Post-COVID, the UK restaurant scene is going to look very different
Updated: Jul 7
But the industry was already long overdue a shake-up
A little over a year ago I wrote an article on here that got a lot of people quite upset.
It was titled "Brexit is going completely screw the UK restaurant industry" and the short version of the content was "food prices will go up, staff shortages will increase, customers will be spending less". If you want to read the entire thing you can still find it here.
I got a lot of angry messages after I posted that article, including one that accused me of being an agent working for the BBC as part an anti-British conspiracy. I stand by everything that I said in it. The issues I outlined in it haven't gone away because of COVID. They have been exacerbated by it, and a whole other set of challenges have been added on top.
Already we have seen a raft of high-profile closures resulting from the lock-down in the UK, from Michelin starred institutions to fast-casual high street names. These, unfortunately are likely to be just the tip of the iceberg, as the UK hospitality sector faces the most challenging trading conditions in memory. It is not however, all doom and gloom. Our industry was long overdue a shake-up, and already we have seen a wave of innovations emerging that could breath fresh life into an industry desperately in need of positive change.
Here are the key trends I see emerging that will redefine dining in the UK in a post-covid world.
1. Yes to hand-wash stations and masked servers, no to plastic screens and 'igloos'
Social distancing is here to stay, at least in the short to medium term. Until a vaccine is found, and proven to work (conservatively 1-2 years) we can anticipate some form of social distancing guidelines being in place, and we may also experience rolling "local lockdowns" to deal with hot-spots of infection that flare up. At the time of writing, businesses (including mine) are in the process of carrying out detailed risk assessments concerning how to reopen safely to protect staff and customers, and a range of risk mitigation solutions have been proposed, from creating more space between tables to seating diners in bizarre plastic 'igloos'.
Restaurant dining has always been about more than the food. It's about the experience; the atmosphere, the ambience, the service. Plastic bubbles around tables, or perspex screens between customers will be so damaging to this experience that they are very unlikely to become a feature (they would also require constant additional cleaning). Instead, expect to see the use of low-key measures that are easily integrated into the experience without being intrusive. Hand sanitiser by the door, single use menus, contactless payments, staff in face-masks. These basic, non-intrusive measures, combined with rigorous cleaning protocols, will allow restaurants to continue to trade, albeit it at reduced capacity to allow for social distancing.
2. Diversify to survive
Throughout lockdown I was amazed by the tenacity and ingenuity of restaurant businesses. One of my local restaurants turned themselves into a market for fresh produce, sourced form their own suppliers at a time when supermarket shelves were bare. Others switched quickly from a dine-in to a take away model. Some started producing what has quickly become known as the "make-away"; partly prepped home-cook meal kits with recipe cards to allow customers to cook a restaurant meal at home (more on that in a minute).
Noma started offering take away burgers. Ormer in Mayfair produced takeaway picnic hampers to eat in the nearby parks. Enterprising chefs and business owners found new ways to continue to serve their customers, and it is this creative and entrepreneurial spirit that will come to define the new-look hospitality sector. Expect to see business continuing to innovate and diversify, as those who develop multiple revenue channels and dining experiences will be the ones to thrive.
3. Cooking and dining at home is here to stay
One of the defining trends to emerge from lockdown was that of thousands of households learning how to cook for themselves. Instagram became a constant stream of home-baked sourdough and banana bread. Chefs stuck at home on furlough posted thousands of recipe videos on YouTube. IG live cook-along streams garnered tens of thousands of viewers. Overnight it seemed, we had become a nation of home cooks.
The restaurant "make-away" tapped into this trend, featuring heavily in the review columns of food critics who were unable to attend a restaurant. Fever, AirBnB and other 'experience' based companies capitalised by offering online cooking experiences with big name chefs.
Industry surveys have shown that despite the easing of lockdown restrictions, many people still do not feel confident going out to eat in a restaurant and will avoid doing so in the near future. The threat of catching COVID, or of being forced to self isolate for 14 days after being told to do so by an NHS contract tracer will keep many at home. We are also facing the prospect of a major recession, and when consumer confidence falls so to do restaurant bookings.
These factors, combined with people's newly discovered interest in home cooking and baking create a valuable market opportunity for those business that can adapt to tap into it. Restaurants that succeed may do so by getting a seat at their customer's table, rather than getting their customer a seat at theirs.
4. Technology innovation will accelerate and transform the industry
Restaurants have been slow adapters of technology, particularly at the higher end, where the traditions of fine dining stifle almost any innovation beyond the kitchen. This in turn has left them prey to predatory tech firms such as Open Table, Just Eat and Deliveroo, whose platforms offer convenience to the customer but cripplingly punitive charges to food businesses.
The use of technology will be crucial in our recovery, from solutions as simple as offering the wine list on an iPad that can be wiped clean between customers (as they will now do at Le Gavroche) to the rise of platforms such as Your Fork which connects chefs and restaurants directly to customers for 1-2-1 private cooking lessons conducted live and online.
Innovative use of technology will streamline reopening, ease the implementation of social distancing, and open doors to new dining experiences, new revenue channels and new ways to engage with customers.
Long term - what does the UK restaurant industry look like?
Change is long overdue in our industry. Too many restaurants, particularly in the fast-casual sector, had chased prices and margins down in a race to zero that meant most businesses only survived by paying their staff meagre, minimum wage salaries topped up with 'tronc' (service charge). Conditions for staff are often poor, with long 'double' shifts starting as early as 7am and finishing often past midnight. When staff do get breaks there are few places that have facilities for them to sit or rest. Chefs are disproportionately prone to burnout, mental health problems and addiction, in an industry already blighted by skills shortage. All of this needed to change.
Measures designed to help restaurants in the short term, such as reductions in rent and business rates, will not effect the change needed in the long term. A successful UK restaurant industry in the future looks very different from what we know today:
Fewer restaurants, charging customers more, and paying staff fairly
Eating out at a restaurant used to be a luxury. Now it's a commodity - a daily convenience people take for granted. That will change. Social and economic factors driven by COVID and Brexit will make dining out more of an occasion, and that's a good thing. It means those restaurants that survive will be able to compete on quality rather than cost, charge decent prices for their food, and pay their staff accordingly.
The end of tronc
The furlough scheme in the UK helped keep thousands of businesses open and covered wages for tens of thousands of hospitality workers - but it did not recognise tronc as part of people's salaries. This left the vast majority suddenly subsisting on minimum wage or below and shone a light on how this practice severely disadvantages staff (try getting a mortgage when half of what you earn appears as 'tips' on your paycheque). Already we are seeing restaurants start to announce that they will be ending service charge / tronc schemes, pricing menus upwards and paying staff a proper wage. Expect to see this become the norm.
More diversity in what restaurants offer
Dine-in, dine-out, take aways, make aways, lessons and experiences - successful restaurants will created a multi-channel revenue mix that adapts to suit the needs and wants of their customers
A new, more agile and innovative approach
There's no longer a place for "we've always done it that way". From reimagining the customer experience to embracing new technology platforms and taking business online, the sector has already shown it can adapt to survive - the future will be all about adapt to thrive.