Operators in Northern Ireland who were able to open for outdoor service today have reported they are booked up to four weeks ahead and have seen queues of three-and-a-half hours.
But many were left in limbo or had reopening plans dashed by stricter clampdowns on what constitutes an outside space, with one site given the go-ahead by the council just five minutes before reopening.
Conall Wolsey, managing director of traded licensed premises at the Beannchor Group, told The Caterer there was a "euphoria" among the staff to be back, and a "huge" appetite for people returning to hospitality venues. Although the group is open for walk-ins only, one site had a three-and-a-half-hour queue and its 110-capacity Ulster Sports Club (pictured above) in Belfast opened at one minute past midnight and was full within three minutes.
Chef-restaurateur Michael Deane, who has seven sites across Belfast, was able to reopen two sites for outdoor dining – Deanes at Queens (pictured above), which has 40 covers on its terrace and which he has spent around £140,000-150,000 on, and Deane & Decano, which has six tables. Deane said the venues were "packed" today and fully booked for the next three to four weeks.
"It shows there's a bit of confidence there; people want to get out," he said. "We have got to push hard and try to keep the whole business going, but it has been difficult being closed down. It's probably cost us about £30,000 a month to stay closed for the last period of [lockdown]. I just have to watch the pennies and keep the morale up as we get to the end of furlough.
"Nobody really knows what the next few months will bring, so we're just trying to keep the confidence of the staff and customers up and give people a decent experience."
The Galgorm Spa & Golf Resort also reopened its outside spaces today, including its Mulberry Garden (pictured below). "It's great to see hospitality re-emerging today," said marketing manager Victoria Brown.
"Our team has been working hard behind the scenes and is excited to welcome guests back through our doors. There is a great sense of positivity among the guests and we thank every one of them for their continued support.
"We have been lucky that the weather has been on our side today and we have clear, sunny skies."
However, Hospitality Ulster this week called on the Executive to adapt the regulations on outdoor spaces and accused it of a lack of engagement after businesses were told with little notice that their ‘outdoor' areas did not comply and that they were unable to reopen having already invested in stock and brought staff off furlough.
Across the UK, what constitutes an outside space has been based on smoking area legislation – shelters, marquees and other structures can have a roof, but need to have at least 50% of the area of their walls open.
The Executive put out a statement yesterday that said there was "no change" to the definition since last year and that it had "engaged extensively with different sectors", with further engagement planned "to explain the position and try to ensure consistency of approach".
But Wolsey said the Executive had decided to enforce the regulation "without really any consultation with the hospitality industry and no communication whatsoever on how they're going to enforce it,". He said he had been told by Belfast City Council that he could not use parasols, leaving his staff and guests to contend with the elements.
He said: "We haven't changed our venues and neither has the legislation changed in all the lockdowns, but what has changed is how they've decided they're going to interpret the legislation and how they're going to enforce that legislation. It's completely nonsensical."
About 12 of the group's sites across Belfast reopened today, including the Bullitt hotel's outdoor areas, the National, the Dirty Onion, the Cloth Ear (pictured above) and Ollie's; however, capacity was reduced by a further 65% due to the regulations.
"It's been a nightmare," said Wolsey. "One of my venues was inspected today five minutes before it opened. It's just mind-boggling."
He added: "A lot of those openings and overhead decisions, we could have judged those better had they decided to disclose how they were going to implement the legislation three weeks ago when the dates were announced."
Another huge concern for operators was staffing. As The Catererreported earlier this week, operators in England have observed many of their European staff return to their home countries, while other employees have simply left the industry and found work elsewhere.
Following Brexit, Wolsey said Covid has been "the final nail in the coffin" for many of his EU workers and the group has lost 200 of its 800 staff over the last year.
"We're actively recruiting, but the sheer volume of people to have left… that's going to be a challenge right across the industry," he said.
Deane agreed that staffing was proving to be an issue. "Staff are upbeat, let's hope we can keep them upbeat," he said. "[But] I'm really concerned if we have another lockdown. I don't know if I could stick it."
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