When presented with a problem like the 10pm curfew, it just takes a little innovation, such as changing opening times or offering takeaway of the final course of a tasting menu, to find a way around it. Andy Lynes discovers which operators are beating the clock.
Last month, just when it seemed that hospitality might have begun to see a faint light at the end of the pandemic tunnel, the government derailed the industry's journey to recovery with the introduction of a 10pm curfew.
The news on 24 September was met with understandable frustration and The Caterer has launched a Can the Curfew campaign after 65% of proprietors warned that their businesses would not survive six months with trade limited by a blanket 10pm closing time. Even the mayor of London Sadiq Khan has added his voice to those calling for a review.
While debate over the effectiveness and fairness of the measures rages, hospitality has proven once again how resilient, adaptable and resourceful an industry it is by responding almost immediately with a variety of practical initiatives in order to keep businesses viable in some of the most adverse trading conditions in living memory.
At Californian-themed fine dining restaurant Sola in Soho, chef-patron Victor Garvey moved quickly to reconfigure his offering to fit with the curfew. "About 70% of people opt for the tasting menu, which is 12 courses and takes three hours to get through. We really had to rack our brains about how we were going to give people value for money without discounting. So we said we're going to bring in all the wagyu, all the lobster, all the caviar, all the foie gras, and basically make it as decadent as humanly possible, as well as condensing it into seven courses plus canapés. There's just as much mise en place in the kitchen, but there's less faff front of house, there's fewer cutlery changes and fewer wines to pair, so people can go through it a bit quicker."
Garvey says the menu change still allows him to maintain an average spend per head of £230 and, as the restaurant does not turn tables, he won't lose covers. It has, however, been necessary to ask customers to arrive between 7pm and 8pm so that he can deliver the menu before curfew.
Ben and Pamela McKellar, who run the Gingerman group in Sussex, have extended their trading hours, opening for dinner at hour earlier at their pubs the Ginger Dog and the Ginger Pig, as well as their fine dining restaurant the Ginger Man (since lockdown, small plates restaurant and bar the Flint House and country pub the Ginger Fox have been opened all day).
For the city centre-based businesses, the couple say the curfew has meant managing the customer experience more. "If you have a customer taking quite a long time to eat their main course, we have to go up the table and say, ‘if you want a pudding we need to put the order in the kitchen now, so you won't feel rushed eating it'," says Pamela.
The Sun Inn Dedham, a food-led pub with seven bedrooms on the Essex-Suffolk border, is looking to technology to help solve the curfew problem. "We're moving our booking system to Tock sometime next week," says Piers Baker, who also owns the Church Street Tavern in Colchester.
"This means we are likely to sell time slots on Fridays and Saturdays to allow for two sittings. That will mean a 5.30pm-6.30pm slot for 1.5 to two hours, depending on two-, four- or six-person party size, and then a second slot of 7.30pm -8.30pm. We think we can do the turn and also give someone two courses if they take an 8.30pm slot to be out by 10pm. We will have our set menu up to 7pm to encourage early doors."
Small is speedy
The size of a restaurant can also affect how an operator responds to the curfew. Since lockdown and the introduction of social distancing, Roberta Hall-McCarron only has four tables at her neighbourhood bistro the Little Chartroom in Edinburgh, which means the restaurant had to do three sittings a night and be fully booked to be viable. Since curfew, that crucial third sitting hasn't been possible.
"As we were already opening for dinner service at 5pm, opening earlier wasn't an option for us. Instead, we have decided to open for an extra service on Saturday lunchtime to make up for some of the lost covers," says Hall-McCarron.
"We are also increasing the number of finish at home meal packs we sell on a Friday and Saturday night. It was really important to me that we didn't increase the number of days that the team were working, and hopefully these changes will help keep the business ticking over while also keeping the team safe and happy."
Dining to go
Some sites are beating the curfew by offering guests who want to eat and drink later the opportunity to finish off their night at home. Michelin-starred Alchemilla in Nottingham is replacing its five- or seven-course tasting menu options with a single six-course menu available at 5pm or 7.30pm sittings, and offering a cheese and port course to take home, along with 65g sachets of coffee and house-made brownies in place of petits-fours.
Wedgwood in Edinburgh also amended its evening offering of à la carte and tasting menus, adding a ‘Tiny Tour of Scotland' menu prior to being closed completely last week as part of new measures to tackle coronavirus in Scotland. "After the announcement of the 10pm curfew, we knew we still wanted to offer our tasting menu to our later diners, so we created a four-course menu that can be eaten within an hour. If guests want to slow it down, dessert can be taken home to eat, and we are offering a cheese course to enjoy at home too."
Prairie Fire BBQ in White City is offering beer growlers to guests to fill up from one of the 16 beer taps to take home after last orders, and Hunter's Moon in Fulham is offering takeaway pints at last orders. "It means our customers won't feel rushed and reluctant to buy another drink for fear they won't finish it," says owner and director Hubert Beatson-Hird.
Rooms for manoeuvre
Hotels are also having to innovate to cope with the new restrictions. Blakes hotel in Kensington reopened after six months on 1 October and has implemented a number of changes to compensate for the curfew.
"To make the most of our space, we have requested a temporary increase in the number of guests who can dine in our Mews Courtyard, meaning we will be able to accommodate 25 people from 8am to 8pm (weather permitting). Alternatively, we have our courtyard Birdcage, the perfect size for a ‘bubble'," explains general manager Stefano Squecco.
The hotel will take advantage of the 10pm closing time to complete daily cleaning and sanitisation routines. "Dinner service will commence at the earlier time of 6pm, with adaptations to increase table turnover and support our new safe operating environment.
"The events market is obviously one of the areas that is still extremely limited. In light of this, we have introduced simplified and flexible group dining packages that we are happy to tailor to guest requirements while respecting the rule of six."
Calcot hotel and spa has also brought forward its dinner service to 6pm, serving the full menu. This allows it to serve the same number of guests by spreading the bookings out to avoid busy pinch points. "What we are seeing more of is families dining together earlier in the evening, rather than the children dining at children's tea, being put to bed and then the parents dining," says general manager Paul Sadler.
"We also offer a Moonlight spa package, which includes dinner in the Gumstool restaurant. We have adapted the timings by starting earlier and booking the spa treatments earlier to allow the guests to be in the restaurant by 8.30pm. We have also increased the room service and mini bar offering so guests can enjoy food or drinks in their rooms after 10pm."
While it's certain that no one has welcomed the curfew or would want to see it go on any longer that it has to, some have been able to spot a silver lining of sorts. Gary Usher, owner of the northern-based Elite Bistros group, tweeted: "Not going to lie I absolutely love the thought of the teams getting out earlier", while Ben McKellar is guardedly optimistic that it might even deliver a benefit. "If we can maintain the turnover it might be better for the business long term.
"The problem is people who stay till midnight, as in the last hour and a half you're not really making much money because they've had their fill and they're just hanging around. So, it might be that perversely we save a bit of money in wages, but we just don't know."
The truth is, no one knows what the pandemic will bring. What is certain, however, is that the constant firefighting required of hospitality by changes to rules, regulations and laws introduced at short notice is not sustainable.
Restaurants, pubs, and hotels have proved they can turn on a sixpence in order to protect revenue, jobs and their businesses, but they can't and shouldn't be expected to do so ad infinitum. With 65% of operators warning their businesses will not survive six months under the curfew, it may end up being one of the costliest governmental missives ever delivered. One can only hope hospitality doesn't end up footing the bill.
Managing the curfew
Tips from Brett Smith, customer success director at workforce management platform Planday
Re-introduce takeaway and delivery
Given the lack of uncertainty that remains around eating out and the shorter opening hours due to curfew restrictions, it makes complete sense for businesses to diversify away from eating in once again.
When putting your takeaway or delivery menus together, it's important to consider profitability and look at the data you have to ensure you're keeping the bestsellers on the menu. Make sure it is streamlined and simple to understand, and that you price items to make enough margin after delivery charges.
Protect your staff
Your staff are your business's greatest asset. This is a very scary and difficult time for them, as much as it is for you. Stay in touch with them, be transparent and share insights on your performance. As you make decisions about how to adapt to the 10pm curfew, include them in the journey too.
Schedule around staff availability
As the situation with Covid-19 continues to change rapidly, businesses need to be as quick and agile as possible, understanding that staff demand and availability can change in an instant.
Following the 10pm curfew, a lot of last-minute changes to staff rotas will need to be made, but there's no reason you can't still co-ordinate a shift pattern that works for everyone. Use a system that enables employees to swap shifts, request open shifts, and offer their shifts to other employees with the right skill set. This way, you can ensure you are still working around their availability, while adhering to government guidelines.
Carters of Moseley in Birmingham will be launching a luxurious five-course tasting menu called ‘5 B 4 Ten'. The menu is £120pp and features only British ingredients and is available for Thursday Sunday lunch.
Three-AA-rosette Benedicts in Norwich is offering a new three-course ‘Curfew' menu between 8.15pm and 8.45pm, with the normal five-course menu available earlier in the evening.
Lussmanns Sustainable Dining in Hertfordshire is offering a ‘Late Night Treat'. Customers booking for 8.45pm and 9pm will be able to order two courses from the menu for £19.95, including a complimentary apéritif.
Gastrono-me in Bury St Edmunds has introduced a bottomless dinner, Mondays – Wednesdays from 5pm-8pm for £35, which includes a main, a side and bottomless fizz for 90 minutes.
Pied à Terre in London will now be serving its tasting menu throughout the day (12pm-8:30pm, Wednesday-Saturday), as well as offering a reduced tasting menu and an à la carte selection for 8.30pm diners.
The new One Dish Wonders menu at the Italian restaurant at Novikov Restaurant and Lounge offers the likes of veal osso buco with Milanese risotto to diners arriving at 9pm.
Daffodil Mulligan on Old Street, London, will be launching a ‘Beat the Curfew' set menu from 5pm-6.30pm for £20pp, for three courses and a cocktail
Allegra at the Stratford will be opening for dinner from 5pm (Wednesday-Saturday) and will be offering drinks and snacks at the bar from 4pm,
Frenchie in Covent Garden is trialing a reduced menu between 3pm and 5pm of nibbles, pastas, sides and a cheese selection.
Benares in Mayfair is offering an ‘early bird' menu of two courses for £29 and three courses for £35, available from 5.30pm to 6.30pm. The restaurant is also using its private dining rooms for standard bookings in order to increase capacity. To try and drive bookings earlier in the week, it has extended the Eat Out to Help Out scheme throughout October on Tuesdays to Thursdays.
M Restaurants and Gaucho's ‘Safe Six' menu is available for a limited number of bookings between 6pm to 6.45pm for up to six guests, with dishes priced at £6 per dish and a minimum order of three dishes.
Harbour Hotels has introduced a ‘Cocktails on Call' campaign with an expanded room service to offer cocktails, snacks and desserts. At the five-star Southampton Harbour hotel there is now a door-to-door cocktail trolley roaming the floors.
Hoxton Hotels is offering special menus available for a 9pm sitting at Seabird, the rooftop restaurant at the Hoxton, Southwark, and Rondo, the newly opened restaurant at the Hoxton Holborn, in collaboration with Will Lander from Quality Chop House, with everything wrapped up by 10pm. Menus must be pre-booked and pre-paid in advance. For those who want to eat earlier, there is a sliding scale of discounts for early bookings, from 25% off at 4pm reducing every hour to 5% off at 6pm.
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