving, with sides an extra £2.50 and desserts just £3.50, they offer value-for-money that’s better than your local supermarket. Customers are also provided with instructions, so they can heat and eat as soon as their delivery arrives.
The system is organised efficiently, with people pre-ordering and paying via email and then awaiting delivery at a timed slot. While others let the grass grow under their feet, Number Four is living proof of Darwin’s evolve to survive credo.
We started with Mexican bean and smoked paprika empanadas, with spiced yoghurt. The stuffed pastries were reasonable, though the peas had become a little grey and the filling a little mushy. Home delivery isn’t easy and expectations have to be adjusted accordingly.
The mains were terrific. A chicken kiev was stuffed with garlic butter and served with a side of garlic mayo. The outer coating had been dusted in Panko breadcrumbs and it was luxuriously filling. A side of new potatoes with herb butter made for happy eating.
A dish of meatballs in tomato sauce with pasta was decent. The pork and beef meatballs were delicious. Beautifully seasoned and with great texture, they hit the spot. The pasta underwhelmed. We all have store cupboard bags of starch that we can readily boil – but again, it’s tough to provide gourmet eating when logistics change.
Desserts were a treat. A meringue with cream and berries was sweet and mallowey while a fabulous sticky toffee pudding with a rich, indulgent butterscotch sauce was magnificent.
Number Four is providing classics at a price that competes with the supermarkets, adding in a grocery delivery service to boot.
Rather than moaning, whining or reflecting on hard luck, it’s been inventive, imaginative, resolute and efficient. It’s showing the sort of tenacity and spirit that will help it to survive.
Others might learn from it – and we might all support it by placing an order and keeping the delivery man rushed off his feet.
ADDRESS Number Four, 4 Butcher Row, Shrewsbury SY1 1UW Tel: 01743 366691 Place your order at firstname.lastname@example.org