Before the pandemic, the tiny Sicilian restaurant Franzina Trattoria was loved by south London locals for its long communal tables. Customers would squeeze in and share food with people they had never met. Two diners, who were complete strangers, ended up getting married.
But as owner Stefania Taormina and her husband Pietro Franz prepare to welcome the first diners since December back into their 4-metre-wide eatery in Brixton on Monday, Taormina fears they may not return.
“We don’t see many bookings inside [and] it’s a bit scary. We think people are thinking differently now and sharing tables is maybe a problem,” she said.
To comply with Covid-19 restrictions for hospitality businesses in England when the government allows them to open indoors from Monday, Taormina has cut the number of guests seated in the restaurant from 55 to 14 and spent £1,000 on plastic dividers to break up the tables.
The saving grace has been the six two-person tables on the restaurant’s outside terrace, which have been booked all hours of the day since restrictions on outdoor eating and drinking were lifted in late April. “We are breaking even just about with the terrace open,” she said. “I think people still prefer to go to places outside.”
The pandemic has left the hospitality industry facing a crisis of historic proportions. Since the pandemic struck, UKHospitality, the trade body, estimates the sector across Britain has lost £80.8bn in sales between April 2020 and this March, compared with the previous 12-month period, equivalent to £9m every hour.
More than 8,500 of the UK’s 115,100 licensed premises have gone out of business. And only a third of those operating have the outdoor space that has allowed them to reopen since the government allowed alfresco dining from April 12.
Even as the rest make ready to open inside in the biggest easing of restrictions in England since lockdown was imposed in January, many pub and restaurant owners fear the remaining Covid rules — waiter service only at tables that must be at least 1m apart, with a limit of six people from no more than two households — will make most establishments unprofitable.
“The vast majority of our pubs will be trading on May 17 [but] I expect us still to be trading at levels where we will be making a loss,” said Andy Spencer, managing director of Punch Pubs, which owns 1,100 premises. He said that pubs would run at half their usual capacity and that the restrictions were “challenging, time consuming and expensive”.
Key to profitability for most pubs and restaurants is the removal of all social-distancing rules, and many owners were buoyed by recent comments from Boris Johnson. At the start of this week, the UK prime minister raised the possibility that all restrictions could be lifted over the summer.
But by Friday, Johnson warned that the next state of England’s lockdown easing plans due on June 21 — when all existing rules are set to fall away — may have to be delayed because of a surge in infections caused by the emergence a Covid-19 variant first detected in India.
Opening with extensive restrictions in place has presented other challenges, not least the need to train staff who have been furloughed for months.
Zoe Bowley, managing director of PizzaExpress, said the chain’s 6,000 employees had undergone a week of “full immersion” training, both in hygiene measures and service. “Some of our team members, apart from a small gap in November, haven’t worked for a year,” she said.
The sector also faces a labour shortage with a loss of experienced and qualified staff, partly due to the pandemic and partly due to Brexit, with EU workers returning to their home countries.
This will add to the pressure on employees facing customers for the first time in months. “They are rusty after furlough for a year and are heading back to jobs where they will have to cover other roles because there aren’t enough staff to cope,” warned Mark Lewis, chief executive of the charity Hospitality Action.
Another common fear is antagonising guests by insisting they comply with the Covid regulations, such as checking in with the test-and-trace app and wearing a mask when moving around.
Even if reopening goes as planned, the absence of foreign tourists and commuters for at least part of the summer — with international travel still heavily restricted and office staff encouraged to continue to work from home until at least late June — is expected to leave many city-centre establishments short of customers.
“We’re very dependent on footfall from tourists shopping on Oxford Street and hotel guests, so until they return in large numbers, normality won’t be restored,” said Anna Sebastian, bar manager of the Artesian at The Langham hotel in London.
If there is a positive to have come out of the crisis, the pandemic has forced the industry to accelerate the adoption of technology that has improved productivity: payment and ordering apps allow operators to turn tables faster and employ fewer staff.
Customers using apps also tend to spend more per head having had more time to peruse the menu and the ability to order as and when they want, according to several pub and restaurant owners.
But Bowley warned there was a “fine balance” to strike to make sure that an industry built on personal service did not become “faceless” just as it needed customers to return.
Technology aside, Spencer said he feared that until sports and live music could restart and customers could stand up in crowded bars, the pub experience would be a “sanitised” one. “We have taken out a lot of the soul . . . and a lot of the things that make the pub really special,” he said.
It is the same pre-Covid conviviality that Taormina fears will be lost at Franzina Trattoria. “It was a joy for me because you would see people who you had never seen in your life start to drink together and talk about food together and then sometimes they would go out together afterwards . . . I am scared that it will not happen again.”
Additional reporting by Oliver Barnes