Before lockdown in London, PittaBun was a sandwich shop catering for the lunchtime office crowd in bustling, central Soho. Now renamed INO, it has reinvented itself a high-end Greek restaurant specialising in the country’s wines, where the chefs are on show grilling cuts of Wagyu beef and eel over charcoal.
“We realised that the offices weren’t coming back — if you were here at lunchtime you would see — so we decided to open a more destination-type restaurant,” explains Andreas Labridis, INO’s co-owner.
It is a common problem for many restaurant and bar owners in the capital as they start to reopen after its third — and longest — lockdown. Without the commuters and the tourists, urban hospitality sites have suffered more acute revenue losses than most, and now face a conundrum. Should they persist with their original concept, hoping office staff and sightseers will again fill the streets? Or should they accept that remote working and the slow recovery of international travel will mean cities are quieter for an extended period?
Even as restrictions have eased in cities across Europe and the US in recent weeks, footfall has remained far below 2019 levels. In London, in the first week of June, footfall was down 33 per cent compared with the same week in 2019, while in Milan — where hospitality venues are open but a curfew operates between midnight and 5am — footfall was 42 per cent lower, according to data from the retail analytics company Sensormatic Solutions.
In June last year, in Paris, when restrictions were eased from the beginning of that month, footfall remained 67 per cent lower than in 2019, and it is still 58 per cent lower this June, Sensormatic has found. Luca Allegri, managing director of the Le Bristol Hotel, close to the Elysée Palace, says that walking the empty streets was “very strange”.
He believes that “people will still want to come to Paris for leisure” and for business meetings, even if quotidian office work is often done from home. But, like Labridis, Allegri realised that Le Bristol — which has a three Michelin star restaurant — had to “increase the experience of our clients in terms of food and beverage” to give them a reason to visit and make occasional trips more memorable for regulars.
For example, the hotel, which already mills its own flour, has created a cheese-tasting room and plans to launch a live cooking experience around pasta. It will also retain a change made during the first lockdown: opening up its suites for private dinners served by dedicated sommeliers and waiters.
Des Gunewardena, chief executive of D&D, which owns restaurants in New York, Paris and London, as well as several other large UK cities, says: “You can’t take for granted any more that you will be very busy because cities will be packed with people going to offices.”
His restaurants have recovered in London, where sales are flat compared with similar periods in 2019 but, in New York, trading is still 50 to 60 per cent below pre-pandemic levels, despite the easing of restrictions.
“Cities have to sit up and make themselves good places to come to, whether it is to live there or creating a cultural side of things,” Gunewardena says. He notes that many New York dwellers headed off to work remotely in Florida, where taxes are lower and the weather is better.
D&D, like many hospitality companies, is testing different operating models to ensure that sites remain viable even if consumer patterns permanently change. It is working on an app for “Club D&D”, its loyalty programme, and has extended its opening hours in office-heavy locations such as London’s Canary Wharf. Gunewardena says he expects restaurants to become a popular place for meetings as people come in for face-to-face encounters, rather than simply to sit in an office.
Hotel chains including Paris-headquartered Accor have similarly adapted meeting facilities to provide technology that can link workers in different locations. Some are also offering empty bedrooms as alternative spaces for remote working.
But the strategic shifts have been even more radical for food-to-go businesses such as Pret A Manger — which says it created eight new revenue streams during the pandemic. Like rivals Leon and Greggs, Pret added click-and-collect services and launched a range of supermarket products. It also started to sell its coffee via Amazon.
But the question remains: how many of these changes will stick?
Pano Christou, Pret’s chief executive, says that, apart from a venture into hot dinners, he expects most of the new innovations will remain as delivery has continued to perform strongly — even with office workers beginning to commute again on one or two days a week.
But David Trunkfield, hospitality and leisure lead at PwC, the consultancy, warns: “right now, no one knows” how permanent such changes will be. “In five years’ time, we might all be back in the office five days a week and everyone who says different is speculating.”
Whatever the long-term outcome, Andrew Carter, chief executive of UK-based think-tank Centre for Cities, says hospitality operators will be key to the recovery of urban centres post-Covid, especially given the widespread closure of bricks-and-mortar retailers in the face of competition from online rivals.
“Hospitality and entertainment . . . are crucial in the regeneration of town centres,” he says. “It might be a rocky road to get to that but I am confident that it has a big role to play.”